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Creating more Honest, Meaningful Environments for our Young People

When I was a young person in school, a majority of my teachers were not able to hold my attention. I had much going on in my mind that seemed to be more relevant to me than most of what they were talking about. Only a few teachers were able to capture my attention, usually by telling stories that resonated with my own life, touched my curiosity, surprised me, or connected me to them or to what they were teaching in some way. But if they weren't interested in my own reactions and that of my fellow students, I gradually tuned out to what they were saying as an attempt to influence me without any dialogue or doubt on my part.

It's a difficult and perhaps even scary thing for teachers to show themselves as truly and honestly as possible to their students. This includes admitting to not knowing everything as well as being confused about much in modern life. Working through confusion, and learning what to do when you don't know something, seems to be a meaningful approach to take with students, one which they can use in their own lives.

I don't understand what adults are thinking when they avoid facing real life issues with young people. Do they imagine that young people are too weak to talk about real concerns and situations? Or that they need to be protected from the harsh realities of the adult world?

Children can get a sense of security by feeling that the adults around them have their lives under some control, but this doesn't mean that troubles and the bumps of reality should be kept from them. Mass media tends to gloss over the fine points of people - usually presenting them as either perfectly good or perfectly evil - but there's no reason that the adults in our personal relationships should attempt such a pretense. It's a natural part of getting to know something or someone deeply that we begin to see the imperfections which are very much a part of each of us.

I remember driving through the countryside in Japan and noticing the perfectly shaped tea bushes on the hills. How lovely and round they were! How did the gardeners manage such immaculately curved lines? I was a little disappointed to see that the closer I went to those bushes, the more I could see the little branches breaking the circle line, creating rough edges all the way round. But with a little thought I understood that this was a good metaphor for distance and proximity for people as well as tea bushes.

People have rough edges too. And while it may be difficult at first for students to accept their teachers' imperfections, learning to accept each other's rough edges is an important part of growing up, as well as of being educated. Of course, this applies to parents in the home, as well as teachers in school. And then there is the idea that learning to accept imperfections in others close to us is an important part of learning to accept our own, surely a vital quality for each of us.

There's so much pretense around really important issues in the two most important spaces in a child's life - the home and the school - and by involving children in pretense as opposed to honesty, we do them a great disservice. If parents and teachers are experiencing some personal problems in their life, they're not expected to show that to their children. Most school systems that I have experienced discourage teachers from bringing any personal problems into the classroom. Parents too often attempt to hide the difficulties they might be having in their own lives - economically, socially, emotionally.

A good example of this is seen in the 2008 movie, Tokyo Sonata, in which a company employee loses his job and hides it from his family, going out each day as usual, pretending that he still has work. Finally everyone in his family finds out, but it's interesting that he didn't trust them enough to help him work through the problem together. Why, I wonder?

We might ask the same question about teachers who believe that they have to walk into their classrooms showing the same face each day. I believe that many of the problems a teacher faces are the similar to those that children's parents face and, even more importantly, that the children themselves face.

For example, a teacher might be upset that her principal is not respecting her feelings on a particular issue and has no time to listen to her. Or she might be experiencing some pressure or teasing from a colleague about her appearance. These issues of not being listened to or being bullied are extremely familiar issues for children. Why shouldn't they know that these issues exist for adults close to them as well? Why shouldn't they learn how others deal with those issues and even be a part of helping others deal with them.

But, basically teachers don't show their real life concerns to their students. Even their strong likes and dislikes are expected to be hidden. I remember one teacher at the school where I was working who loved Gilbert and Sullivan operas with a great passion, and he would often introduce The Mikado1 to his students when they studied literature. There are many school systems where this would not be allowed; teachers are often forced to teach the same play or novel across a district. This completely negates the idea that the teachers themselves have particular interests that are important to share with students. Some teachers at our school were critical of The Mikado as a choice for a high school class. "The vocabulary is too difficult," "They won't understand the humor", "It's culturally too far from them" - all negative comments which were based on lack of trust of students to learn under the right circumstances.

Honestly speaking, at first I didn't believe that The Mikado was of interest to the students, either. But as I watched the love with which he approached his lessons, I also noticed that many of the students were also going to his class with some enthusiasm.

The philosopher Krishnamurti, one of my favorite writers on life and learning, addressed this question of a teacher's love in one of his talks to students. He had just been asked why students seemed to be get pleasure from games, but not from their studies:

You know, if a teacher loves mathematics, or history, or whatever it is he teaches, then you also will love that subject, because love of something communicates itself. Don't you know that? If a musician loves to sing and his whole being is in it, doesn't that feeling communicate itself to you who are listening? You feel that you too would like to learn how to sing. But most educators don't love their subject; it has become a bore to them, a routine through which they have to go in order to earn a living. If your teachers really loved to teach, do you know what would happen to you? You would be extraordinary human beings. You would love not only your games and your studies, but also the flowers, the river, the birds, the earth, because you would have this thing vibrating in your hearts; and you would learn much more quickly, your minds would be excellent and not mediocre.2

Now, love and enthusiasm are pretty rare things in schools and should definitely be treasured. We might spend a bit of time of reflecting about why there's so little in our schools, and what kind of soil they spring from.3 Enthusiasm alone is not enough, as a teacher can love something deeply but if he doesn't help his students engage with his love and finally feel some connection to themselves, then not much of value has taken place for the students. My feeling is that enthusiasm, based on love, combined with ability to engage and connect is an even more important quality than the amount of general (testable) knowledge a teacher has, because finally what's important to new learners is feeling that what is happening around them at school has relevance to their lives.

It might not be clear what the connection is between enthusiasm and honesty and openness in the classroom, but if teachers' materials and approaches are strictly controlled by whatever government is in power, then it's difficult for teachers to show their own feelings honestly. And it's as important for teachers to connect with what they are teaching as it is for students to connect with what they are supposed to be learning.

So both teachers and students, in order to connect with what's going on during these six hours a day in school, need to have a place where their own voices can be heard and where they can feel some relationship to what is going on. Without this connection to something felt to have relevance to their lives, both teachers and students can feel like school is a waste of their time.

Let me give another example from my personal experience in teaching in Japan. The school I was teaching at for twenty years had a strong connection to antiwar sentiment going back to the Second World War when many people connected to it were imprisoned for not supporting Japan's military efforts. Every year the 11th graders took a trip to Okinawa to hear from people who were strongly affected by the fighting there and visit caves where many Okinawa women and children took their own lives just before the end of the war because they had been told that the enemy (the Americans and Allied Forces) would torture them when they were captured.

Students wrote about their impressions of this trip after returning, and, during all my years of teaching, I had only one student who wrote that the Japanese government and their military expansion was not wrong. He said that they had been forced into their position by activities of other European colonists in the Asian region. This student was most sincere about his beliefs, and obviously had been raised in a home where this view of history was supported.

One reaction to this student's ideas would have been to silence his view as "revisionist" or "radical" or some other label which could be used to exclude them and to refuse voice to this student. For that student, such rejection would have made our school environment irrelevant for him. But I felt that his views should be heard and examined by other students as well as by himself. There must be a place for all ideas - coming from both adults and children - to be explored and evaluated. Only by learning through open dialogue can our children be prepared to become independent thinkers.

Is it possible for schools to become places for honest exploration of meaningful issues? It might be possible, but it certainly would be difficult on a large scale because schools are basically institutions run by governments, and, as I have written elsewhere in articles on this site, it's not common practices for governments or other institutions to look at themselves honestly from many different perspectives.

Just as history is written by the winners of wars, it's also written by those who have power. Thus, what is presented as "truth" in schools, is "truth" from the perspective of the powerful. In the U.S., one of the greatest producers of mass media propaganda, the top 1% of the people have 46% of the wealth and the top 10% have 80%. These are the people who run governments, schools, companies, tv stations and newspapers; they make the laws for the other 90%. This is a greater inequality than in many other countries, but basically it holds true that much of what is presented to people as "fact" is created by the powerful of that country. If there is no awareness of this on the part of students then their education lacks the critical thinking that democracy requires from its citizens.

In an article, "Lessons to be Learned from Paulo Freire as Education is being Taken Over by the Mega Rich," which appeared on line and in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, Henry A. Giroux describes Freire's philosophy "critical pedagogy", as an "educational movement guided by both passion and principle to help students develop a consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, empower the imagination, connect knowledge and truth to power and learn to read both the word and the world as part of a broader struggle for agency, justice and democracy."4

If teachers believe in these guidelines, essentially their classrooms must be transformed into places of honesty. Unfortunately, "honesty" implies that there is a single truth to be expressed, but I don't think that's the case. What I do believe is that students need to be empowered to see the various truths, to see the "word and the world" in light of the different experiences and perspectives of those involved, not just the powerful.

Recently Thanksgiving was celebrated in the United States. This is a holiday that most Americans know as a commemoration of the peaceful coming together of American settlers (pilgrims) and the native peoples, the Indians. This perspective is not one held by most Native Americans, but again we need to remember that the history that most people are taught either directly in schools by textbooks and teachers or through mass media is that presented by the winners of various events. In the case of the American Thanksgiving holiday, the "winners" were the white Europeans who succeeded in taking land that belonged to the Indians, so the story (or mythology) of Thanksgiving has been composed by white people, in the same way that the story of Columbus first "discovering" America has been written by white people. So what story do we teach to our children about holidays such as Thanksgiving or the taking of land from various native peoples, such as the aboriginals of Australia or the Ainu of Japan?

According to critical pedagogy philosophy, these myths have to be deconstructed. Students, not to mention earlier generations of students who are now adults (including teachers), need to be exposed to other stories. One of the largest tv stations in the U.S. came on the air recently and told the story that the reasons the pilgrims nearly died out during their early years was because of a failed experiment with socialistic living.5

Well, what's wrong with this view of the pilgrims? Why shouldn't Fox News or school teachers say whatever they want? The news media has such great power now that as a result of one-sided news stories like this, more than half of American voters are convinced that the president of the United States is a "socialist", a very negative concept for most Americans.6 The problem is that our students aren't being taught how to examine the news. What's important for us in the process of our education is to learn not to accept stories like this TV report as the truth, and to understand that there are many different facts and factors to examine in trying to construct our own beliefs.

"Constructing our own beliefs" - is that important? Don't we need to know about history and science and math and language? What is it that children really need to learn in schools?

Krishnamurti, who I quoted before, often spoke about the purpose of schools and education, usually to students in school settings. Many of these talks have been saved and collected in various books of Krishnamurti's writings and are now mostly available on-line. It was always amazing to me that schools invited him to talk to students because essentially what he had to say to students was not to believe anyone, but to discover and grow your own knowledge and experience.

Regarding the question about how well schools prepare us for the real things that we have to think about in our lives, here's what Krishnamurti said in one talk:

"When we grow older and leave school after receiving a so-called education, we have to face many problems. What profession are we to choose, so that in it we can fulfill ourselves and be happy? In what vocation or job will we feel that we are not exploiting or being cruel to others? We have to face the problem of suffering, disaster, death. We have to understand starvation, overpopulation, sex, pain, pleasure. We have to deal with the many confusing and contradictory things in life: the wrangles between man and man, between man and woman; the conflicts within and the struggles without. We have to understand ambition, war, the military spirit - and that extraordinary thing called peace, which is much more vital than we realize. We have to comprehend the significance of religion, which is not mere speculation or the worship of images, and also that very strange and complex thing called love. We have to be sensitive to the beauty of life, to a bird in flight - and also to the beggar, to the squalor of the poor, to the hideous buildings that people put up, to the foul road and the still fouler temple. We have to face all these problems. We have to face the question of whom to follow or not to follow, and whether we should follow anyone at all

"You have to know all this, you have to face and understand it for yourself. But unfortunately you are not prepared for it."
"What have we understood when we leave school?"7

If what Krishnamurti says has some truth in it, we need to consider how we can make schools more relevant places for our present and future generations of young people? One way is to encourage teachers and curriculum to speak honestly and teach openly about their own thoughts and lives - not in ways that restrict the thinking of their students, but in ways that give wider perspective to students, and offer them opportunities to explore issues that have meaning in their lives.

Going back to Friere's "critical pedagogy", Giroux explains:

Central to such a pedagogy is shifting the emphasis from teachers to students, and making visible the relationships among knowledge, authority and power. Giving students the opportunity to be problem posers and engage in a culture of questioning in the classroom foregrounds the crucial issue of who has control over the conditions of learning, and how specific modes of knowledge, identities and authority are constructed within particular sets of classroom relations. Under such circumstances, knowledge is not simply received by students, but actively transformed, open to be challenged and related to the self as an essential step toward agency, self-representation and learning how to govern rather than simply be governed. At the same time, students also learn how to engage others in critical dialogue and be held accountable for their views.8

Through a combination of teachers talking about real issues and empowering students to decide by themselves how to act on these issues, schools can be transformed, and more importantly young people can learn not only how to live in this world, but how to create a more livable world - a vital skill, I would argue, which this present generation of adults hasn't been greatly successful at.



1 The Mikado is a comic operatic story about a mythical town in Japan. It was written by two British playwrites, and first presented in London in 1885. It has been performed all over the world since then. For further information look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mikado

2 Krishnamurti, Think on These Things, Chapter 13, 'Equality and Freedom' - 17th January 1955.

3 School systems might even consider asking prospective teachers what they love or what they are enthusiastic about and how they might consider creating such feelings among their students.

4 Giroux, Henry A, "Lessons to be Learned from Paulo Freire as Education is being Taken Over by the Mega Rich", http://www.truth-out.org/lessons-be-learned-from-paulo-freire-education-is-being-taken-over-mega-rich65363 . Tuesday 23 November 2010 (This is a much expanded version of "Lessons From Paulo Freire," which appeared in a recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

5 the video can be seen at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbjpzh087uU&feature=player_embedded and the text can be read at http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2010/11/24/john-stossel-lost-lesson-thanksgiving/

6 http://www.nationalreview.com/campaign-spot/230874/55-percent-likely-voters-find-socialist-accurate-label-obama

7 Krishnamurti in Life Ahead, p.154-155. On line at:http://www.jkrishnamurti.org/krishnamurti-teachings/view-text.php?tid=38&chid=68331&w=

8 Giroux, Henry A, op.cit.

Profile

Hillel Weintraub taught at Doshisha International Jr/Sr High School (DIHS) in Kyoto from 1980-2001, taking a 3 year break in the middle to live in the Boston area where he was part of the teaching and learning communities of MIT's Media Lab and Harvard Graduate School of Education. Hillel was one of the pioneers of using computers in education in Japan and in 1981 created an international group of teachers, parents and business people who were interested in exploring ways that technology could be used to support learning that would be meaningful, engaging and empowering for young people. While at Doshisha International he also taught courses in media and communication at Doshisha University and Doshisha Women's College, and, with other members of DIHS faculty, planned and developed the Communication Center, a unique combination of library, museum, theater and computer spaces. He also helped design various aspects of a new science university in Hokkaido, Future University - Hakodate, where he was a professor from 2001-2005. He is presently living in the mountains of Australia, where he is writing and running a small gallery and press. Hillel can be contacted at hilleljw@yahoo.com
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