When Feeling Bad Leads To Doing Good

I get angry and a little depressed, probably just like most of you, at the increasing social inequities, at the actions of many of the richest individuals to undermine public schools and the public commons (our air, water, even the parks and common spaces), the lawlessness and intractability of our political system, at the instability of the weather, etc. It’s a crime that, in the richest nation in the world, one million school children are homeless, one quarter of all children live in poverty. Last week there was a report of drones getting in the way of aircraft fighting fires out west. Such shortsightedness and delusion.

 

Many people tell themselves things like: “There’s nothing I can do. Politics is a waste of time. The system is rigged. I’d rather just go about my life.” Such an inner dialogue is probably responsible for the fact that, in most U. S. elections, fewer than 50% of Americans vote or protest or, possibly, even educate themselves on the state of the world and the campaign issues. (In 2012, 58.6% of registered citizens voted; in 2014, 36.6%.) In a democracy, this is your life. Politics is personal. To have a say in politics, you must speak.

 

The fact that you feel discomfort, outrage, depression is an indicator that you care, not that you shouldn’t. It means that you want to take action, not that no action can be taken. Maybe you grew up feeling there is no way to face discomfort or you must get rid of, medicate away or let the emotion take you over. Instead of attacking, hiding, or letting the feeling take you over, you can feel the feeling, rest in it, and understand it. Only by knowing your feelings can you know what they have to tell you, act on them appropriately or let them go.

 

Schools need to educate young people about how to participate in democracy, and how to understand and be mindfully aware of their own emotions. To do that, they need to teach mindfulness and become democratic communities where students can grow up familiar with taking responsibility for their lives, communities, and nation. Students need to be given the space to verbalize, analyze, and discuss what they feel and think about the state of the world today. In my school, community service is a graduation requirement and some teachers build political/social action into the curriculum. In my historical development course, on the first day of classes, I often asked: “What are the biggest problems with our world today?” Once students named the problems or concerns, I then asked: “Which of these is most basic?” Each student then had to decide which named concern they considered most basic and follow its historical, cultural, and intellectual (and sometimes artistic or other) roots through all the times and cultures we studied during the year. The final assessment became analyzing and describing how this problem developed, and how other cultures dealt with it. Students need to be helped to recognize that their way of conceiving the world and themselves is crucial in how they act and in the responsibility they assume for the state of the world.

 

In our concern and outrage lies our salvation. Our loves, our willingness to act not just for our own welfare but for the welfare of others, combined with our openness to study, analyze and understand what might be in the greater good–this can counter hopelessness. And a comprehensive education, which includes learning mindful self-awareness in a democratic school, serves the possible realization of that salvation.

The Interview

 

Sasha Lilley, producer and interviewer of Pacifica Radio’s Against The Grain, interviewed me a few weeks ago. The interview was about alternative education or student centered learning, the attacks on public schools, how to teach to meet the needs of a diverse population, and how to teach critical thinking using mindfulness. It was aired on the radio last week. Here is a link to it.

 

Mon 6.16.14 | The Radical Philosophy of Alternative Public Education | Against the Grain: A Program about Politics, Society and Ideas

 

In the interview, I talked about using questions to engage students and develop their critical intellect. As an illustration, I used the historical question: Why was Socrates executed by his city-state, Athens? In the interview, I did not give adequate background to the question.

 

Socrates, who was one of the most influential philosophers in history, certainly Western history, was probably both a hero and a pain in the butt. His methods clearly irritated many of his contemporaries. He was charged with impiety and with corrupting minors, by encouraging his students to question their assumptions and beliefs. He was the teacher of several notable people, including Plato, who taught Aristotle, who taught Alexander The Great. He was executed in 399 BCE, just five years after Athens had lost the Peloponnesian Wars, had lost their once glorious empire and seen their democracy destroyed and rebuilt. The wars had spanned over 30 years. When given the opportunity to escape a death sentence but be exiled from his home, he declined. So, why was Socrates executed?

 

I was also unclear in explaining why test scores are poor vehicles for diagnosing what students have learned. When tests compare student achievement, as by using a curve or by ranking how the student stood in relation to other students, they do not say what a student actually knows. If everyone in a group does poorly, scoring 90% does not mean you did well. If everyone in the group is a high achieving student, scoring only 10% might be vey good.

 

And there are so many other reasons not to use standardized tests to assess student, teacher, or school achievement. So, why are the tests still pushed?

 

Also, this week LACS received good news. The radio interviewer asked me if an alternative school, which de-emphasized tests, grades and competition, could prepare students for the tests and other challenges of the world. I said yes. To support my assertion, the SAT scores for the year were announced this week. LACS outscored all the other schools in upstate New York. (Despite this, I still argue that standardized tests infringe on learning more than they assess it.)

 

I hope you enjoy the interview. Any questions or comments?

 

 

*The mural is by LACS students. The blue ox is the Blue ACS, symbol of the school.