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Children and Power

Governor Patrick released a set of new strategies to close persistent performance gaps in education as a summit at UMass Boston. Unfortunately, it represents more of the same fundamentally wrong-headed approach that education has increasingly adopted in our country: it treats students as the product of the system, rather than participants or partners. Our educational system has become a place where compliance is valued over creativity and passion. Worst of all, it fails to empower our children.

Few adults would tolerate being treated the way we treat children. Few adults would consent to this kind of regime: having their waking hours regulated by a series of bells, being required to ask permission to stand or use the bathroom, being given hours of tedious drudgery to perform every day -- drudgery that didn't really matter -- that will just be marked up with a red pen and then thrown in the trash. Why do children put up with that? Why do we tell them they should accept that? What does it teach them that these are the expectations we set for them?

Some people will say that there are developmental differences that require children to be treated in this way. Or that they need to be taught certain things before they can take charge of their own learning or do anything interesting. These are false -- and demonstrably false. Children that do take charge of their own learning can be remarkably successful: many entrepreneurs (most recently Steve Jobs) cite dropping out of school to pursue their own interests as providing the key insights that led to their success. How many children's gifts are wasted because they never realize the prison that is cunningly woven around then beginning with preschool and kindergarten.

I saw it most clearly when my second son started kindergarten -- and my older boy was in fourth grade. In kindergarten, we start teaching children to wear chains: to stand in line, to ask permission, to respond to authority. The chains aren't pulled tight, but children get used to hearing them jingle as they run. By fourth grade, the chains are pulled in tight, locking them into their chairs.

When my younger son was in fifth grade, we had a particularly clueless teacher. Even though the school day didn't start until 8:40, she required students that arrived before then, to sit in their seats and do worksheets. My son, having a clue, refused to arrive to arrive before 8:40. Why would anyone willingly subject themselves to such a regime? And when he refused to do his homework, she kept him in from recess week after week, even though she admitted that he could easily pass the tests that the homework was supposedly practice for.

There are unquestionably developmental differences between children and adults, but the largest differences in our society are cultural: the fact that children are systematically disempowered by society. They are threatened with punitive actions for exercising power and are systematically discouraged from even learning about the power they have. Our society compels children to comply with a punitive regime of senseless drudgery and busy-work that destroys the potential for genuine human relationships between children and adults.

Some people really do have power over one another, but in most cases that power is conceded by one to another. We really only have power over ourselves. We can choose to act in compliance with the wishes of another or we can withhold our cooperation. They can choose to punish us, but rarely do they have the power to genuinely compel. Few adults help children understand that they have this power and can choose to exercise it.

One of the main causes of childishness and poor behavior on the part of children is that they don't believe they have any power and don't know how to effectively use what power they have. When children have a voice and recognize that what they do matters, the childishness tends to fall away. That isn't to say that children don't need protection from being preyed upon -- or from the consequences of serious mistakes. But we would all be better off if there were more genuine interactions between children and adults, rather than the artificiality produced by the dominance/subservience relationship demanded by our educational institutions.

Rather than trying to control children, we should be providing leadership: creating an environment that is fertile for students to choose to learn. Children so empowered could pursue their own agendas with supportive adults around them to provide guidance and mentorship. Children that are able to pursue their interests, have the potential to discover "work" as their life's calling -- and not just meaningless drudgery necessary to placate a faceless authority. Children who pursue meaningful work will find it necessary to learn reading and writing, math and science, history and literature. And by pursuing these things for themselves, it will actually mean something -- and not just be marks on a paper soon to be thrown in the trash.

We need to stop the madness.