by Steven Wolk
Phi Delta Kappan, May 1, 2007
the purpose of our schools is to prepare drones to keep the U.S.
economy going, then the prevailing curricula and instructional methods
are probably adequate. If, however, we want to help students become
thoughtful, caring citizens who might be creative enough to figure out
how to change the status quo rather than maintain it, we need to rethink
schooling entirely. Mr. Wolk outlines what he considers to be the essential content for a new curriculum.
YEAR my son's homework in second grade was 400 worksheets. The year
before, in first grade, his homework was also 400 worksheets. Each day
he brought home two worksheets, one for math and one for spelling. That
was two worksheets a day, five days a week, 40 weeks a year.
math was little more than addition or subtraction problems. The other
worksheet was more insidious. My son had 15 spelling words each week.
On some days his worksheets required him to unscramble the spelling
words. On other days he had to write a sentence with each word. And on
still other days he had to write each spelling word five times. The
school was teaching my 7-year-old that the wonderful world of learning
is about going home each day and filling in worksheets.
that was his "official" homework. We were given permission to give him
alternative homework. In place of his spelling worksheet, we set up a
writing workshop at home in which he was free to write something real,
such as a letter, a poem, or a story. Unfortunately, this was often a
struggle because Max wanted to do "school." He learned at the ripe age
of 7 that he could whip out those spelling sentences without a single
thought, so that's what he usually insisted on doing.
son's worksheets are a symptom of a far graver educational danger. More
than the practice of a few teachers, they represent the dominant
purposes of schooling and the choices of curriculum in our nation. We
are engaged in fill-in-the-blank schooling. One of the most telling
statistics about our schools has absolutely nothing to do with
standardized test scores: on a typical day most Americans 16 years
oldand older never read a newspaper or a book. (1)
son's experience of school is little different from my own whenI was
his age. My schooling was dominated by textbooks, teacher lectures,
silent students, and those same worksheets. And it is identicalto what
my current teacher education students endured when they werein school
and also to what they see today in their clinical experiences. My
college students are, by their own admission, poster childrenfor our
factory-model 400-worksheet schools and their superficial and sanitized
We are living a schooling delusion. Do
we really believe that our schools inspire our children to live a life
of thoughtfulness, imagination, empathy, and social responsibility? Any
regular visitor to schools will see firsthand that textbooks are the
curriculum. A fifth-grader is expected to read about 2,500 textbook
pages a year. For all 12 grades that student is expected to "learn"
30,000 pages of textbooks with a never-ending barrage of facts, most of
which we know are forgotten by the time the student flips on his or her
TV or iPod after school. Far more than reading to learn, our children
are learning to hate reading. More than learning any of the content,
they learn to hate learning.
Will those 30,000
pages of textbooks and years of sitting at a classroom desk inspire a
child to be a lifelong reader and learner and thinker? Who are we
kidding? I'm inside schools a lot, and I usually see what John Goodlad
described a generation ago in his classic study,A Place Called School.
After observing classrooms across the countryand more than 27,000
students, he wrote, "I wonder about the impact of the flat, neutral
emotional ambience of most of the classes we studied. Boredom is a
disease of epidemic proportions.... Why are our schools not places of
joy?" (2) Our nation is afflicted with a dearth of educational
imagination, a lack of pedagogical courage, and
rampantanti-intellectualism. Our schools should be think tanks and
fountains of creativity, but most of them are vacuum chambers. Nearly
70 years ago John Dewey wrote, "What avail is it to win prescribed
amounts of information about geography and history, to win the ability
to readand write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul?"
Our textbook-driven curricula have become
educational perpetual motion machines of intellectual, moral, and
creative mediocrity. We dumb down and sanitize the curriculum in the
name of techno-rational efficiency and "American interests." It is
Frederick Winslow Taylor--theturn-of-the-century father of scientific
management--run amok. For example, when some middle school teachers
developed an inquiry-based social studies unit that required their
students to actively participate in creating a curriculum that would
make them think for themselves, the teachers were repeatedly confronted
with the silent passivity of what they called "the glaze." As one
The students are so used to having the teacher spoon-feed them what
they're supposed to know.... Students accustomed to efficient,
predictable dissemination of knowledge were confused, silent, even
hostile when told they must decide for themselves how to proceed on a
project or when confronted with an ambiguous question such as, "What
do you think?" (4)
our children's school experiences are primarily about fillingin blanks
on worksheets, regurgitating facts from textbooks, writingformulaic
five-paragraph essays, taking multiple-choice tests, and making the
occasional diorama--that is, when they are devoid of opportunities to
create an original thought--we should expect the obvious outcome:
children--and later adults--who are unable to think for themselves.
None of this should surprise us. Passive schooling creates passive
people. If we want people to think, learn, and care about the many
dimensions of life, if we want neighbors who accept the responsibility
of tending to the world and working to make it a better place, then we
need schools and curricula that are actually about life and the world.
Instead, we have schools that prepare children to think likea toaster.
OFF TO SCHOOL WE GO
day millions of American children enter their classrooms. Why? What is
the purpose of school? What should its purpose be? As our children
leave our classes and graduate from our schools, how do we want them to
be? Not just what do we want them to know, but how do we want them to
be? What habits of mind? What attitudes? What character? What vision?
What intellect? Yes, we want them to have acquired certain factual
knowledge, such as the dates of the Civil War, how to workwith
fractions, how to write a letter, and at least an acquaintance with the
miracle of photosynthesis. But what do we want them to care about? Do
we want them to watch TV for three hours a day? Do we want them to look
at trees with awe? Do we want them to read great books? Do we want them
to wallow in political and cultural ignorance? Do we want them to vote?
Do we want them to feel empathy for the poor and oppressed? Do we want
them to appreciate the poetry of William Carlos Williams? Do we want
them to define their self-identity by the walls of an office cubicle?
What life do we want to inspire them to live?
course, my question, Why go to school? is not new; it has been
vigorously debated for millennia. Plato, Thomas Jefferson, Rousseau,
Leo Tolstoy, Dewey, Franklin Bobbitt, and Alfred North Whitehead, among
countless others, have joined the debate about the aims of schooling.
More recently, people from all over the political and pedagogical map,
from E. D. Hirsch to Alfie Kohn to Maxine Greene to James Moffett to
Carl Rogers, have argued for their vision of what and why our schools
should be. And once each of us answers that question, we are morally
bound to create curricula and classrooms that strive to fulfill those
purposes. Otherwise our words and passions are nothing but empty
rhetoric, just like so many school mission statements with their
language of "global citizens" and "critical thinkers." So we must
publicly reinvigorate what Nel Noddings refers to as the "aims talk" of
school. (5) We must deeply question the schools and curricula we have;
we must ask what it means to be educated and what it means to be human.
is no neutral ground here; we have decisions to make. Either we remake
our schools into vibrant workshops for personal, social, and global
transformation, or we must own up to our complicity in perpetuating a
superficial, unthinking, and unjust world.
SCHOOLING FOR WORKERS
real barometer of the aims of our schools today is what's being said in
our newspapers and our legislative assemblies. These mainstream voices
and the proclamations emanating from the bully pulpit--bethey newspaper
editorials or speeches by the President--rule the public conversation
and create our national school identity. And what do these powerful
voices have to say? What is the "official" public discussion about the
aims of our schools?
If aliens from outer space
landed on Earth and read our newspapers, listened to our elected
representatives talk about our "failing" schools, and observed inside
our classrooms, what would they conclude are the aims of our schools?
That's easy. Our children go to school tolearn to be workers. Going to
school is largely preparation either to punch a time clock or to own
the company with the time clock--depending on how lucky you are in the
social-class sorting machine called school. Why else give kids 400
worksheets? Why else give children so little voice in what to learn?
Why else teach children a curriculum that avoids controversy and debate
and open inquiry? When the United States was building up to attack
Iraq, some of my graduate students were forbidden by their school
administrators to discuss the war with their students. Not talk about a
war? How can a democracy silence its schools and teachers? What are we
Virtually every newspaper article and
editorial, every radio report and discussion, every political speech
and government policy that Iread or hear says, either implicitly or
explicitly, that the aim of our schools is to prepare future workers.
The specific language may differ, but the message is the same and
crystal clear. Remember the opening paragraph of A Nation at Risk:
Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce,
industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by
competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only
one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the
one that undergirds American prosperity, security, and civility. (6)
there we have the primary aim of our 400-work-sheets-a-year schools:
money. The United States is the richest and most powerful country on
Earth, and our schools exist to keep it that way, even if our role as
citizens should be to question those assumptions and the exercise of
that power. Here is a typical example from an article in the New York
Times on the push to move away from so-called fuzzy math andteach more
The frenzy has been prompted in part by the growing awareness that, at a time of increasing globalization, the math skills of children in the United States simply do not measure up: American eighth-graders lag far behind those from Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan
and elsewhere. (7)
the article does quote an advocate of "fuzzy" math, the assumption that
adapting to globalization--that is, maintaining American economic
dominance--should dictate our math curriculum goes completely
A recent issue of Time bore the cover
line "How to Build a Student for the 21st Century" (an unintentionally
ironic title using a 19th-century metaphor of manufacturing). The
authors of the cover story articulated their vision of the schools we
need. In the entire article,they mentioned just one purpose for school:
preparing our children to succeed in the "global economy." (8) That's
it. The bottom line.
These economic purposes of our
schools are so entrenched that theyhave seeped into our children's
consciousness. Ask adolescents why they go to school, and you will
almost universally hear a response solely concerned with their future
employment. What does it say about a nation whose children define
"education" as little more than preparation for work? Nel Noddings
It is as though our society has simply decided that the purpose of schooling is economic--to improve the financial condition of individuals and to advance the prosperity of the nation. Hence
students should do well on standardized tests, get into good colleges, obtain well-paying jobs, and buy lots of things. Surely there must be more to education than this? (9)
like to tell children that they will be judged by their actions. The
same is true for our schools. Here are the values of our schools based
on their actions: kids don't need to appreciate art to compete with
South Koreans; they don't need intellectual curiosity to sit at a desk
and do tax returns; they don't need creativity and imagination to plan
a business meeting; they don't need to be media literate to sell
heating and cooling systems; they don't need to promote peace to manage
a grocery store; they don't need to care for the environment to be a
lawyer; and they don't need to nurture a happy family to be a chemist.
So the content that would foster these unnecessary dispositions gets
little time in school. While a thoughtful democratic nation requires
people who read widely, a nation of workers just needs people with the
technical ability to read a manual or product distribution report. A
nation of workers does not need to vote, feel historical empathy, be
informed of current events, act to end prejudice, question cultural
assumptions, or care for people in other countries. Workers just need
to produce and fulfill their role as consumers. In the end, the only
educational data that really matter aren't our children's GPAs, they're
the GDP and the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
SCHOOLING FOR ANTI-CITIZENSHIP
the preparation of "citizens" may be in every school mission statement,
our performance in that area is dreadful. We barely get half of our
citizens to vote, and our youngest voters--18- to 24-year-olds right
out of high school and college--continually shun the ballot box in the
greatest numbers. In 2000, only 36% of that group cast a ballot for
President; in 2004, only 47% voted; in our most recent 2006 midterm
elections--with a war raging in Iraq--only 24% of 18- to 29-year-olds
voted. (10) In one survey less than 10% of American 17- to 24-year-olds
reported they "follow public affairs." (11) In anothersurvey barely 13%
of 18- to 24-year-olds agreed with the statement "I am interested in
politics." (12) In yet another survey almost twiceas many Americans
could name the Three Stooges (73%) as could name the three branches of
government (42%). (13)
My college students know
virtually nothing of current events. Evenmost of those who do vote
admit they do so with little understanding of the issues and the
candidates' positions. I assign my social studies methods class to
write an "ideology paper" setting forth their personal opinions on
three controversial political issues. I tell them they cannot inspire
their students to shape their ideologies if they are not actively
shaping their own. My students fret about this assignment; they don't
know what to think. As one student blurted out in class, "But I was
never taught how to do this!" And we wonder why so few Americans read a
newspaper or understand foreign policy. It's the schools, stupid.
are there no blazing headlines condemning our schools for failing to
prepare an educated and active citizenry? Because, contrary tothe
political and educational rhetoric, civic engagement for
"strongdemocracy" isn't really an aim of our schools. (14) If it were,
thendramatically different things would be happening inside our
classrooms. Rather than reading the Disney version of our democracy in
a textbook, our students would be living the complex and "messy"
realities of democracy in their classrooms. Rather than being places
where students sit in silence as their teachers talk all day, our
classrooms would be dynamic public spaces where the authentic and
vibrant discourse of daily democracy would be an essential part of the
school experience. (15) Rather than providing all of the "answers" in
the form of textbooks, our schools would use critical and moral inquiry
as a way to shape individual identity, build a better nation, and
create a morecaring world. Our schools would be helping students to ask
the questions and then to seek out--as true communities of
WHAT DOES SCHOOL NOT TEACH?
20 years ago Alex Molnar asked, "Are the issues studied in school the
most important issues facing mankind?" (16) He surveyed teachers and
administrators and asked them to list the most important issues facing
our world and to indicate whether they were studied in school. They
listed nuclear disarmament, environmental destruction, poverty, racism,
sexism, genetic engineering, and "alternatives to existing forms of
U.S. political, social, and economic organization."
respondents felt these topics should be an important part of school,
but not many felt they were a significant part of any curriculum. Why
not? How can a nation as "smart" as the United States ignore the
knowledge and dispositions essential for creating a thoughtful, just,
and joyful citizenry? How can adults allow such a superficial and
damaging vision of what it means to be "educated" to persist?
see the gaping holes in the curricula of most of our schools, we need
to get specific. I'll now offer a brief overview--quite assuredly
incomplete--of what our schools choose not to teach because of their
unquestioned devotion to preparing workers, rather than
educating people. Of course, all across our nation there are heroic
schools and teachers that make this neglected content a vital part of
their students' school experiences. Unfortunately, these are the
exceptions tothe rule, and they usually exist within a system of
schooling that is hostile to those who question the status quo and the
economic purposes of our schools. Creative and critical teachers are
working more often in opposition to the system than with it.
are several ideas common to all of the following suggestions for content
schools should be teaching but aren't. First is the idea of making
school inquiry-based. A curriculum built around inquiry--that is,
questioning, investigating, and analyzing our lives and the world in
depth with authentic resources and projects--makes the inquiry process
itself part of the content to be learned. By doing "inquiry" across the
curriculum, children learn to ask questions, seek knowledge, understand
multiple perspectives, and wonder about the world. Second, this content
is not just for middle school or high school but should be an important
part of every grade beginning in kindergarten. And third, we must honor
our children's uniqueness. There is not justone way to learn anything.
The fact that our schools take children who are very different and seek
to force them into the same schooling and learning mold is just further
evidence of their disrespect for children as individuals.
Who are you? What defines you? If your entire being were turned into a
list of ingredients, what would be listed first? Parent? Veteran? Poet?
Pacifist? American? Artist? Friend? Or would it be Employee? I doubt
many people would list their job first. While our jobs are important to
many of us, they do not define who we are; they are just one part of
our being. Yet our schools operate as if the only part of us worth
educating is the part that will determine our future as an economic
cog. When Johnny graduates, do we really know Johnny asa distinctive
being? Did we appreciate his unique self? Have we helped Johnny to know
Johnny at all?
Patrick Shannon writes that schools
are in the "identity creation business." (17) We may think school is
about math and history, but it's equally about shaping who we will be
and who we will not be. Ask Johnny what school is about, and he will
list school subjects like math and reading, but what he will never say
is that school is about me.The identities that our schools purposely
shape are directed by the demands of American capitalism rather than
the needs of human beings.School defines people by test scores,
stanines, and GPAs. Johnny thefourth-grader is no longer Johnny; he is
4.3 and 3.9 and 5.2.
In contrast, schools could
help children explore the questions "Who am I?" "How did I become me?"
and "Who do I want to be?" Then the most important "subject" in school
is no longer reading or science, but Johnny. Environmental educator
David Orr writes, "We must remember that the goal of education is not
mastery of knowledge, but the mastery of self through knowledge--a
different thing altogether." (18) If school is not helping children to
consciously shape their cultural, political, and moral identities, then
we are failing to educate our children to reach their greatest
A love for learning. Is it really
possible to inspire people to live a life of learning and wonder, if
throughout their schooling children are always told what to learn, when
to learn, and how to learn? How will we ever own our learning--and even
own our mind--outside of school if we are rarely allowed to own either
inside our classrooms? If we're serious about nurturing lifelong
learners, then we must allowthem some significant ownership of their
learning. This means giving students some control over what they study
and how they show their learning. Children should have regular
opportunities across the curriculum to initiate learning, explore their
own questions, and learn about their own interests. Choice and
ownership can easily be made part of every school day. We can allow
children to choose what books to read for independent reading, what
topic to research in a unit on South America, what genres to write in
during writing workshop, and what project to create to show what they
learned in their science unit on ocean ecosystems. And by allowing
students some control over their learning, we are honoring their
"intelligences" and respecting their unique strengths.
can also give children one hour each day to study topics of their own
choosing. I did this as a teacher, and our "morning project time" was
bustling with students pursuing their questions about the world. For
example, at one time my fourth- and fifth-graders were studying
cheetahs, the CIA, turtles, Georgia O'Keefe, becoming a teacher, the
history of pencils, architecture, bats, dinosaurs, Beethoven, pandas,
the court system, roof shingles, the space shuttle, the atomic bomb,
dolphins, artificial intelligence, jaguars, the history of pizza,Native
Americans of the Northwest, and endangered species of Africa.(19) These
projects were not done frivolously; I had high expectations for their
work. The students initiated the topics and then, collaboratively with
me, shaped them into meaningful and purposeful inquiry-based projects.
There is little that is more important for our schools to teach
children than to pursue their own intellectual curiosity about the
Any school aiming to nurture a love of
learning must also aim for a love of reading. A lifelong reader is a
lifelong learner. But schools must do more than teach a love for
reading; they must reduce or eliminate practices that teach children
that reading is a laborious "school thing." I have never met a child
who ran home to crack open The Rise of the American Nation. We know
perfectly well that children hate reading textbooks, because we hated
reading them too. Using textbooks should be the exception, not the
rule; instead, students should be immersed in reading authentic,
fascinating, interesting, critical, thoughtful, and relevant texts. And
school must surround students with the astonishing children's and young
adult literature available today, which, besides including great
stories and beautiful writing, is one of the very best ways to teach
the content advocated in this article.
empathy. Nel Noddings has written extensively and eloquently about the
vital need to teach for caring in our classrooms. She writes that caring
should be the foundation of our curriculum and that its study should
include caring for self, family, friends, "strangers and distant
others," animals and plants, the Earth and its ecosystems, human-made
objects, and ideas. (20) What can be more essential to the health of a
democracy than caring citizens? Yet explicitly teaching "caring" rarely
goes beyond kindergarten. In schools obsessed with teaching "technical"
knowledge and questions with single correct answers, the idea of
teaching children and young adults to care is seen as not being
sufficiently "rigorous." Rather than being applauded as essential to
nurturing empathetic and thoughtful people, caring is considered a
"touchy-feely" hindrance to preparing workers who can win the game of
Each day 30,000 children die
from poverty. Half of our planet--that's three billion people--lives on
less than two dollars a day. Recently we celebrated our new millennium,
yet the century we left behind was easily the bloodiest and most
horrific in human history. We say we must teach about the Holocaust so
that we never forget, yet since the defeat of the Nazis we have
witnessed at least half a dozen more genocides. It certainly seems the
more "civilized" we become as a species, the more brutal we become as
people. What does the 21st century hold in store for us? Will we
survive? What are schools doing to improve our chances?
literacy. In 2001 Ari Fleischer, President Bush's press secretary at
the time, held a White House press briefing on American energy issues
that included the following exchange with a reporter:
Question: Is one of the problems with this, and the entire energy field, American lifestyles? Does the President believe that, given the amount of energy Americans consume per capita, how much it exceeds any other citizen in any other country in the world, does the President believe we need to correct our lifestyles to address the energy problem?
Mr. Fleischer: That's a big no. The President believes that it's an American way of life, and that it should be the goal of policy makers to protect the American way of life. The American way of life is a blessed one. (21)
there is anything that should be ripe for critical inquiry inside our
schools, it is the "American way of life" and its effect on the
environment. School should be the primary place we engage children in a
collective critique of how we live. There are serious global
consequences to our "blessed" American way of life. Yet once again,
rather than helping children to analyze how we live, our schools
actuallyperpetuate--even advocate--the unquestioned habits of our daily
An honest study of the environment would
address one of the gravest dangers to our planet: rampant consumerism.
Rather than teaching consumerism as simply the good engine of economic
growth, we should engage children in inquiry about how we spend and
what we buy--both individually and collectively--and the moral and
ecological implications of our actions.
also must get kids outside. I don't mean just at recess. I mean that we
must take children outside to experience nature. Schools should accept
the responsibility of having their students walk through forests, look
at clouds, feel the desert, wade through streams, canoe rivers, and
witness our astonishing ecosystems. The best field trip I took my
students on was to see the sunrise. My school was just a 20-minute walk
away from Lake Michigan, and about a hundred of us--kids, teachers,
some parents, a few dogs--gathered at school at 5:30 on a dark, crisp
morning to walk to the beach. It was extraordinary watching the sun
lift over the horizon.
Multicultural community. It
is essential for our schools to accepttheir role in healing our
cultural divides. Race, culture, and economic class are some of the
most dominant themes in the story of our nation, and they fuel
violence, perpetuate inequality, and tear our social fabric.
our country there are schools that make multicultural education a
priority. But what makes a curriculum multicultural? We must move far
beyond simplistic notions of teaching about holidays and food. Teaching
children to appreciate cultural differences is important, but that
alone will never help us to embrace diversity. Any curriculum that does
not study prejudice in all its forms--at the individual, systemic,
national, and global levels--and that does not explicitly teach to end
intolerance is not a multicultural curriculum.
responsibility. Sheldon Berman defines social responsibility as "the
personal investment in the well-being of others and the planet." (22)
This notion is connected to teaching caring and empathy. To accept
stewardship of the planet and its ecosystems, as well as a personal
responsibility toward all peoples of the planet, we must livefor the
common good over our individual gain. Needless to say, this orientation
is usually the opposite of the American way of life, which is dominated
by this axiom: Who dies with the most toys wins. Social responsibility
means understanding that a democracy is not just about our rights but
equally about our responsibilities.
social responsibility is the job of all teachers, it is the direct duty
of social studies teachers. Unfortunately, perhaps more than any other
school subject, the social studies are dominated by textbooks, which do
an outstanding job of teaching students that studying history,
democracy, citizenship, our Constitution, and theworld and its peoples
is boring and irrelevant.
Nearly half a century ago
Shirley Engle published his seminal article, "Decision Making: The
Heart of Social Studies Instruction," which condemned textbook- and
rote-memorization-driven social studies and advocated a curriculum that
prepares children to participate in the everyday decision making
necessary to a healthy democracy. (23) Little has changed in our
schools in the intervening years.
From the day we
are born, we learn to conform to social norms. We are inundated with
conscious and subconscious expectations for how we should behave and
what we should believe. Certainly, some of these expectations are
necessary to live in a civilized society. But many become unquestioned
truths, dictating what is "normal" and "correct." School should be the
place where all citizens are helped to question assumptions. Teaching
for social responsibility is about providing children with the skills,
knowledge, and dispositions to critique today's society and to work for
a better world. But how can we inspire students to work for a better
world without schools that help children tohonestly investigate the
world and the country we have?
nonviolence. Violence is as American as apple pie. In 2005 there were
nearly 1.4 million violent crimes in our nation, including 16,700
murders, 863,000 aggravated assaults, 417,000 robberies, 94,000
reported rapes, and 64,000 acts of arson. (24) The U.S. has more than
two million of its citizens in prison, a much higher percentage than in
any other democracy. There is no democracy in the world as violent as
ours. Yet our curricula pretend we live in Shangrila. Open an
eighth-grade social studies textbook, and you will not see one word
about crime, violence, or our criminal justice crisis. A more peaceful
nation will not happen by magic. If we want caring and less violent
communities, then our schools must teach for caring and nonviolence.
planet is ravaged by war. And though it can seem that we are powerless
to alleviate this condition, our schools can do a great deal. By
awakening children's consciousness to the brutal realities and
psychologies of war, we can encourage them to make more peaceful
decisions, arouse their compassion for the victims of war, and help
them to make connections between personal actions and world violence.
We can also help them to understand propaganda and hypocrisy. Yet once
again our social studies textbooks are silent. In the 956-page
eighth-grade textbook Creating America, "war" is mentioned throughout
the index, yet the word "peace" is entirely absent, and "pacifist" is
listed just once--in reference to the Quakers during the American
Revolution. (25) We will never create a more harmonious world by
ignoring the realities of violence and war and silencing those who have
worked for peace throughout history.
literacy. The typical American 8- to 18-year-old interacts with media
for six hours 21 minutes per day. For a quarter of that time, he or she
is media multitasking (e.g., on the Internet while listening to music),
which increases the daily media time to eight hours 33 minutes. Of that
time, about three hours is spent watching TV, which increases to four
hours a day when DVDs, videos, and recorded showsare included. The
typical American youth spends an average of one hour 44 minutes
listening to the radio, CDs, tapes, and MP3 players andis on a computer
for a little more than an hour (not including schoolwork). He or she
plays video games for about 50 minutes a day. American children spend
more time each week with media than they do in school. (26) In one year
an American child will see 20,000 television commercials. By the time
American children are 18 years old, they will have seen 200,000 acts of
violence on TV, including 16,000 murders. By the time they are 70, they
will have spent seven to 10 years watching television. (27) American
adults watch nearly three hours of television a day and get the
majority of their "news" from TV.
operate as if none of the above were happening. Though media have
overwhelming power in every aspect of our lives (including our obesity
epidemic), I rarely meet a child or an adolescent who has participated
in any in-depth study of media in school.
literacy gives us the skills and knowledge we need to critique what we
see and hear. To ignore the media in our schools is to perpetuate an
ignorant and disempowered citizenry.
awareness. How much do Americans know about the rest of the world? How
much do Americans care about the rest of the world? Here's an example
from my son's school district. Out of the 13 years of the Chicago
Public Schools' required K-12 social studies curriculum, only two years
have any focus on global knowledge. And in one of those years (sixth
grade), that global knowledge is limited almost entirely to ancient
history. (28) That leaves just one year of high school--180 days out of
13 years in school--for my son to explore the life and people and
problems in the entire rest of the world. Should we be surprised that
in a recent study 63% of Americans aged 18 to 24 could not find Iraq on
a map, and this was after three years of war and 2,400 American
soldiers killed? (29) There is only one solution to this crime of
rampant educational nationalism. Every school year in every grade
should have a global curriculum.
How can our
citizens possibly make decisions on American foreign policies--from
economic aid to human rights, from such health crises as AIDS in Africa
to the most serious decision of all, going to war--if they have so
little understanding of the world? The United States is seen as the
"leader of the free world," wielding a mighty military presence and
controlling unimaginable wealth. With that power comes responsibility
for us, "the people," to be involved. And of course, our daily
decisions--the cars we drive, the food we eat, the stuff we buy--have a
direct impact on the health and well-being of complete strangers across
Creativity and imagination. Our schools
do a negligible job in thevisual, musical, and dramatic arts. But
creativity and imagination are not just about art and aesthetics. For
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, "Creativity" (with a "big C") is about using
innovative thinking that nurtures cultural change. While some schools
encourage their students to "be creative," most schools do little, if
anything at all, to helpchildren think creatively. Based on his
interviews with people who are considered to have some of the best
minds, Csikszentmihalyi writes:
It is quite strange how little effect school--even high school--seems to have had on the lives of creative people. Often one senses that, if anything, school threatened to extinguish the interest and curiosity that the child had discovered outside its walls. (30)
Elliot Eisner, one of our grand advocates for the arts in school, connects the arts to inquiry and lifelong learning:
The sense of vitality and the surge of emotion we feel when touched by one of the arts can also be secured in the ideas we explore with students, in the challenges we encounter in doing critical inquiry, and in the appetite for learning we stimulate. In the long run, these are the satisfactions that matter most because they are the only ones that ensure, if it can be ensured at all, that what we teach students will want to pursue voluntarily after the artificial incentives so ubiquitous in our schools are long forgotten. (31)
Greene sees the arts as encouraging schools to teach socialimagination,
which she defines as "the capacity to invent visions ofwhat should be
and what might be in our deficient society, on the streets where we
live, and in our schools." (32) By helping children develop social
imagination, we give them the skills, civic courage, andboldness to
envision a better world. If we want better communities--from the local
to the global--then we must help children to imagine abetter world so
that we can act together to make that world a reality.
family, food, and happiness. There are few things more central to our
daily lives than money, family, and food. Yet our schools pretty much
ignore all of them. Nel Noddings writes, "Why do we insist on teaching
all children algebra and teach them almost nothing about what it means
to make a home?" (33) Sure, units on "family" and "money" are taught in
the early grades, but when do children study any of them in depth? When
do they investigate them from critical and moral perspectives? To truly
educate children on these issues would require exploring such questions
as: Why do some people and countries haveso much money and others have
so little? Do those with a lot of money have any responsibility to
those in poverty? What is life like for the poor? How much money will
make me happy? What does "family" mean?Why do the people we love often
cause us frustration? Where does ourfood come from? Why does our
country eat so much unhealthy food? Howhas industrial farming changed
Why don't our schools engage children
in investigating and debating questions about our present and future
well-being? Imagine a teacher first having her students write about and
debate such questions andthen having them interview senior citizens or
genocide survivors or war veterans on these same issues. Jonathan Cohen
writes that an essential factor in our well-being and happiness is
"finding a sense of meaning and purpose in life." (34) An aim our
schools should embrace is to help our children articulate the meanings
of their lives.
SCHOOLING FOR HUMAN BEINGS
can be overwhelming to see how much indispensable knowledge is not part
of going to school for the vast majority of American children. Yet my
list is far from complete. There is much that we can add toit.
schools present an even greater insult to our children. Manyof our
schools do not allow children to play. All across our country, recess
has become endangered. This happens far more often in our urban
schools. Only 18% of Chicago Public Schools have daily scheduled
recess, and only 6% of those schools have recess for at least 20
minutes. (35) Why, in a six- to seven-hour day, do so many schools deny
children a chance to relax and play? Because there is no play in the
world of work!
As I look at our schools today, I
don't think we have any right tocall what goes on there "education." If
we were honest, it would be called "work training." If we want the
right to claim that we are educating children, then we must honor them
as unique people and make dramatic changes to our curricula.
am not naive about the political realities of actually teaching much of
the content I advocate here. Many people--including some of my
education students--say we can't teach this content because it's "too
political" or because "schools can't teach morals." But our current
school curricula are not somehow magically apolitical and morally
neutral. How can a nationwide system of education that
unquestioningly adopts economic purposes for schooling not be up to its
neck in political and moral beliefs?
inherently has moral and political dimensions because someone has to
choose what will be official school knowledge. The moment a teacher,
school board, or textbook publisher chooses knowledge to teach and to
test, a political and moral decision has been made.Having
eighth-graders debate genetic engineering or gay marriage is no more
value-laden than having a spelling bee--because by choosing to have a
spelling bee, we are choosing not to use that time to teach about peace
or global poverty.
Given that our schools have a
finite amount of time and that our teachers are already stressed with
overstuffed curricula, how are we supposed to find the time to teach
the content I'm advocating? There are at least three ways to make this
content an important part of school. First, teachers can teach this
knowledge through the content and disciplines they are already
teaching. By teaching about cultural understanding in social studies
and global awareness through young adultliterature, we will not only
bring greater and more authentic purposes to those disciplines, but we
will be making them infinitely more interesting to students. For
example, when students learn to make graphs, they could graph real data
about crime and the U.S. prison system, read multiple texts, engage in
debate, and perhaps take some form of civic action. By combining
disciplines into integrated inquiry-based units, we can help children
make dynamic connections across the curriculum.
this content can be taught as separate inquiry-based units. This means
making choices. It means eliminating some of the existing curriculum.
This wouldn't be difficult; there is plenty filling ourchildren's
school day that is superficial, damaging to the human spirit, and
simply unnecessary. By opening up just one hour a day, we can rotate
through teacher-created inquiry units on the environment, media, peace,
multicultural community, and so on. Imagine entire schools having
exhibitions and presentations at the end of each quarter to share their
students' intellectual and creative work on such important issues.
third, schools can create entirely new classes to teach this content.
Why do schools almost universally limit classes to the standardized
math and history and language arts? Surely we can be more creative. How
about classes called "What Is Justice?" or "Who Am I?" or "Media and
Power"? And how about having electives throughout K-12 schooling?
Schools could give students choices among a variety of electives each
quarter, such as yoga or documentary photography. Of course, some
schools already have classes such as these, but they usually areafter
school when they should be school. As Stephen Thornton writes,"If we
take seriously the claim that education is supposed to prepare each
young person to realize his or her own potentiality, given their
different interests, aptitudes, and aspirations, how can a standardized
curriculum be justified?" (36)
So why go to school?
We can no longer tinker with a broken and inhuman paradigm of
schooling. We must stop schooling our children as ifthey were products
and reclaim our schools as sacred places for human beings. We must
rethink our classrooms as vibrant spaces that awaken consciousness to
the world, open minds to the problems of our humancondition, inspire
wonder, and help people to lead personally fulfilling lives. If our
democracy is to thrive, our schools must change into these exciting
spaces. Otherwise, we will not be a democracy "of the people," but a
corporate nation of workers, TV viewers, and shoppers. As professional
educators, it is our responsibility to challenge our curricula and to
create schools that are personally and socially trans-formative. That's
why we should go to school.
1. National Center for Education Statistics, "National Assessment of Adult Literacy," available at http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/2006/section2/indicator20.asp. See also Bureau of Labor Statistics, "American Time Use Survey," available at www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/atus.pdf.
2. John I. Goodlad, A Place Called School (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984), p. 242.
3. John Dewey, Experience and Education (New York: Collier, 1938),p. 49.
John Kornfeld and Jesse Goodman, "Melting the Glaze: Exploring Student
Responses to Liberatory Social Studies," Theory Into Practice, vol. 37,
1998, p. 309.
5. Nel Noddings, Happiness and Education (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 4.
National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk
(Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983), available at
7. Tamar Lewin, "As Math Scores Lag, a New Push for the Basics," New York Times, 14 November 2006, pp. A-1, A-22.
8. Claudia Wallis and Sonja Steptoe, "How to Bring Our Schools Outof the 20th Century," Time, 18 December 2006, pp. 50-56.
9. Noddings, p. 4.
10. Data available at www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/FactSheets/FS_Youth_Voting_72-04.pdf and at www.civicyouth.org/PopUps/FactSheets/FSMidterm06.pdf.
11. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, "Youth Civic Engagement," available at www.civicyouth.org/research/products/fact_sheets_outside2.htm.
12. David T. Z. Mindich, Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don't Follow the News (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
13. Zogby International, available at www.zogby.com/templates/printsb.cfm?id=13498.
Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1984). Frances Moore Lappe calls it "living democracy." John
Dewey called it "creative democracy." You can read his essay "Creative
Democracy--The Task Before Us" at www.beloit.edu/~pbk/dewey.html.
15. Susan Adler, "Creating Public Spaces in the Social Studies Classroom," Social Education, February 2001, pp. 6-7, 68-71.
Alex Molnar, "Are the Is sues Studied in School the Most Important
Issues Facing Mankind?," Social Education, May 1983, pp. 305-8.
17. Patrick Shannon, Text, Lies, & Videotape (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1995), p. xi.
18. David Orr, "Educating for the Environment," Change, May 1995, p. 45.
19. Steven Wolk, A Democratic Classroom (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1998).
20. Nel Noddings, The Challenge to Care in Schools (New York: Teachers College Press, 1992).
21. Ari Fleischer, press briefing, 7 May 2001, available at www.whitehouse.gov/news/briefings/20010507.html.
Sheldon Berman, Children's Social Consciousness and the Development of
Social Responsibility (Albany: State University of New York Press,
23. Shirley H. Engle, "Decision Making: The Heart of Social Studies Instruction," Social Education, November 1960, pp. 301-6.
24. Federal Bureau of Investigation, "Crime in the United States 2005," available at www.fbi.gov/ucr/05cius.
25. Jesus Garcia et al., Creating America: A History of the UnitedStates (Evanston, Ill.: McDougal Littell, 2005).
26. Henry K. Kaiser Family Foundation, "Generation M: Media in theLives of 8-18 Year-Olds," March 2005, available at: www.kff.org/entmedia/entmedia030905pkg.cfm.
27. American Academy of Pediatrics, available at www.aap.org.
28. Chicago Public Schools, "Social Science Standards," available at http://intranet.cps.k12.il.us/Standards/CAS/CAS_Social_Science/cas_social_science.html.
29. "Study: Geography Greek to Young Americans," 4 May 2006, available at www.cnn.com/2006/EDUCATION/05/02/geog.test.
30. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 173.
31. Elliot Eisner, "What Can Education Learn from the Arts?," Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, vol. 18, 2002, pp. 14-15.
Maxine Greene, Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education,the Arts,
and Social Change (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995), p. 5.
33. Noddings, Happiness and Education, p. 5.
Jonathan Cohen, "Social, Emotional, Ethical, and Academic Education:
Creating a Climate for Learning, Participation in Democracy, and
Well-Being," Harvard Educational Review, vol. 76, 2006, pp. 201-37.
35. Elizabeth Duffrin, "Survey: Recess, Gym Shortchanged," Catalyst, October 2005, available at www.catalyst-chicago.org/news/index.php?item=1775&cat=30.
Stephen J. Thornton, "Forum: What Should Schools Teach? What Should All
High School Students Learn?," Journal of Curriculum and Supervision,
vol. 16, 2001, p. 131.
STEVEN WOLK is an associate professor in the Teacher Education Department at Northeastern Illinois University, Chicago (e-mail: S-Wolk@neiu.edu).