An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth

Questions about student happiness are neither rhetorical nor frivolous

Susan Ohanian recently wrote an article for The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate ("What Schools Need Is a Happiness Index") in which she advanced the radical idea that schools should be happy places where children learn. Ohanian disputes the notion that the Founding Fathers believed happiness should be pursued everywhere-except school. One reader responded that American students are on a "happiness trip" and are coddled into believing that being "fat, lazy and happy" is just fine. There is just "too much happiness in our schools," he said.

Is unhappiness a key to academic success? No credible learning or management theory suggests that fearful, unhappy or insecure people are more productive. Common sense and countless studies demonstrate that love is a better master than duty.

For example, one popular yet wrong view of education suggests that school is a child's "job." This reduces learners to forced unpaid workers, as they do piecework in the name of higher standards, competitiveness and accountability.

No learning theory suggests that fearful or insecure people are more productive.

What would Charles Dickens or Upton Sinclair say about today's score-obsessed classrooms? Oh, I forgot. Dickens isn't on the test, but gerunds and capitalization rules are, and literature is instead relegated to testing isolated grammatical skills.

Now this is personal

My fourth grade nephew "Doogie" once loved school. In fact, I found his affection for the place a bit unnerving. He is the type of kid who goes to school while ill because he wants to maintain perfect attendance-even if that accomplishment is unmentioned. He reads voraciously and last year collaborated with a handful of other third-graders on the writing of a mock trial that won statewide awards. They even performed in front of actual judges at the state's law school.

Doogie no longer loves school. His teacher is mean, the homework seems excessive and pointless, his classroom is punitive and grades are dispensed like food pellets to Skinnerian pigeons. Recess is a foreign concept.

I bought a trumpet for Doogie so he could play in the school band, an educational activity I value. The teacher announced on the first day of band class, "You must practice 30 minutes four times per week, and if your parent doesn't sign a document verifying that you practiced, you will fail band!" What a way to inspire kids, and in their first class Mr. Holland!

If a parent-or even a student-asks why school suddenly appears so stressful, illogical or mean-spirited, the answer is simple: "It's fourth grade!" Why does my kid hate school? It's fourth grade. Why does everyone fear the teacher? It's fourth grade. Why has creativity disappeared? It's fourth grade.

"It's fourth grade" is supposed to connote some meaning-that the dominant curriculum for fourth grade is misery.

Higher standards

Although I'm against uniform one-size-fits-all standards, I believe that we can all raise our game. Fourth- graders should read great literature, speak coherently, solve problems, express ideas through a variety of media, program computers, edit video, interpret and understand information found on the Web and in print. They should play an instrument, speak a second language and develop skills necessary to participate in a democracy.

Paradoxically, the same adults who destroyed the timeless liberal arts tradition in schools sacrificed many of those "standards" at the altar of accountability and unhappiness. If schools are failing, each school employee who advances such nonsense weakens support for public education and advances the pernicious curriculum of misery and helplessness. The Flip Wilson defense of "The devil made me do it" is unacceptable. I therefore share Ohanian's contention that too many classrooms have become unhappy places. Isn't it time we did something about it?

Gary S. Stager, gary@stager.org, is senior editor of District Administration and editor of The Pulse: Education's Place for Debate (www.districtadministration.com/pulse).


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