Last week, I wrote an opinion piece in our local paper, arguing that our school district is teaching kids behavior rules in a way that promotes authoritarian values and discourages critical thinking. (The unedited version of it is here.) The piece elicited a variety of responses, which is unsurprising, since people vary in how comfortable they are with relatively authoritarian approaches to discipline and behavior. I’m not comfortable with them, at least partly because I see our country becoming more authoritarian, and I wish it weren’t. I don’t think thirteen years of “do as you’re told” is the best way to produce capable citizens of a healthy democracy, regardless of what effect it might have on standardized test scores. I’d much rather live in a country whose people are inclined to ask good questions, to develop their own sense of right and wrong, to be skeptical of other people’s assertions, and to think for themselves about the institutions they find themselves in, than in a country of people who score well on their math tests. That’s one reason why most of us would be more comfortable here than in, say, Singapore, where math performance is high and you can go to jail for criticizing the government.
A couple of the commenters suggested that there is not enough time to get the kids thinking and reasoning about their behavior because “there is content to be covered.” I think this partly misunderstands my objection, which is that the time the schools are already spending on behavior, through programs like PBIS and our school’s use of Social Thinking, is being spent in a way that discourages critical thought. But more importantly, I’m not sure what people mean when they talk about “content.” To me, developing kids’ ability to reason about their conduct in the world, and their relationship to the social peers and to authorities, is content, and is at least as important as how quickly they reach arbitrary benchmarks on their reading and math scores.
I’m afraid that our obsession with standardized test scores has led us to disregard big parts of the “content” of what it means to be well educated, such as the importance of curiosity, initiative, reflectiveness, creativity, skepticism, and a meaningful sense of oneself as an autonomous and thinking human being. To me, those are the qualities that are fundamental to being well educated, regardless of whether you know how to use the quadratic formula. (As one mom said to me, “When I imagine what I want my kids to be like, I don’t think, ‘I want them to be really quiet and obedient.’”) The pursuit of higher test scores, at any cost to those qualities that are hard to test, strikes me as greatly diminishing our conception of education.
Many people readily believe that what goes on in elementary school math classes will determine the future of our country’s economy. But if you suggest that immersing kids in authoritarian institutions for thirteen years might affect the future of our democracy, you hear a collective “P’shaw!” I’m afraid that the latter is teaching our kids much more thoroughly and effectively than the former, and that we’re going to reap what we sow.