It was one of ‘those’ days today…. probably would’ve been smartest to have stayed in bed, had it been possible. You know the kind, that leaves you shaking your head as you mutter to yourself halfway through the day… and in the end, you just have to laugh or cry… or maybe both. As they say in Denmark, ‘Whoo-heh…’
Life has been giving me lots of food for thought these days. I have been forced, through recent experience, to give a lot of thought to the whole idea of what it means to be educated, or ‘to educate.’ This is, obviously, a huge subject, that many people all over the world are currently grappling with. Now that I find myself among the ranks of those noble souls referred to as ‘educators’ or ‘teachers’ or ‘pedagogues’ I am no longer outside of their circle, but find myself in the curious situation of being on the front lines; in the classroom everyday with a group of adolescent Danish kids who would be called ‘alternative’ if we were in the U.S. In Denmark, a small country made up of over 95% Danish people (I am guessing about the percentage) when people are ‘different’ from the norm, there is little tolerance for them and their status in society diminishes in proportion to just how ‘different’ they are. Where I am currently spending my days teaching might be considered to be in the ‘loser’ or ‘outcast’ segment of society to those who are all-too-normal to consider anything out of the ordinary okay. No matter, but what I do find fascinating now is just how quickly my own previously solid and unwavering ideas about Education are evaporating and shifting like so many clouds over Denmark on any given day.
Having grown up in the good ol’ US of A in the 60s and 70s, I grew up believing in The Basics+: of course everybody has to learn to read, write, and learn English from kindergarten until 12th grade and then even more in college, along with mathematics (as far as you can possibly learn it), science, social studies, history (well world history was somewhat sketchy even back then), physical education (of course); music and art and even drama were part of the curriculum. A basic education included all of the above, and also a foreign language from middle school on. There was no questioning this, it was just what everybody did, at least if they weren’t too dysfunctional to graduate from high school, and then continue on to college, etc.
Yeah. Now it is forty years later. Times have changed, as we all know only too well. But being in Denmark and living with a teacher who is the son of a teacher who was there when the revolution in education occurred in Denmark in the late 60s, I have slowly learned that there are more sides to this puzzle of Education of the Child than I ever realized for all those years. Now my head is full of questions, like, ‘do kids really Need to be able to memorize the multiplication table?” and, ‘if they go through school until age 16 and come out not knowing all kinds of facts and figures and history, will they be much worse off than someone who does know all that stuff?” and, “what will the world be like in ten or twenty years, and what will these young people end up doing with themselves? Will they remember anything they learned back in 8th grade anyway?” and, “what is the real reason to go to school every day?” Yes, many questions are going through my mind these days, with not many answers.
If going to school every day actually isn’t about academics as much as other things, then what exactly is it about? I am holding this question inside of me every day when I go to the school now, and hoping that time and experience will reveal the answers. One thing has become painfully clear: my (and I suppose many others) old ideas about it are no longer enough, the old ways no longer really work and now is time to find some new ideas about what is education, why do we all bother to get up and go to school every day, and what is most important to strive for in the coming years? We need to go beyond pat answers and empty platitudes, beyond superficial rationale and rhetoric born of complacency. The children who are in school now and in the near future are not of the same stock as we were, they have a different energy, demand different things, a different way of learning and seeing the world. The old ways simply are no longer working. We cannot force them into an outdated mold, we must instead break that mold, forget the cookie cutters altogether, and work together to learn how and what to teach the young people who will soon enough be running the world.
In the meantime, some days are simply grueling. Then again, there are some moments as precious and beautiful as jewels. Yesterday contained such moments. For about an hour in the morning, I had the whole class, even the one who is often such a troublemaker, perfectly still, concentrating, focused on their art lesson. I had to stop at a certain point to simply watch them all as they quietly worked, and admire their excellent behaviour, even as I knew full well that it would vanish again all too quickly.
Dear Readers, once again I turn to you. Where do we go from here in regards to educating our youth? It is a big question, and one of the most important we can ask ourselves. Not only in America, of course, but living outside of it I can see the plain fact that as does the United States, the rest of the world follows. It is pitiable how much useless, empty, worthless trends America has created that the rest of the world is now blindly following. More than pitiable, it is pathetic. And yet. America is also a land full of creativity, innovation, pioneering in many ways. Surely it is high time to begin to export some of its most brilliant and creative and health-bringing ideas, including ones about education, isn’t it?
There is a fine balance between the concrete and the abstract, between what we think about, theorize on, dream about… and what we actually do in a day. It is easy to tip the scales and be much more in one realm than the other. We need both in order to progress and learn. One of my colleagues gave me her picture of what is, perhaps, the best we can hope for: that one day in the future, when the kids we are with now are grown up, that they might look back at their years at school and see that it wasn’t so much what the teacher taught them that was important, so much as who they were, what they stood for, and what they accomplished and modeled through their will. Tonight I am pondering her words, as I recall another wise woman’s words: “In the end, it isn’t the words that someone says to you, but how they make you feel that is important.” – Maya Angelou