When I talk about the education issue that I believe is the most critical, I almost expect to have a drumroll before and a cymbal crash after. But the words are anticlimactic, and I haven't come up with a phrase that matches, in a soundbite, the monumental nature of the change I want. I call it this: "Respect the wishes and needs of children." I also call it this: "Teach children what they most want to know." Or: "Seek the passions (gifts, strengths) of every child, then help him or her pursue them."
Since we've been parents, my husband and I have been fascinated by the issue of authority: what it is that bestows it on one person or a group of people, and how it is used. Adults have a position of natural authority over children, and that is appropriate. Adults are the guides and protectors of children. But why does authority sometimes morph to authoritarianism? What is the difference? We as adults come by our authority over children through our age and experience, and also through the love we have for them. Why turn that into the baseball bat of authoritarianism?
My father frequently quotes his own father, with great irony and derision, "Children should be seen and not heard." The natural authority of a parent can take a wrong turn to authoritarianism, but why? Because we fear losing it. Dictators have the same problem. We fear what will go wrong if you clear the way for those subordinate to you, open a path where they can roam freely.
But if you were not a dictator, why would your subjects rebel against you?
Allowing children to pursue their passions, exposing them to new things, providing a wonderful candy store of ideas and places and people and giving them everything they need to select what makes them happy: how is that giving up our authority? You don't lose anything when you respect the wishes and needs of children. You gain their returned respect. The great guru of attachment parenting, Dr. Sears, said it this way: "When you meet the primal needs of children, they will respect your authority, because they want to please you." Forgive the paraphrase. It's not a sentiment I've ever forgotten.
That is the first task of the educator. Once that two-way respect is established, you have something else, too: trust. The trusting relationship between those in authority and their subordinates makes that division nearly superfluous. Students will obey teachers out of respect. Teachers respect students for their own ideas, strengths and passions, and because the act of teaching nourishes them. It's a circle; without that respect and trust at every point, the circle gets broken and education stops.
But -- how can I say that? That is tantamount to claiming that no education takes place in our schools right now. Do I go so far as to say that teachers aren't teaching and kids aren't learning? Not completely. There is as much learning going on as can be under the despotic rule over what is taught, and how. We can see very clearly the various ways that an imposed curriculum fails to engage, and disengaged children fail to succeed.
We need schools where the quest to fulfill the passions of each child is the first task, the next task, and the last task. It may not fit on a bumper sticker, but it should be ready on our lips: above all else, respect the wishes and needs of children.