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You ever have one of those days when nothing seems to satisfy? Like you’re walking around wearing shades on a cloudy day? I was having a day like that about a week ago and was hungry for something pure and good, something free from the spoils of the modern world. So I headed east. Nothing, I thought, is more boundless and unchartered than the ocean. I should have thought that through a little more. In addition to oppressive heat, I found an impenetrable and endless sweep of STUFF: umbrellas, beach tents, bags and chairs and trash—oh my! Man, I thought, we spoil everything.
Purity is an unpopular word in our culture. We hear it and think Puritanism—buttoned up, stuffed up and restrained. That’s not what I’m talking about, and from what I understand the Puritans weren’t exactly about that either. I’m referring to anything that is unadulterated. Not lifelessness, but more life like fruit that still tastes sweet. Purity may be a dirty word to modern Americans, but I believe, we harbor a secret desire for it. The problem is our desire and our tendency to spoil seem to be in constant conflict.
The trends of the day are telling of our appetites. I grew up in the 80’s, the age of big hair swathed in Aquanet, oversized shoulder pads, and my favorite, MONSTER ballads. We all longed to be serenaded by Mr. BIG. The trends have sure changed. Now, we are living in the days of edamame, playa bowls, overzealous facial hair, and a bizarre obsession with drinking water. We crave all natural, organic, raw, local, fresh….PURITY. But is that what we are getting? I’m afraid we are still spoiling things only with a new bent: flash and cheap adornment. My colleague, Joel, who grew up in farm country, grimaces at the word “edamame.” I agree; they’re just soybeans after all. I’m sure Playa Bowls are healthier than a hot dog, but they’re a far cry from the simplicity of the fresh fruit stands I saw on the streets in Peru…and about fifty times the price. I was at first thrilled to see the return of a simple carefree beard after the awful years of manicured chin-straps, but now that the hair is reaching Moses status, it seems pretty disingenuous. And water. Ah, water, the most uncomplicated and pure substance on the planet, now has more accessories than my first car. There are specialty bottles, bottle cleaners, filters, carriers, holders, infusers, carbonators, purifiers, softeners, and flavor enhancers. Folks, we all know that’s crazy-making. What happened to a long drink at a fountain, and we’re on our merry way? One thing is for sure: We are very very thirsty for fresh water.
So how does this impact education? Well, from my experience as a teacher, I can tell you that education is not immune from spoiling. Because I left the public school system, some people assume that I’m against public education. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m in love with the idea of free access to education for everyone, so much so that it was hard to stick around and watch something so pure and good and lovely, spoil. The emphasis on testing, data, accolades and the exchange of grades for learning began to feel a lot like the selling of indulgences…good grades do not “buy” enlightenment. More and more so, it became clear that building education around a merit system distorts the natural process of learning and impedes intellectual curiosity. It discouraged kids at both ends of the measuring stick from honestly seeking knowledge and wisdom: some because they gave up in frustration and shame and some because they were too focused on mining the gold out of this system. Discouraging kids is no small sin. We are so used to school being called “boring” or “lame,” something that everyone has to “get through,” that we don’t realize how dirty the water is. “Courage” comes from the word “heart.” To “discourage” children is to cause them to LOSE HEART. This is what I observed again and again and again.
When I found Princeton Learning Cooperative, it was completely refreshing because this organization, this movement, seemed to capture the truth that I came to about education. It’s about building relationships with the learners; discovering who they are, what truly sparks their curiosity; and ENCOURAGING them to seek those interests through study and experience. That’s it. Pure and Simple. This, we must protect and guard.