In this brilliant podcast episode of “On Being“, Krista Tippett interviews Brother David Steindl-Rast on gratitude. Brother Steindl-Rast is eloquent on gratitude, but also on all that we may not be grateful for, like violence and environmental destruction, and his thoughts on being born as the beginning of our struggle with anxiety, to go forward is to live, to retreat from fear is to die – indeed before ever living, struck me. He says for this purpose we must validate our anxiety, recognize it as real, and as based on reality. In a humanity that is choosing to destroy our own ecosystems of survival and networks of connection that, as Brother Steindl-Rast points out, put food on our plate, this anxiety is valid.
Such resonance – our anxieties are valid. In the context of a school, imagine all of the anxieties on offer every day for each member of the community. Will my daughter reach a competitive university like her father and I did? Is my child being bullied? A bully? What if they find out I am here on scholarship? Will the principal observe this lesson today, and will she understand what she sees here? Nobody else in this room is dressed like me. I’ve been away on business too long and missed another play. I don’t have anything for show and tell.
Obviously, that list could go on.
A colleague recently described the anxiety high school/upper school parents in affluent schools feel about university entrances as “guarding the family jewels,” and it helped me to conceptualize that anxiety as one of preserving capital – cultural or otherwise. I recognize that parents in high poverty areas like those in which I have previously taught have many different anxieties – will the child return home if she attends university? Is that a reasonable fear? And what Brother Steindl-Rast shares is that yes, this is a valid anxiety, and that acknowledging this should protect against reactions from fear, like pressuring a child until he cracks and has a real psychological break before reaching majority age, or blowing up a relationship with a child to protect oneself against the pain of another brilliant kid leaving the reservation forever.
I wonder how many schools open conversations about these anxieties and validate them? How many ameliorate the problem at hand with platitudes and then roll eyes in the office after 5 pm? That’s a hard conversation, even just the easy bit about Penn State being a great place to be educated, even though it’s not in Princeton, NJ. Honoring anxiety about an ever crowded and seemingly chaotic world that could strip a standard of living from our children acknowledges how little control we actually have. I wonder: Would that reduce fear and stress in the long run?
I think it’s worth a try.
Recently, a student in my Digital Journalism class decided to do a feature article on the experience of closing his school-supplied Lenovo tablet laptop for the week and only using an iPad. His article is spectacular student writing in our nascent culture of journalism at ZIS, and I found the scope of his successes and challenges enlightening in one particular respect: We are not asking students to use their computers in new ways. Students like this are creative with their computers like I was creative with a darkroom and a typewriter in 1989, and the creativity is still great. Students also use their computers as textbooks, as notebooks, as Trapper Keepers, as easels, as paper, as media studios (this bit gets me excited), as telephones, as shopping malls, as billboards, as video game consoles, as televisions and movie theaters, as the conference social (think networking), and as printing presses. But, none of this is new, really. Almost everything our students do digitally has an analog in the real world. If this young journalist had to program, had to build new opportunities for other computer users, he would have had many more problems with only an iPad for the week.
Only. I realize, as one who taught in a very resource deprived American public school, how ridiculous that sounds. I know every teacher and student on Earth would take an iPad if offered, but they’d use it to keep doing the same things they are already doing. While he concludes forcefully that it would be a “huge mistake” to replace the laptop with an iPad, which I agree with, if the infrastructure at school supported Mac, much of what happens on a daily basis would still be possible for students. I don’t know exactly how to change that – maybe offer programming, as a start, and give lots of time and freedom for students to choose such courses – but I recognize that it is a problem. At any rate, if you’ve read this far, be sure to read the piece linked above.
I understand that higher education is an industry that must manage huge numbers of applicants. I understand that processes and sorting operations are therefore necessary. I understand that much more than admissions hinge on tests like the SAT and ACT, scholarship decisions and so forth. However, I had a moment while serving as a proctor for the SAT this past weekend that illuminated part of what is crazy about this whole system.
As I wandered slowly through an aisle of earnest test takers, I realized that a student from our school who has written a software program for education that seeks to rival Moodle and, which I can testify to personally, that absolutely would win in a fair fight, was filling in bubbles before me. This young man has created software, started a company, capitalized his business, and is poised to launch. What university doesn’t want this kid? Still, there’s the hoop. Better jump.
I don’t have the solution, but I think I can see the problem.