Thursday, February 19, 2009
Killing Wonder: Life in the Disaster Zone
I'm angry, so I am climbing on my soap box. Here I go: one foot, the other... If you aren't interested in a rant, you can skip this particular post - I won't be offended. But I have to say these things, for the sake of all the people yet to come, all the wonders yet to be made or found or rescued. And for my own peace of mind.
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Today the State Senate here in California cut the education budget by 8.4 billion dollars. We are already 50th in the nation for both quality of schools and (surprise!) money spent on education.
Here is the outcome, for many of our school districts:
- No more art.
- No more music.
- No more sports.
- No more libraries.
- It ceases to be cost effective to pay more teachers to keep the class sizes for the younger children small. Therefore, teachers will be fired and large numbers of children crammed in with fewer teachers, because it's cheaper - even with the paltry fines imposed for going too high on class numbers.
The people who hold the Senate hostage every year, the 34% minority who keep wealthy constituents happy and block the other 66% from running the budget in a sane manner, are some of the highest-paid legislators in the country. They believe that their constituents are only going to be happy if their taxes stay at the present rate, which is set somewhere around 1982, by my (admittedly top-of-the-head) reckoning. How does one run a big state like this one if the income is circa 1982, but the expenses are circa 2009, you say? Well, by keeping professors' salaries at 2/3 what they should be, so that working for a university becomes a losing proposition. Or by giving out IOUs instead of paychecks to their employees at budget time - never mind those mortgage payments, or that insurance. Or, by making the children suffer.
What I really want to know is, how will our children grow up knowing the wonders available to the mind without art, music, or libraries? Sports are important: the body is where we live, and we need to explore its capabilities. But sports are valued by even the most unimaginative members of any community. Sports will not die. Art and music -- they could, and they will. And without libraries, the children in impoverished communities will never learn to escape, never learn what other worlds are out there. How can someone in a small farming community ever get the chance to think broadly about ideas if they have no access to books? How will we raise literate, intelligent voters on such a meagre intellectual diet?
No Child Left Behind has been a horrible mistake. Children are evaluated, according to this plan, solely on their test scores. The schools must improve their scores over time (regardless of the level of their initial tests) or be stripped of control over their curricula and forced to institute state-mandated, test-oriented teaching programs. With these budget cuts, the time once taken to overcome this pressure and teach critical thinking skills will now become nigh on unreachable.
It's difficult not to believe these people have a goal: that of keeping our youth uneducated. The more uneducated a populace is, the more easy it is to direct them, the more they can be made to believe in concepts like a Fatherland, or a nationalist party. They're more likely to vote from their emotions, from their prejudices, rather than from their considered reflection of what is best for everyone. Without the perspective of learning, the sense of height and breadth one gets looking through the eyes of multiple authors, it becomes much more difficult to experience selflessness. For most people there can only be the one opinion, the one truth.
And the wonder! Children are supposed to be the ones who come up with crazy ideas. How many parents have had their child ask about something he or she has heard or read and processed? How many children each day hear a story and come home to tell their parents about it? Children are sponges, absorbing everything they come into contact with, and for this reason they are specially at risk. I can't and won't imagine the painfully dry desert the children here in California are about to experience. I can't and won't allow it to happen.
In our school, each class has a weekly Library Visit, where the children are taken into the library to return last week's book and to find a new book for this week. Some of the children literally don't know what to do with their books. They find something at random, check it out, take it away, and bring it back next time, without actually reading it much. But this is the thing: they are learning they can do it: they are learning the library routine. They love the fact that they get to keep this book for a week - all to themselves, not to share with anyone if they don't want to. It doesn't always matter if they read it: they get to have it. They have access. When I was in the bookmobile the other day, there was a kid there who didn't speak English so well but was watching all the people bringing in and taking away books. And get this: he had been trained since Kindergarten to do the same thing at the school library; he knew he too could do it if he wanted, he just had to figure out how it worked. While he stood there, watching, the librarian said to him, "You want a library card? Here, fill out this and this, and have your parent sign it there." The kid was back in 5 minutes, the form all filled out and signed. And he walked out with a book and his own card, back to the place he lives with six other people in two rooms.
You see, school is where we learn our options. In a perfect world, it's where we get to escape the confines of our income, our class, and our home life. We get to be, or learn to be, a different person when we are at school, for good or for ill, and in a perfect school system, it would always be for the better. If we take the options out of the school - if school becomes solely a place to go learn how to take multiple choice tests on the 3 R's and some science - what have we gained? What, in fact, is the point? Teaching kids to sit still and do what they're told for 6 hours a day? Where, in all those R's and xeroxed worksheets, do they get to try on all the other hats, to see if they can sing? Where is the wonder of discovery? How can schools which run on test scores and grim curricula ever teach our children to reach out, to flex their intelligence, to become the new explorers and inventors and artists, without which our world is merely a dim and wintry regimen?
I would argue that the most important thing in the world are those options, because that's where we find the tools to become someone who wonders about things, who creates things, someone who can make a new and meaningful world for themselves and others. If Einstein's lesson, when he got an F in math, was to shut up and sit still, where would we be today? There has got to be a place we can learn to go beyond our parents' ideas, beyond our station in life, beyond the expectations of those who would make us sheep. And schools should be the best place for it. I mean, really - where else are your kids going to spend days with someone trained in exactly that: the fostering of wonder?
So to those men and women dragging their feet and holding our children accountable for the financial greed of small-minded people: leave it alone. You will not bend us to your will. You will not make my children into sheep, nor the children around them. We will not allow it.
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"Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts." Albert Einstein
Some links for raising children with wonder and critical thinking skills:
- The always-fabulous Media Awareness Network, from (where else?) Canada
- The sprightly and jocular (to the point of condescension) Free Range Kids blog does still have good information on increasing kids' freedom in a world of safety-obsession and alarmism.
- The National Center for Fair and Open Testing's site The Case Against High Stakes Testing has a lot of information about combatting the testing mentality in educational institutions.
- Students Against Testing, a similar, more youth-oriented site
Some links about changing California:
- Wikipedia on how California has tried to divide before
- Census deepens racial divide, November 2006
- Three Californias: a sometimes blog
- Splitting California: a bibliography
Lastly, a letter to the President, from me.