There's a question that's been nagging at me for months and months, starting at the end of last school year, persisting at times through the summer, and now louder and clearer with a new school year under way. It's been a hard one for me to voice because I'm keen on focusing on what I can control and keeping an eye on the bright side.
But it's hard to ignore vignettes like these:
A colleague in Columbus, OH, in tears as she describes the cost to her personal life that her professional dedication has incurred. She was in a session I led on the three disciplines of time management, and she was crying tears of relief at the idea that she's not been crazy to think that maybe doing more isn't doing better. It's amazing how much of the research and wisdom on living the well-led life (and building the well-led career) sings to the harmony of doing less but better. It's one of those hard candy truisms — you mull them over, work at them, relish them for a long time rather than chomping into them in one bite. It can be bitter, too — especially when you're an American educator with twice the instructional contact hours of a Finnish teacher and double the pressure to improve scores on tests.
A student, looking bored to tears despite my best teaching efforts in a unit on the causes and effects of global conflict in the twentieth century. I pulled him into the hallway for a moment of genuine connection, asking him whether he had applied to a program in our county that allows tenth graders to pursue various career/tech skills in a project-based environment.
“Dan, have you applied to that program yet?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “A friend of my sister said that she was in the program, and that the program wasn't that good.”
“Dan, who is the friend?”
“Um. I don't know. I can't remember her name.”
“Dan, are you happy in school right now? Do you find any of it interesting?”
“Did the friend of your sister say what she didn't like about the program?”
“Um, no. Just, it's not that good.”
“So Dan, your choices next year are more of what you're currently unhappy doing — six classes per day, every day, for 180 days — or something new, something out of the building, with these different multidisciplinary units and a teacher who cares. Help me understand, Dan, why this unnamed person's vaguely poor review of the program is keeping you from applying.”
Another student, this one sobbing. She's overwhelmed by the stress of school and by her parents' stress of school. They want her to do well, so they require that she not have zeroes in any of her classes. She gets overwhelmed with all her work for her different classes, so she keeps getting in trouble, and she keeps getting her video game system taken away — her one escape. Plus, she admits she's not sleeping enough. She gets lulled into late hours by video games at night and afternoon napping when she's home from school. (And our school, like many secondary schools, starts an hour before basic science says it should.)
“All of it's an escape,” she sniffles. “I know that. But sometimes it's just nice to get away from this pressure, from being forced to take all these classes. I just want to get a job and be done.”
The late Austrian management philosopher Peter Drucker had this fascinating question beneath his sixty-year career as a writer and thinker. (You might remember that Drucker gave us the successful v. useful article some months ago.)
Drucker's career question was simple, beautiful, and difficult:
How do we make society both more productive and more humane?
(For that last word — humane — let's use the Late Middle English sense of the word: “human.”)
Did you do what I did — automatically turn Drucker's question toward our schools? And I can't help but react with a fallen face. It's not just that we seem more and more accustomed to sacrificing our humanity on the altar of productivity. It's that we've been doing it for so long that we hardly know what being human even is.
So let us face the brutal facts. Drucker is right: when we pursue the productivity of our schools without keeping in view their humanity, we chase the wind at great expense. In the short term, let's keep in view that there is much to celebrate in the daily acts of education that you and I carry out.
But in the long term, let's be thinking: what does it mean to make schools that are truly productive — not of mere scores, but of mature human beings who are capable of constructing flourishing lives?