What’s the Point of School?

I found myself enjoying What’s the Point of School? by Emma B. Perez, which wasn’t much of a surprise.  See, I was lucky enough to spend an hour in May chatting with Emma about our mutual passion helping teenagers get curious about life beyond school when she mentioned she had written this book.

Before I get ahead of myself, you should know I found myself getting really nervous for that phone call. Would the conversation flow easily? What if I didn’t have enough questions or began to feel like I was wasting her time? Did I prepare enough? 

One thing I always find helpful when I am nervous is to first, take a deep breath and second, remind myself to come at something from a place of curiosity instead of feeling stress, fear, or pressure to perform to some standard

Is now a good moment to point out a parallel with that statement and the way I think school should be? 

Why are we asking for across-the-board performance to a standard set by someone else? 

In my opinion this crushes individuality, creativity and innovation, while stomping out curiosity, passion and drive. This certainly happens for students, but one could argue it happens for teachers to a lesser degree as well. 

Perpetuating our damaging comparison culture, this pressure to perform increases levels of anxiety, stress, and depression.

Early in the book, Perez sets out to answer the question, “What are we trying to accomplish with public, compulsory, paid-for-by-taxation education?” 

Her findings were pretty interesting. She discovered that “the goal is conformity, submission to authority, and university admittance,” dating back to the 18th century. Even noting the extreme nature of this claim, Perez goes on to explore more citing her source as The One World Schoolhouse: Education Reimagined by Sal Khan, from Kahn Academy. 

I suppose one could argue that this answer made sense back when the goal was to “turn out loyal citizens who would submit to authority” at a time when the worker bee mentality was important to growing the economy. In the late 19th century, however, the Committee of Ten was formed by the National Education Association to revisit how we structured education in the United States. Led by Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University at the time, the committee was made up of educators, primarily university presidents.  It was this group that ultimately decided on things like what age children would start school, the number of years that made up elementary and middle school and what subjects were to be studied. And, as Perez concludes, “ultimately weeding out the manual laborers from the intellectuals” further noting “the moment when a hierarchy was created.” 

Perez, agreeing that students should get a chance to find their unique capabilities whether it be manual labor or intellectual pursuits, felt there should be no weight given to one over the other. However, the fact that this system seemed to favor academic achievement and success above all else – didn’t sit well with Perez. She states:

“Not only is this profoundly detrimental to the wellbeing of students, this is also the opposite of what is needed for our economy. Companies cannot survive with the same type of person in every position. It is by celebrating our individualities and our unique skills and sensibilities that businesses and economies thrive.”

The fact that this system seemed to favor academic achievement and success above all else has me wondering if we have unknowingly created a culture of perfectionism, people-pleasing, anxiety, stress, dissatisfaction and comparison? 

One has to wonder if this correlates to a doubling of the suicide rate among 15-24 year-olds and a quadrupling of the suicide rate among children 15 and under, in addition to recent data showing a decline in empathy and creative thinking skills.

As staggering as these statistics are, at least for me, the jury is still out on the reasons behind them. One could certainly point to our increasing dependence on technology and the on-line gaming and social media culture that has consumed us for the better part of a decade. Perhaps the pressures of having to perform in school to achieve and succeed on someone else’s predetermined time-table paired with the pressures on-line to be what society tells you to be have created this perfect storm of loneliness, disconnection, and anxiety.

The good news is, schools today are more focused on the importance of the social-emotional health of their students. However, from what I can see, the implementation of such programs is still varied and inconsistent.

Furthermore, as a strong advocate for social-emotional wellness as an essential life skill, I feel there is a similar hierarchy today between social-emotional learning and academics as there was in the late 19th century example between manual laborers and intellectuals. It is my hope that someday these can be seen as not only equal in importance, but as vital to one another in creating well rounded, healthy individuals that thrive.

So, what’s the solution? One of my favorite quotes from this book is 

“The success of school shouldn’t be measured by test scores. It’s more important that students are able to manage their inner world, relate to their outer world, and find their place in the world.” Emma B. Perez

It is my hope that places like The Center for Human Potential can provide some of this exploration of self as Perez’s suggestions for inner world, outer world and place in the world discovery are big parts of our focus. 

Inner world:

  • knowing themselves well
  • managing their emotions
  • recognizing positive vs. negative relationships
  • managing their physical health

Outer world:

  • having a positive money mindset
  • making informed decisions
  • expanding their world beyond their immediate circle
  • taking positive action in their communities

Find their place in the world:

  • give them time and resources to play and explore interests
  • learn their values and unique skills
  • learn how to turn their interests, skills, and values into a career
  • learn what steps they need to take and what kind of further education they need to get that career

This ten-dollar, 100-page book offers a unique perspective. Perez seems to have done her homework and offers an in-depth review of her Five Happy Healthy Elements (5HHE): Emotional Health & Positive Relationships, Physical Health & Nutrition, Financial Literacy, Community Involvement & Effective Altruism, and Play & Exploration of Interests.  

Finally, my conversation with Emma and subsequent reading of her book helped validate my assumptions about the importance of this work. And, you’ll be happy to know, taking that deep breath and jumping on that call from a place of pure curiosity had us talking the entire hour without any uncomfortable silences. Curiosity for the win! 

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