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Still Learning

Lessons from a lifetime in the Classroom

What Are We Teaching?

by Julia Sneden

There have been great changes in education since I began teaching many years ago. We now have marvelous technology like computers and CDs that bring excellent educational materials into the classroom. We can individualize our educational programs as never before. Children come to us knowing much more of the world than they did in my day, thanks to the hours they have spent watching television and films and video tapes. A few of them enter kindergarten already reading. Most of them can count. They have a surface sophistication that my generation lacked.

Oddly enough, many of the ones who can read can't tie their own shoes or button their own coats or draw a simple human figure. Perhaps they have spent their waking hours watching educational programs, with their hands in their laps. They seem to have become passive learners, who need encouragement to engage in active play. They wait for knowledge to be presented to them, neatly wrapped. They no longer wade in actively (and messily) to search it out. At the same time, their attention spans seem to me to have grown much shorter. (Television, after all, presents a changing image every few seconds). They can tell you where to buy the latest "hot" toys, and they can sing all the words to advertising jingles, but many don't know how to play make-believe or recite even the simplest of nursery rhymes.

It is tempting to blame television and a rampant consumer-driven culture for all the negatives I have mentioned, but that seems to me to be a serious mistake.

As noted, television is a highly effective teaching tool. The question we need to consider is: What is it teaching? The dumbed-down and tasteless levels of most programming and advertising surely deserve our censure. But let's not forget that several generations of children have learned to read and count and sing and do science projects thanks to programs like "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" and "Mr. Wizard." How many of today's performing musicians were first hooked by those wonderful "Young People's Concerts" hosted by Leonard Bernstein?

There is a distinction to be made between tools and content. Books, pencils, and even television and computers are just tools. They are effective ways to deliver content. In and of themselves, they are neither the downfall nor the ultimate answer for education. Used wisely, they can make a student's educational process much more enjoyable. But even so, they are still only tools. Education can happen without them. Instruction can be given by words or gestures alone, or with the most basic of tools like a stick used to scratch in the dirt, or a piece of chalk on a smooth surface.

It is when good tools are used to convey poor content that they can hamper or warp education, or possibly even stop it cold. Think, for instance, of the misinformation propagated in textbooks published by governments in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. For that matter, think of some of our own "new math" texts, or the dreariest of our basal readers. Consider some history texts that are so dry and boring as to push even an enthusiastic learner to engage in passive resistance. Think of trashy TV shows. Think of violent video games.

How do we evaluate content? How can we be sure that our schools will survive the great debates currently raging over matters like "teaching the canon" or following a "relevant curriculum" or "learning in ethnocentric schools?" Can we leave the question of content to the educators? To the government? To the general public? Must all schools teach the same content?

And what can we do about our mass media, which are teaching just as surely as are our schools. How can we influence the purveyors of sit-coms and quiz shows and cartoons and talk shows, so that what our children see reflects the best and truest values? Who is to decide what those values are?

These are questions of immense importance, and they will not have simple answers. An ongoing dialogue must be opened, a dialogue in which all people have a chance to be heard.

It seems to me that the voices of Senior Women are especially important to this dialogue. Many of us have grandchildren, and care about their schooling. But even if you've never had children, let alone grandchildren, surely any concerned older citizen should be involved with the public school system, whether as board member, volunteer, or merely intelligent observer and/or critic. We have wisdom earned by experience, and possibly our insights will help today's young parents (who used to be our children). We should make time to become involved.

What kinds of things can we all support, no matter what our political or religious stripe?

We can insist on schools that will not tolerate cruelty, exclusion, or betrayal of those values common to all religions. We can insist on schools that are safe havens for children from all backgrounds.

We can support schools that offer a challenging curriculum and strive to educate the heart and body as well as the mind. We can speak up for restoration of the arts in our school curricula, and for physical education and good nutrition.

We can insist on attempts to redress old wrongs, like the exclusion of women and people of color from lessons in American history. Many schools are reexamining their curricula and reevaluating things we've taken for granted and taught as fact for years, like the European view of Native American culture both before and after Columbus.

We can encourage young parents to take control of their children's reading, viewing, and buying habits. Anyone who has ever had children knows that taste is an acquired thing. It is not innate. One develops it as one matures, and maturing in an atmosphere of flamboyant emotional excess is not likely to encourage self-discipline or thoughtful restraint.

More than ever, young parents need support for their right to say no to their children, whether over the amount of television viewing, or the kinds of food they allow their children to eat, or the hour of bedtime. When I was teaching, I was horrified to observe the growing laxity among parents. Among other things, they seemed to think nothing of allowing children under the age of ten to stay up late on a school night. They sent children to school with lunches consisting entirely of cleverly prepackaged foods that have shocking percentages of fats and sugars. They seemed helpless in the face of sibling rivalry, or for that matter, sibling agreement when the kids banded together to lobby for something. In short, the children are being allowed to run the household.

How much of this is the result of over-tired parents? With both parents working outside the home, it is inevitable that shortcuts (like the pre-packed lunches) will be taken. I was a working parent myself, and I am sympathetic to the levels of fatigue, and to the need to look for ways to make time for important things at the expense of unimportant ones. Someone, however, needs to address the question of what those important things are. This is where grandparents or older friends and relatives can help. Having been around for a while, we may be able to offer the kind of perspective and support that young parents need.

There is no way to overemphasize how important it is to take time for play and direct interaction with children. There is no way to overemphasize the need for good nutrition and an appropriate amount of sleep. If you opt to champion just those three things, you will be doing an incalculable amount of good for the children in your world.

All the best teaching tools available cannot take the place of the experience and wisdom that older people have to offer. If enough parents and grandparents can find ways and a voice to say "NO!" to the trash and flash with which society assaults our children, there will be a huge change in this country, on down the road. We may not be here to see it, but perhaps they'll remember us kindly.



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