An Open Letter to America's Educators and Policy Makers
Dear Educators and Policy Makers,
I began my teaching career in 1979. As a young musician who loved artistic expression, I wanted everyone I encountered to recognize beauty. I wanted people everywhere to be able to sense beauty, feel beauty, appreciate beauty as an energy that lifted their dreams, their hopes and possibilities. I wanted people to be able to create beauty all around them.
Looking back now, I suppose I was a very optimistic young man. I had learned as a very, very young child how to perform and compose music that would welcome people, thousands and thousands of people, into an artistic expression of beauty that made them all happier. The arts inspire the very best in people for the arts put people in touch with their emotive and empathetic humanity. I've found that words can sometimes fail us in this regard.
Carl Jung reminds us that "Emotion is the chief source of becoming conscious. There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion." This fundamental human capacity, to be empathetic, to be emotive, inspires and uplifts humanity to a better place, creates hope, and empowers possibility. This is the substance of vision. The quantification of this most powerful, yet invisible force, is impossible. But you know it when you feel it. It connects you more deeply to yourself and to those around you.
When I became a teacher, and later a school administrator, I did so in a time and in several working environments that valued, even celebrated more than just cognitive achievement and skill building. I was so blessed to have had the opportunity to invest my best efforts in places that placed at least as much value on taking care of people, of being empathetic, of empowering others to flourish. I alluded briefly to this in the Middle School Journal last year. The middle school movement in the United States as well as the emphasis on a Liberal Arts education places at least as much importance on developing the whole person as preparing each person for gainful employment. What a rich heritage from which public education comes.
But times have changed. The corporate business model which formerly placed great value on taking care of dedicated employees (pensions, retirements, health insurance) has given way to a punishing eye on the bottom line with outsourcing to cheaper labor markets. Customer services has gone the way of advertising slogans and PR campaigns. The one thing that matters above all else isn't empathy or social justice but is margins.
To my great concern, I have seen the impact of this market place mentality driven solely by profits, by numbers, take needless, high stakes risks with our earth and with the people who live on it. This singular and systematic way of thinking, this razor sharp focus on the bottom line, on data, on margins has strangled our hearts, has crushed our emotive resonance, has debilitated our capacity for empathy. This new way of being has, like a cancer, eaten away our humanity.
In a restaurant a few months ago I overheard a man, sitting at the next table to me, say to his dinner companion, "You know, I really like [so and so], but then, that's just one data point." I was shocked. I can't imagine anyone from my father's generation or his father's generation ever saying such a thing. They genuinely cared about people.
Now, even the institution of public education in our country, so intimately linked to the very fabric of democracy itself, is withering under this same austere way of bottom line, numbers-driven thinking that has brought our country into this great economic depression and that, even more recently, has created the greatest environmental catastrophe our nation has ever known. No Child Left Behind. Race to the Top. Data-driven decision making. All of this misses our core value and responsibility: taking care of people!
As an artist, I will always believe that numbers can only quantify and explicate. They rarely tell the full story. They can't emote. They can't be empathetic.
About a month ago, in a flurry of reading, I came across a great quotation: Not data-driven decision making but data-informed decision making. That really spoke to me. We need people-driven decision making, which is the heart and soul of public education. I have personally witnessed data-driven decision making be the excuse to treat people without the kindness and dignity all people deserve.
We need to return to placing empowering people as our top priority. We are currently in a stupor. Our hearts have gone to sleep. We need to wake up, as Jung said, "become conscious" again. We need to embrace people and not just making a living. This is not just a federal educational policy issue that is now being even more deeply forced into the state educational policy and legal structures through Race to the Top. This is a broad American cultural issue. We need to value people more than profit and things.
Institutional memory is very, very short. And while I spent the vast majority of my career thriving in a public educational system that valued children as people, the whole child, who need to develop socially, soulfully, and academically, I worry that in the very near future, public school educators will think that school has always been and should always be about test scores and minimal academic achievement benchmarks, about data-driven decision making. Educators will think they have done a good job when they have merely taken care of the numbers.
Our nation must put people over profit. We must put children over data. We must return to an empathy that empowers us to be our best selves--to be fully human. To do less than this will be to plunge our nation into a deep darkness that will be astoundingly profitable for a very few but tremendously hurtful for us all. The economic and environmental catastrophes we have recently witnessed will have become "the good ole days."