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Educating children in a violent world

I was recently asked to write a column for a national education magazine. When the editor told me the theme of the issue was educating children in a world of violence, I immediately thought to myself, “That’s precisely the problem—most children are being educated in a world of violence.”

Here I very specifically mean the world of school itself, not the surrounding layers of family, society and culture, because all too often the violence embedded in the educational process goes unnoticed. Education is, after all, one of America’s most sacred cows.

Lest you think I am overreacting when I declare that the means and methods by which nearly all of the children in this country are educated are inherently violent, consider what Webster’s lists as its third definition for “violent”: “caused by force; not natural, as in a violent death.”

Conventional education is all about force, beginning with each state’s compulsory education statute. The failure to cover the state mandated curriculum, or its equivalent, is punishable by law. Even worse, students and teachers trapped inside schools that sort, grade, and rank children like fruits and vegetables face an increasing specter of punishment if the students don’t measure up on mandatory—and soon to be nationwide—high stakes standardized tests. Students are told that, if they don’t pass, then they can’t move on to the next level. Teachers are told that, if their students don’t pass, then it’s time to look for another job. The indelible bottom line: learn or else.

And then there is the competition that urges the educational process forward, whereby learning is stripped of its individual sanctity and turned into a group contest to see who can be fastest and best. But isn’t competition, the drive to gain superiority over others, one of the root causes of violence of all kinds and at all levels, from city streets to nation-states?

Which brings us to the second half of the dictionary definition of “violent.” What could be more “not natural” than confining education to sterile, age-segregated classrooms, and demanding that it progress according to a standardized timeline? Add to this artificial mix the pre-packaged curricula to which most teachers are chained today, and the technology that has almost entirely supplanted nature as a primary source of learning, and there you have the recipe for a “violent” education—as in a “violent” death.

Fortunately, a growing number of groups and individuals are committed to removing violence in all its various forms from education. A million or more homeschooling families are a living demonstration that learning is a natural, joyful act. The success of an entire generation of homeschoolers who are now adults proves without a doubt that it in no way depends on coercion and government regulation.The proliferation of school-based educational alternatives, both public and private, also stand as powerful models of non-coercive, cooperative, self-directed, and meaningful education.

Within the conventional system, too, there exist important catalysts for change. Linda Lantieri, a former teacher and administrator in Harlem, founded a national program for teachers, students, and their parents that promotes emotional awareness, intercultural understanding and positive ways of dealing with differences. The Resolving Conflict Creatively Program (RCCP) is being practiced in 375 schools in the United States, with pilot programs in Brazil and Puerto Rico. An independent study of schools where the RCCP is in place found that 64% of the teachers reported less physical violence in their classrooms, while 92% of the students reported feeling better about themselves.

Then there is young Bill Wetzel, who, while still in high school, started the national organization ”Power to the Youth” to support “youth (and cool adults) around the nation who are taking charge of their schools, lives, and world.” His activism quickly led him to start yet another national organization, Students Against Testing, in order to confront the high stakes testing epidemic.

A rapidly expanding “small schools movement” urges the founding of schools with no more than 350 students at the elementary and 500 at the secondary level. Small schools foster democratic practices, community, and student autonomy. A good example is the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center, a.k.a. the Met, in Providence, Rhode Island.

The Met is an innovative, publicly funded high school for predominantly at-risk youth that has no required courses and no set curriculum. Instead, each student creates his or her own individualized learning plan—including extensive internships and community service—along with an advisor, parent, and a mentor. In the school’s first graduating class, in 1999, all fifty students were accepted into four-year colleges. The Met’s extraordinary success recently led the Gates Foundation to contribute $10,000,000 toward the creation of ten more Met prototypes around the country.

Hopefully, efforts to lead us toward non-violent forms of education aren’t too little, too late; for if the goal is to help our children find fulfillment in a world that daily grows more violent, then surely we must begin by removing the violence from the educational process itself.

Photo by Bain News Service. A pair of 12″ guns — Broadside of HMS DREADNOUGHT — the all big gun warship. Circa 1910.

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