By Paul Cummins
Despite our planet’s vast resources, we condemn over 20,000 children a day to miserable, preventable deaths. The escape from this tragedy begins with a fresh perspective on education.
A few years ago I heard an interview with author Tom Robbins, who writes his novels one sentence at a time, each leading him to where the next sentence wants to go. He doesn’t plot out the whole show; it evolves as it goes. So, I thought I would try this out in this blog, starting with a line I heard recently from American writer Marina Warner, who said, “We have expensive children and we have cheap children.”
Actually, I believe this is true not just in the USA but all over the world. We have children in every country who enjoy every blessing known, and yet we have other children that each nation and culture allows to live in abject poverty and then to die—currently at the rate of more than 20,000 a day.
Malnutrition, diarrhea, starvation, AIDS, a host of preventable diseases. Cheap children. Children mostly of color. Children doomed the day they are born to die young and to die miserably. Somehow our species, which has the resources and the wealth to prevent almost all of these deprivations and deaths, somehow our species, our power structures and our class divisions lack the will to apply our collective resources and wealth to prevent “cheap children” from suffering and from death.
Yet in spite of all this, I remain hopeful. Hopeful, because solutions are within reach and the problems are not unfathomable. Clearly what is needed are consciousness and leadership, and both can be, I believe, the products of a quality education. Consciousness precedes action for obvious reasons. You can’t act until you know why you must act and when you know what actions are possible. And leadership is the product of consciousness married to passion.
At this moment, most of our schools do not see either consciousness or leadership as their mission. Preparation for sterile tests rules the day. But this reign will not endure forever, and will perhaps end soon, for more and more people are realizing that our salvation as a people and as a planet requires the enlightened consciousness and passionate commitment to redesigning both how we live together and how we preserve our miraculous heritage.
As life has become increasingly complex and threatening, we humans are inclined to retreat to simplistic systems and escapist dictums. Erich Fromm wrote of our collective inclination to “escape from freedom.” In education, standardized testing is just such an escape—understandable, but an escape nevertheless.
What is desperately needed in education are teachers and principals committed to engaging the students and schools in wild debate and discussion on research and action programs dealing with the critical issues of our times. Currently, we bore our children and youths to death and then wonder why they drop out in droves. I believe if we confronted issues of life-and-death importance, our students would become engaged in their own education. How else are we to save our planet and ourselves if the young do not gain a conscious, passionate desire to act and to lead?
The late 20th century American poet William Stafford provides us with a startling image and challenge. In his poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” he states that elephants parade each holding the other’s tail: “...but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park.” If the leadership strays, we all “get lost in the dark.” Our salvation lies not in standardization and standardized tests. As Stafford writes, ” ... it is important that awake people be awake.”