Terrill, PhD Candidate and Former Teacher, CO
Imagine your child (or one you care about deeply) is now in their 30s – out of school and starting into adult life. What do you hope for them about their life? What would make it a ‘good’ life?
They would have a good life if they understood themselves and understood the world deeply. In particular I think about a person understanding his own emotions, his thoughts, when and why he thinks certain things. I also think having an understanding of how the world works around him—like what are the roles of the laws, culture, art, music, and religion in his life, and how those different factors impact daily existence. If you are aware of how things are working around you and your own mind and feelings, the world is a little less overwhelming. That’s important for a good life.
What child were you thinking about when you were formulating this answer?
A former student. He has a naive optimism about the goodness of people and is really surprised when people are unkind. He pretends to be cynical but is really wounded when people are unkind. He doesn’t understand himself sometimes and why people act certain ways.
Do you think everyone agrees with you about what a good life is?
No. [laughter] I think most people believe a good life exists in material wealth. If you can afford a house, have a car, a phone, a computer, and a job—if you have all those things, people, even a lot of educators, are fairly satisfied. It’s not that poverty is not a problem, it’s totally devastating, but I would think the purpose of having sufficient wealth is so that you can do something deep with your existence. But a lot of people stop short of that. They confuse the means with the end. The end is that you are making a difference in the world, or creating beauty. The means are financial security, but you forget that that’s not the destination.
What role do you think schooling should play in achieving that ideal good life?
A good education will inspire and equip the student to pursue the truth. A good education allows you to make inquiry and discovery on your own. I think an education should also provide content that opens the student’s eyes to what it means to be a human being and how the world works. In that respect, it should be broad—its just as important to know about physics and math as art, philosophy, history, and literature. An education that gives broad and deep content will serve a student well in thinking about his own existence and the world that surrounds him.
Do you think schools are currently playing that role/doing what they should (for you/your child and for everyone)?
Some schools are doing it well, for sure. Schools are battling a lot of difficulties and I imagine a lot of the failures have to do with a myriad of complex issues that bedevil the administration. It’s really hard to run a good school, between getting kids excited about content, getting good leaders, getting family on board, getting a sufficient building, having a supportive local government, and having enough money.
America is a complicated place. It’s just big. I was just reading about schools in Finland, and there’s a national consensus about what schools should be, and they do it well. But it’s a small country. We are large, for better or worse, and we have a lot of old systems that are hard to change.
Do you think everyone agrees with you about the role of schooling?
No. Some people. I would say I’m probably in the minority, but maybe I’m not. Having a school that has really rich content, the outdoorsy aspect, having a school that’s more focused on leading a good life instead of using terms like “college prep” or “STEM” or those sorts of things… I think it’s too abstract or fairy-tale like for most people, and they want results--like, “Will my child get into medical school?” They are looking for that financial security. I think if you’re oriented already to the incorrect end of wealth as a measure of success, then you’re less inclined to view education as something beyond material comfort.
So much of it has to do with being a capitalistic society, which has so many wonderful aspects. But so many of our interactions with others are commercial or monetary. It’s rare to meet with strangers in a non-commercial setting. The only places you can really do that are school or church.
You have to convince Americans that a certain level of comfort is sufficient, and that beyond that you can have more spiritual or artistic goals. Trying to convince someone they don’t need a new BMW, that their Subaru station wagon is good enough, especially when they have the money for a new car—it’s really hard!