In the Name of Education, a guest post from Pam Roy

November 7, 2016
Leslie Dixon
Pam Roy

Pam Roy

We treat our children as if they are robots. We require them to spend countless hours on input related to schoolwork, tutoring, test preparation and, of course, extracurricular activities that they will need for their college application. We promise them that the output will be a financially secure future, someday. There are child labor laws protecting them from being exploited in the workplace, yet we think nothing of asking them to give up nights, weekends, vacations, and vital sleep in the name of education. In fact, we honor and reward them for doing so. Most of our daily interactions with them are spent on this one aspect of their lives, implicitly reinforcing its value above all else. Those who do not have the means or support to keep up with the pace are simply shut out. The education system, which our society collectively created with the best of intentions, has failed them. Instead, we have produced a generation of sick children.

The constant pressure to perform at optimal mental levels is exacting a terrible toll on the health and wellbeing of our children. They tell us they can’t keep up; we just aren’t listening to the language they use. They express it through their mental health crises, frequent illnesses, disorders, chronic anxiety, depression, drug addictions, alcohol abuse, and suicides; not to mention ongoing discord with one another. These conditions follow them to college where mental health centers are being flooded with students (Petersen, 2016). What were once considered problems mainly afflicting those children in lower socioeconomic areas are now epidemic in upper income areas, a surprising discovery by researcher Suniya S. Luthar, Ph D. It turns out that both neglect and over-attention produce the same outcomes for our children: an inability to function well in life and the need to numb the pain.

If an entire generation of students is unable to make it through the education system in an emotionally healthy way, is it the students’ fault or is it the system’s fault? And, is all this time devoted to education really preparing them for future work? “Even in America’s most highly regarded secondary schools, we are not teaching or testing the skills that matter most for college, careers and citizenship in the 21st century “ says Tony Wagner, author of Creating Innovators. The content-based education platform routinely used was created before information was readily available at our fingertips. It was designed primarily for industrial age jobs that are rapidly being automated or outsourced to foreign countries.

Businesses who interview college graduates see the largest gap in areas of interpersonal skills, teamwork and problem solving. Further, few of the companies believe that these graduates have the knowledge and skills to do the job. (Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, 2011) The missing skill set relates to human qualities that are not found in textbooks, in classrooms or on standardized tests. These are the skills that are developed in the world of relationships and experiences outside of school.

With so much attention focused on “guiding” them, it’s no wonder that they have no ability to direct themselves once they live on their own. With our laser focus on academic achievement, we have impeded our children’s ability to navigate crucial psychosocial stages, particularly during adolescence (ages 12-18). According to psychologist Erik Erikson, these are important years for the development of self and personal identity. During this period, social relationships are essential in helping teens learn to stay true to themselves. The result? Many of our students entering college are emotionally unprepared for responsibility and lack the critical life skills needed to live independently as described by Julie Hythcott-Haims, former, Dean of Freshman Students at Stanford University, in her best seller, How to Raise an Adult.

After all the sacrifices they have made to get into college, it is disheartening that 30% of freshmen drop out (College Atlas, 2015). Many of the students who do graduate from college are either underemployed or unemployed and, to add insult to injury, they are told that the skills they have do not fit the large number of jobs available (Center for College Affordability and Productivity, 2013).

The students who go to college will most likely be the leaders of tomorrow. If they can barely take care of themselves, how will they work to improve our society and create the social justice we so desperately need? How do they operate in a global society that requires cultural competency when they are taught competitiveness, performance and individual achievement over collaboration, empathy and connection? The myopic focus on GPAs, test scores and achievement awards does not encourage a broader view of life and the interrelatedness of us all.

Worse, this soul-crushing robotic programming we are pushing them to endure ignores developmental capabilities and personal differences in every category, including gender, race and socioeconomic status. Boys, in particular, are at an extreme disadvantage. Developmentally, they just don’t sit for hours and so, in order to learn in the current system, many are medicated or diagnosed with learning disabilities. Males now account for only 43.6% of college graduates and the number is rapidly dropping (Department of Education, 2013). While we should be grateful for the educational and career opportunities afforded to our daughters, we should be equally concerned about them living in a society of uneducated males.

Our children need relief valves that allow for human agency (i.e., the ability to choose and act on their own behalf) and connection to others. They desperately need to be empowered to direct their own lives, the support to develop a “self” and the time to nurture important relationships. “The capacity to exercise control over the nature and quality of one’s life is the essence of humanness.” (Bandura, 2001) We have taken their ability to be human out of the educational equation. We have defined their lives for them from the moment they start school and give them no voice to express their true selves until after they get out of college. Perhaps saddest of all, we are forcing them to focus on life in the future, rather than encouraging them to appreciate and live in the present.

Our system of continuous study and test preparation, by its very nature, creates disconnection and social isolation. We must allow them the freedom to interact and engage with others socially. UCLA Professor Matthew Leiberman, author of Social: Why our Brains are Wired to Connect, says “To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others. These are design features, not flaws. These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.”

More importantly, engaging in face-to-face interactions is necessary for the development of empathy. If our children don’t develop empathy, how do they relate in a meaningful way to themselves or others? Most of all, how do they develop cultural competency, an increasingly important quality in our diverse world? A research study by Sara Konrah of the University of Michigan, found that “almost 75% of students rate themselves as less empathic than the average student 30 years ago.” Certainly social media and texting play a role, but how else are teens supposed to connect when they are studying alone for hours on end?

It is imperative that we make time for life outside of school and advocate to all stakeholders about the importance of placing education within the context of a child’s life. Additionally, our children need time to process difficult emotions and the personal challenges that come with growing so they don’t turn to harmful coping mechanisms to numb themselves. We must recognize that we have inadvertently turned a generation of children’s lives into “a protracted college admissions application” as Sir Ken Robinson so brilliantly describes in the most watched TED Talk of all time. And students aren’t the only ones being impacted. This cultural disrespect for personal time and lack of human agency is causing teacher burnout at an unprecedented pace (Penn State, 2016). Their pivotal role in shaping our society’s future citizens necessitates that we address these issues with the utmost speed.

In Carol Black’s profound essay, A Thousand Rivers, she asserts that education comes in many forms and from a multitude of sources. In reality, we don’t know what jobs will be available to our children when they graduate or the ones that will be best suited to their unique qualities. We do know that they will need adaptability, the ability to self-direct and the capacity to interact with others. These capabilities will help them create fulfilling adulthoods and meaningful lives. As our economy continues to automate at a pace faster than imaginable, humanness is the quality that will give our children a place in the world. We must create space in their lives for them to be human.

Pam Roy is a graduate student pursuing a Masters in School Counseling through Counseling@NYU and Associate Producer of Beyond Measure: What Counts Can’t Be Counted. She is the married mother of three teenage daughters as well as a business investor, community volunteer and advocate for children in foster care.

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