What did you learn in school today?

Sophie and Elodie "panning" for gold in California Gold Country

Recently Karen and I had dinner with my son Kelleth and his daughters, Elodie barely turned 6, and Sophie almost 8. I love these occasions (as I suspect most grandmothers might!). Like almost any other such occasion, this one resulted in yet another wonderful Sophie/Elodie story. Shortly after we ordered, I asked the predictable mundane question – what did you learn in school today? Elodie immediately piped up “we learned about activists!” Since most of the adults at the table were a bit shocked to hear this from a kindergarten scholar, someone asked “so what is an activist?” None of us remember her exact answer since we had not exactly recovered from our shock, but we all recognized her response as exactly accurate. Then, both girls proceeded to give us a recitation of activists with whom they now had considerable familiarity … Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and a number of others who clearly matched any definition of the term. Personally I was very gratified that there were a significant number of women on their list!

Of course we live in a recognized liberal community, where contemporary “occupy” activism is a daily fact of life in our community. And, it was after all not long after Black History month.  Nevertheless, what the girls were actually learning was clearly far deeper and more important than the surface ability to recite names and tell about the accomplishments of important activists in U.S. history.  They clearly had learned that activism is something to be admired – that those who venture into the realm of working against injustice are to be honored and what they accomplished is something to be cherished. Certainly, this lesson is not one that I learned as a child, not even as a young high school or college student.

I am not naive enough to believe that all school children are acquiring this understanding.  There is ample evidence that in our current divided political and cultural U.S. society, I suspect that many youngsters are learning quite a different kind of “fact” as well as opposing attitudes – that indeed many children are not exposed to even the limited scope of education that characterized by own 1950-60 K-12 education. So when I move beyond my joy and delight with the experience of the children in my own world, the reality that comes into sharp focus remains the central importance of the state of education.  The fact that there are instances of remarkable advances beyond anything I ever experienced, gives reason for great hope.  But the fact that the U.S. now lags far beyond many other countries in education, behind many countries consider far less advantaged, is an ominous signal that we have a long mountain to climb.  We do not need to be “first” in terms of competition … but we do need to pay close attention to the gross inequities in our system, and the great divide in our political and economic systems that are reflected in our education systems, with grave implications. So, the single most important “activist” role that any of us can take, I believe, is some action, great or small, to influence what the children of our communities learn in school today.


About Peggy L Chinn

feminist, nurse activist, writer, founding editor of ANS Advances in Nursing Science, quilter, grandmother nurturing the future of the amazing children in my life.
This entry was posted in Education, Girls, Politics, Reflections, Social Issues and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What did you learn in school today?

  1. 🙂

    Like you, I also lived in a startlingly oppressive and one sided educational environment in the 1950s and 1960s. Of course my home life contributed a lot to the discomfort. My parents, who were so far left of center as to knock out the value of a compass, did not do what would likely have been helpful – coach me in the fact that the school world and my home world were very different. Moreover, I remember experiencing much the same delight in similar conversations with my children and grandchildren, an acknowledgment which may, or may not, soften the thoughts below.

    I get a good deal of amusement at this point, though it was extremely difficult and traumatic at the time, when I reflect on my failing World History I, twice in high school. I recognize now that it was quite simple. My first two bouts with World History I were with teachers who were dyed in the wool, HUAC loving, commies behind every bush clones of the era. Unschooled in the meaning of political rhetoric and likely simply unconsciously parroting a lot of ideas i heard at home as do all school children, my essays must have sounded like a call to arms and revolution, to teachers unused to such brash and confrontational essays. My essays almost always had large Fs on them, occasionally intermingled with Ds.

    My last, and fortunately successful run at World History I was, unfortunately, not the result of adaptive learning on my part. I simply, through pure randomness, fell into the classroom of one of the more progressive World History I teachers in the NYC public school system and instead of Fs on my essays I got As. Go figger. Earlier in my life I attributed this academic success to a personal evolution – on reflection I think that self-glorification was totally undeserved.

    All, to make the following thoughts a little easier to digest.

    The countries that are surpassing us around the world are in large measure doing so because they are focusing their attention on the educational standards they are trying to achieve. They want to produce engineers, scientists, doctors, nurses, business leaders, and educators who will, in turn, focus on these measures of academic excellence and on increasing the material wealth of their countries. They do not, for the most part, focus their educational efforts on honoring activists, not even so much on history, except as it helps to contextualize amd clarify their current and future role in the world and its constantly evolving economy.

    While it is nice to think that students may not be as encumbered as in my generation by a one-sided Panglossian political rhetoric, I wonder if the impact is any different than the impact of education in the 1960s.

    Liberal communities, as they did even in the 50s and 60s likely have curricula that extol the virtues of activism, challenging authority (unless of course it is the currently in vogue liberal theology), glorifying the minute and largely random successes of social activism amidst the overwhelming numbers of failures of social activisim in the 50s-10s.

    Seque for a little levity before continuing:

    {Totally bizarre, but not necessarily inapprorpiate, recollection from college: Two college stoner friends in the late 1960s who went to rural Mexico to score dope but who failed to be able to make a connection. Cash rich but dope poor, they happened to notice that finely crafted leather goods were dirt cheap in rural mexico. They invested their dope money in leather goods and became successful and licit leather goods entrepreneurs.

    Within months the original story morphed into an intentional buying trip for leather goods as the stoners straightened up their act, changed their majors to business, and eventually dropped out of college, so they could run their rapidly growing and extremely profitable leather goods business. As it turned out the markup for leather goods was actually better than the markup for dope.

    They might as easily have wound up in jail but the ensuing narrative omitted the role of the real cause of their success – their abysmal failure in one enterprise and their desparate effort to cover the costs of their seemingly wasted trip.}

    Anyway, back to the main theme…

    This liberal educational focus is offset as it no doubt ought to be in a pluralistic society, by the tendency for conservative communities’ curricula to extol the virtues of laissez-faire; market driven economics; obedience; respect for authority, industrialists, entrepreneurs, and corporate soundrels; and individual responsibility.

    Unfortunately neither of these extremes, and certainly not the middle ground of contemporary American education, accomplishes the goal of producing a literate, numerate, and reality oriented populace. So, the ursine mused, perhaps this intimate and untoward focus on deeply nuanced personal and societal history is not so much a sign of social evolution at play as it is symptomatic of a society in decline.

    Perhaps the mass of historical self reflection that provides so much of the base for our history courses is not symptomatic of the advanced and advancing stages of development of the societies that produced this wealth of historical material, such as the Incans, Aztecs, Persians, Greeks, Romans, English, Germans, Spaniards but the shift from growth in power, influence, success against nature, and improving material wealth but the shift toward powerlessness and the failure to harness nature that emerged and strengthened as these societies sank in influence, prestige, and competitiveness on the world stage.

    Is, perhaps, our current state of decline, as we are about to fall behind China in terms of the strength of our economy, our influence in the world, and our military largesse both the result, and the natural corollary of our investing too much of our energy and resources on ourselves, our history, and being a bit too self-reflective, self-absorbed, and self-congratulatory with our appraisal of what constitutes educational success?

    Might we not be better off if when asked what they learned in school today our 6 year old and 8 year old students responded with something more akin to:

    “We learned how Leontief’s inter-industy model of an economy applies to the declining role of American enterprise in the global economy, and how to use mathematics: statistics, calculus, linear programming, and optimization theory, and engineering, social sciences, contract theory, and the theory of political economy to reverse this trend, better assess market conditions, ferret out opportunities for product innovation, quality control and quality improvement, to establish new industries to create new national material wealth, increase employment opportunities, and advance the educational achievement levels of future generations.”

    Just a thought – as a thought it has absolutely no importance whatsoever – being only one of the large, but countably finite many, equally important and significant thoughts that 7 billion people around the world will have today, because we have the luxury, in our ever so advanced state of civilization, of knowing that all our thoughts are equally meaningful and equally deserving of respect.

    We, as so advanced a society, have no need to elevate any thoughts over any other thoughts.



  2. Excellent post, Peggy – I’m tweeting it!

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