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What Have We Become and Who Do We Want to Be?

What Have We Become and Who Do We Want to Be?

Two totally unrelated events of the past week converged unexpectedly for me and led me to some deep introspection.

First came the college cheating scandal, where wealthy and influential parents, including CEO’s, two Hollywood actresses and a legendary fashion designer, schemed to get their children into universities through fraud, bribes and lies.  According to court records, parents paid to help their children cheat on college entrance exams and to falsify athletic records of students to enable them to secure admission to some of the country’s elite universities, including UCLA, USC, Stanford, Yale and Georgetown.

Then came the news that 49 people, worshippers in the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques in Christchurch New Zealand, were brutally gunned down by a 28-year-old Australian man  who expressed white supremacist ideology,  who posted a racist manifesto online and who streamed live video of the horrific events on Facebook.  It was the worst act of violence in the country in nearly three decades and was, according to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, “one of New Zealand’s darkest days.”

There is still much to learn about the college cheating scandal.  What is clear though is the lengths parents were willing to go – and the money they were willing to spend -  help their children illegally gain entrance to college. To me however, this scandal is merely the most recent and extreme symptom of an ailment deep in our psyche as parents and educators across America.

As an educator for nearly 35 years, 30 of which I have served as head of school in one of the country’s most competitive private school markets, I have seen the steady rise of anxiety around readiness, SAT and ACT scores, and the college application process in general.  Though I’m not a psychologist, I can say that from my vantage point it has become a mass hysteria –  a national crisis documented poignantly in films such as Race to Nowhere and Waiting for Superman as well as in books such as The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids by Alexandra Robbins.  The questions begin as early as preschool: “What do you think is the best pathway for my child to get into an Ivy League school?”  “What is the average SAT score of your graduates?”  "How many hours of homework do your elementary students do?”.  And so on.

Testing and test scores have become the penultimate goal of school.  Getting into the “best” schools occupies a significant amount or our psychic space.  We spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how our child will “stack up”, whether he or she will “make the grade",  or if they will “be able to compete.” And whether we would admit it or not, the high schools and colleges our children attend often become status symbols as much as the cars we drive or the clubs we attend.  Meanwhile, our stress becomes our children’s stress, exacerbated by the college prep and entrance process; it has all become one insidious and dangerous cycle, contributing to epidemic rates of clinical anxiety & depression. And along the way we have totally lost sight of the meaning and purpose of education, perhaps because we’ve lost track of our own moral and spiritual compass.

Our greatest thinkers and visionaries -  from the ancient Greeks through the renaissance to modern times - saw a deeper meaning and higher purpose for education.  Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. Michelangelo could have been talking about a human being as much as a piece of art when he said, “Every block of stone of stone has a statue inside it, and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it”.  According to Maria Montessori, education was intended to be a “preparation for life” and a means for the person to “discover himself”.  More recently the Dalai Lama talked about the “inner values” that should be taught to counterbalance the emphasis on the “material values” which pervade our society.

What does this have to do with the tragedy in New Zealand?  As with so many countries around the world, the USA has seen a dramatic rise in the number of hate groups. The Southern Poverty Law Center identified 954 hate groups in 2017 – up from 917 documented in 2016.  According to a March 15, 2019 CBS report, the FBI has bout 900 active domestic terrorism cases that include cases tied to white supremacists. The USA has seen a rise in violence by white supremacists, including the murders of 11 people at a Pittsburgh Synagogue last fall.  There was also a deadly clash at a white national rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, the murders of nine people at the church in Charleston in 2015 and the deaths of six at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in 2012. Gun violence takes young lives each and every day in cities across America.

In this climate of extreme violence, political figures stoke fear and anger to their advantage, while the internet has become a forum for expressions of the most vile and debased ideas and perspectives. We as adults, like our more vulnerable children, are left trying to tread water in the turbulent storm of traumatic images and reports that fill our television and computer screens, the emotional scars of which we have not even begun to understand.  We are overwhelmed by it all,  and left wondering what have we become and where we are going.  But maybe the better questions are, who do we want to be and what do we most want for our children?

To answer to these questions will require us to do a major reset, to pause and deeply reflect upon the hyper focus we have created on test scores and the insane competition around college readiness, where students feel that they have to take AP classes to be competitive and that even a 4.0 GPA is not high enough to stand out.  Not only is this path destructive for everyone involved, it is far, far removed from the actual meaning and purpose of education. I have informally asked parents in many different forums over the years what they most wish for when they think of their child’s future, and the most common answer is that in the end they just want their children to be happy. Simple as that right? Well not so much anymore.

If we truly want our children to be happy, then we must contemplate and co-create learning environments that balance cutting edge academic classes with courses that foster personal well-being and community.  We have to incorporate opportunities for students to experience cultures and religions beyond their own neighborhoods in order to broaden their understanding and expand their comfort zone.  We should encourage community service activities that help build empathy and human connection.  We can foster forums for dialogue on race and gender so that students feel safe expressing who they are and learn to listen to other perspectives.

In the big picture, in addition to our academic goals, we should strive to instill inner values such as courage, compassion, integrity, justice, forgiveness and respect ( to name a few)  – and to imbue our students with the belief that a life well-lived is one in service to something bigger than one’s own self–interest.  And no, the aim is not to nurture naïve and passive lambs that will inevitably get devoured by the wolves of the real world.  If we must choose an animal metaphor, let’s help create lions of the human spirit who are discovering themselves as human beings, who are passionate about contributing their gifts to the betterment of the world, and who won’t shrink from the immense and daunting challenges we face as nation and a world.  Because whether they become leaders in the traditional sense or not, the moral fiber our children carry within them will impact those around them, whatever sphere of life they may eventually be in.

To bring this conversation full circle, the triumph of love over hate is ultimately a struggle in the human heart.  The journey to overcome ignorance, bigotry, prejudice and injustice begins with the choice of what we value as parents and educators.  As Martin Luther King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”  The path toward creating a more harmonious and peaceful world is educating a new generation of self-aware, inspired and broad-minded leaders.  In order to renew our commitment to those goals it’s time to reexamine ourselves.  It may mean we have to let go of some things we thought were important, but things that we know are not truly what life is all about in the end.  For hatred to be stemmed and ultimately overcome, we need capacities of the heart as much as new ways of thinking.  It’s a long journey, but as they say, it begins with a single step.