Let’s not harden our schools


The more you whine, the more I assign.

This past weekend, we were in the Science Museum of Virginia, in a lab, attending a demonstration of a dissection of a cow’s eye. My son and my daughter sat in the front row next to two of their friends. While preparing the demonstration, the teacher began chatting with the kids. He asked where they went to school and they responded. The conversation turned to homework. My son, as is his wont, asserted that he is morally opposed to homework; he genuinely believes that homework invades his privacy and his rights as a child. The teacher was, naturally, a bit stunned by this pronouncement, but smiled. His verbal response, though, is one I won’t soon forget. He told my son that he wouldn’t have made it in his class, adding the quote you see above.

My son was stunned and saddened. He got up, screamed a few words, and walked out of the lab crying.

My son is 12 years-old. He is on the autism spectrum. He is beautifully neurodivergent. This teacher called him a whiner.

What if school was the best 7 hours of a kids day?

That question is often asked by my friend and colleague, Dr. Gary Stager.

It’s a good question; perhaps the best one we could ask. What if?

What if schools were places of boundless joy?

What if schools caused kids to endlessly wonder?

What if kids woke up every morning eager to go to school?

In the wake of the recent tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the rhetorical response from President Trump (and the NRA) has been that we need to “harden” our schools. The president has stated his support for effectively repealing the Gun-Free School Zones Act and for providing bonuses to “gun adept” educators. “Armed Educators” is an actual term he used on Twitter the other day.

This language of hardening our schools is language the NRA uses too. Last week, at CPAC, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre said that communities “must come together to implement the very best strategy to harden their schools.”

The NRA’s plan to “harden” schools is terrifying.

It’s also not new. After Sandy Hook, the NRA issued a 225-page National School Shield Task Force report. That was 5 years ago.

But, that’s not the beginning of our efforts to “harden” schools.

I argue that we have been “hardening” our schools for the last few decades. The standards and accountability era has hardened our schools. Schools are now places where kids are pawns in a game where schools “race to the top.” Kids are tested, sorted, tracked and tested. Again and again.

And before the standards and accountability era, schools were sorting mechanisms. Popularity contests have almost always been school policy. “Most likely to succeed.” Prom “kings and queens.” Students of the week/month. etc.

And we wonder why kids act out.

‘This kid gets bullied a lot, someone should do something,’ ” said student Manolo Alvarez, 17, who had history class with Cruz. “I regret definitely not saying anything.”

Cruz — at 5-foot-7 and 120 pounds — was scrawny, and rarely, if ever, felt comfortable with other kids, either in his Parkland neighborhood or at Stoneman Douglas, according to Paul Gold, who lived next door to the Cruz family and remained in touch with Nikolas up until his mother’s funeral in November.

Cruz had been diagnosed with the neurological disorder autism.

Those are quotes from a Miami Herald article about Nicholas Cruz, the shooter at Stoneman Douglas.

Scrawny. Bullied. Uncomfortable around other kids. Autistic.

And, yet, let’s look at the language President Trump and others are using to describe Cruz.

Deranged. Madman. Murderer.

They say that school shootings are a mental health issue, not a guns issue. And then they use language like that to describe psychologically-damaged young people. How is that helping? If, like Nicholas Cruz, a young person feels bullied and disconnected, are they to believe that they might be “deranged?”

We are not just hardening our schools, we are hardening our rhetoric.

Whither compassion? Am I soft on crime if I ask why we can’t view Nicholas Cruz with compassion?

It’s no surprise, really, that this language of hardening our schools would come from a wanna-be authoritarian like Donald J. Trump.

Then in the early 1990s, a political scientist named Stanley Feldman changed everything. Feldman, a professor at SUNY Stonybrook, believed authoritarianism could be an important factor in American politics in ways that had nothing to do with fascism, but that it could only reliably be measured by unlinking it from specific political preferences.

He realized that if authoritarianism were a personality profile rather than just a political preference, he could get respondents to reveal these tendencies by asking questions about a topic that seemed much less controversial. He settled on something so banal it seems almost laughable: parenting goals.

Feldman developed what has since become widely accepted as the definitive measurement of authoritarianism: four simple questions that appear to ask about parenting but are in fact designed to reveal how highly the respondent values hierarchy, order, and conformity over other values.

  1. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

Feldman’s test proved to be very reliable. There was now a way to identify people who fit the authoritarian profile, by prizing order and conformity, for example, and desiring the imposition of those values.

Respect for elders. Obedience. Well-behaved. Good manners. Sound familiar? Sound like schooling in the modern era?

Independence. Self-reliance. Considerate. Curiosity. What if, instead, these were the outcomes we valued from schooling?

The great irony, of course, is that this is exactly what the Science Museum of Virginia embodies. Please don’t let that one teacher’s words and actions color your view of the museum as a whole. We are members and have been for years. It is a space for learning; a place of wonder and curiosity. I want more schools to be like the Science Museum of Virginia. I want fewer teachers saying “the more you whine, the more I assign.

Maybe if school had been less “hard,” less authoritarian, Nicholas Cruz would have taken a different path.

Let’s not make schools more prison-like. Let’s make schools places of joy, of wonder, of curiosity, of COMPASSION. Let’s make schools the best 7 hours of a kid’s day.

2 thoughts on “Let’s not harden our schools”

  1. Wenger OUT!!! I”m sorry,Good luck Harry ! and if and when you make it to the 1st team (whether next season or the next 10) You will come across a grey, gaunt human-ish looking character who possesses unbelievable power that defies his meger, scrawny frame. Be polite to him. Nod at everything he tells you. But please Harry, please do not absorb his words. It”s the only way for a young man to survive here.

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