I have been an English teacher for 14 years. I was a middle school teacher for ten, and a high school teacher for four. When I started, I believed I had found my calling. I love my students, I am passionate about my subject, but I have become increasingly disenchanted with the system of education in this country. I have witnessed, first-hand, the deterioration of this system over the past several years, despite, in fact because of, the constant efforts of both educators and government agencies to revamp the system and “fix” this seemingly insurmountable problem. Why doesn’t anything we do work? Why are we in a constant state of change? And why are we driving experienced and qualified teachers out of education faster than we can graduate naïve young idealists to replace them? Well, there are a number of reasons, in my humble opinion, and that is just what this is, an opinion. I haven’t done double-blind studies or charted any statistical analyses. But I have observed trends over the course of 14 years of teaching that are undeniable to common sense. I will attempt to relate those observations and interpretations to you in the least offensive way I know how. Why would it be offensive, you may ask? Because there is going to be some blame, and as Americans, we all share in this catastrophic cultural shift in one way or another. The recent trend is to lay the blame at the foot of the teachers. This is clear by the implementation of recent laws such as Colorado’s Senate Bill 191, which basically holds the teacher accountable (and only the teacher) for the success or failure of each student, and is responsible for the requirement of a new, insane teacher evaluation rubric. If you don’t believe me, just wait, and I will show you exactly how ridiculous this rubric is. However, that will be covered in Part II and III of this blog because this topic is so large that, out of necessity, I have divided it into three parts. So for now let us focus on the main problem because the second is merely a grasping-at-straws-reaction to the first. The main problem is America’s transition from a patriarchal society to a “pediarchal” society, a society ruled by and existing for the pleasure of children.
I may not have conducted and documented my own studies, but I have done a little research into this subject and was not surprised to find evidence that confirmed my belief that a cultural shift in the way we treat and view children is at the source of the problem with education in this country. Here is how the Center for Excellent Living describes this shift in values:
“Traditionally most cultures have given authority to the elders, who through experience and education have become wiser people and more discerning when making decisions. However, our western society has become both “pediarchal” and hedonistic. We’ve given family authority over to the children, and our desires are for their “happiness” at all costs.
The flaw in this is that our parents have become fearful of a child’s sorrow. Children are permitted to make decisions that counter the parent’s wisdom because it may infringe on the child’s happiness. This creates conflict and struggle; a home of tension and frustration” (Center for Excellent Living).
How this shift affects education should be obvious, but I will go into detail later. But first, more research.
According to an interview with Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, conducted by Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, there was a significant shift in the culture of parenting beginning around the late 19th and early 20th century, that was necessary, but has gone so far in the opposite direction as to redefine parenting. Senior describes this historic transformation as beginning with the protesting of child labor laws. Historically, in many cultures, children were seen as a source of income. Of course, most parents loved their children, but they often purposefully planned to have them to help run the business, farm, or add to the financial stability of the family (Senior). No one denies that these reforms were good and necessary, or that children should not be servants brought into the world in order to prosper their parents, but this pendulum has swung back the other way so far that now parents have become indentured to the fulfillment of every whim and desire of their children. It is not uncommon, in fact it is normal, to hear parents complaining of working second jobs, extra hours, or foregoing their needs to buy the latest in designer clothing, the most popular gaming system, or to purchase a new car for their children. Parents often sacrifice their own retirement funds or go into debt to foot the bill for their child’s education. Somehow they think they owe it to their child because the child never asked to be brought into this world, and therefore, it is the parents’ responsibility to ensure the happiness and success of their children. Does this sound ludicrous to anyone but me? How about being grateful that you were brought into the world at all? That you were fed, clothed, and sheltered until adulthood?
According to Senior, who quoted Princeton sociologist Vivian Zelizer, after the legislation regarding child labor, “Children became ‘economically worthless and emotionally priceless,’ exalted creatures at the center of our lives,” which sentimentalized children in a way that has progressed through the years into the child worship we see today. Senior goes on to say that before this trend, parents would expect to provide food, shelter, and childhood education because there were no public schools. Of course, the well-to-do might send their children to college, but this was rarely the case. It was not until the 1940s that the majority of American children even began to graduate from high school in a public setting.
Gradually over time, parents began to see their roles as parents become more child-focused. We see popular trends today of parents “dating” their children, in an innocent effort to model how a girl should be treated by dating her father, but which strangely elevates the child to equality and indirectly puts her in competition with the mother. These parents are obviously not familiar with Oedipus. This modeling used to come from the child observing the father treating her mother with respect and kindness, not being “dated” by her father herself. We also see this shift in the term “housewife” becoming “stay-at-home-mom,” and mothers in the home shifted their focus from creating a stable home environment, being in the background but available if her children needed her, providing time for creative play and allowing imagination to flourish, encouraging independence, allowing their children to struggle through their homework before offering assistance, to the other end of the spectrum, feeling as if she had to spend every waking moment catering to the children, playing with them, driving them constantly to practices and activities day and night, and sitting at the table “helping” with homework, that more often than not, is actually doing the child’s homework (Senior).
As a result children do not even expect to have to think anymore. They want information spoon-fed to them, and anything that does not come instantly is too hard. I see this daily in my classroom, perfectly intelligent 17 and 18 year-olds who want the stories read to them, interpreted for them, and when given the task to critically think or analyze a piece of literature, they simply sit and stare, ask me repeatedly for the answer, or turn to their neighbor for help before even trying. When I refuse to give in, guiding them in the direction of how to begin, asking them leading questions, trying to spur actual thought, they give up and say they will take it home and do it, which is not an option in my class. I have even had juniors and seniors, when receiving poor grades on a homework project, say indignantly, “Well, my mom made it,” without even seeming to realize that this is cheating. Then the parents demand special accommodations, modified testing, type-written notes handed to the child, and open-note tests, using the notes that the teacher provided. Special education used to be about helping the children learn, but now it is about ensuring that the student passes, so the children don’t feel bad and ruin their self-esteem. In my opinion, there is not one intervention of which I am forced to implement that does anything other than enable the student to do nothing and still pass. And now anyone and everyone can get accommodations just by having their parent complain about the work. I have so many students on accommodations and modifications that I cannot keep track of who they are. God forbid that their children have to struggle through figuring out how to solve a problem. And if all this doesn’t result in excellent standardized test scores, and why would it? then it must be an inadequate or lazy teacher’s fault.
But I digress. As time went on, this trend metamorphosed the duties of the parent. It became the parents’ job to nurture their children, then they became responsible for instilling self-esteem, and finally for making them happy, which is an impossible task as happiness is an elusive goal at best, and much more so for a spoiled child. But this began to be an expectation for parents. In fact, if you are not willing to sacrifice your happiness for your child’s today, you are considered a deficient person. Centuries ago, they would have found this notion absurd, and it seems to me that their children were probably happier, and most assuredly better educated, at least in life, if not calculus. Children now see themselves as entitled to happiness, and we as parents, are required to deliver. Sociologist William White coined the term “Philiarchy” to describe how children rule us through our love for them (Senior). The trend in this direction has continued to the point where we are seeing a significant backlash in our society; the consequences are a disrespectful, unhappy, and undisciplined generation, who don’t know how to make themselves happy and will not take responsibility for their own learning. The obvious result of a parenting style that demands that the child be protected from all negative experience, the self-esteem be protected at all costs, and states that the child’s happiness is the utmost good is that the teacher will bear all responsibility for any deficiency in a child’s performance at school. Holding the child accountable may damage their self-esteem.
Now, I realize that this is not true of every child or family; however, it affects every child because they are still influenced by the culture surrounding them. It is true that there a couple of uncharacteristically curious children in every class, who are motivated to learn or perform despite these influences, and there is, once in a while, a legitimately learning disabled child in a class who needs a different learning environment to succeed, but for the vast majority this isn’t the case. The few children who buckle down and put actual effort into school despite their average abilities invariably come from homes where parents put discipline and expectations above the child’s happiness, and ironically, these children seem happier than the others who have the freedom to fail and blame the teacher. These children will be prepared for life, they know how to work for success, to problem-solve, and accept their mistakes, so which parent actually is showing more love for their child?
Schools, at a loss to explain how they are keeping up with changing times and equipping themselves with new strategies to educate the modern student who supposedly learns differently (as if this were the challenge), frantically implement one completely absurd and logic-defying plan after another in a vain attempt to pacify the angry parents who demand that their children receive the education he/she is entitled to, even though they are not willing to put any effort into the obtainment of said education. This reactionary system of school administration will be the focus of Pediarchal Culture: The True Causes of the Downward Spiral of American Education, Part II.
“Are We Having Fun Yet? New Book Explores The Paradox Of Parenting,” Fresh Air, Interview by Terry Gross with Jennifer Senior. Accessed: http://www.npr.org/2014/02/04/271416048/are-we-having-fun-yet-new-book-explores-the-paradox-of-parenting Date Accessed: 2/14/14.
Center for Excellent Living. http://excellentliving.net/98days-2/parenting/. Accessed 2/14/14
Senior, Jennifer. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood. New York: HarperCollins, 2014. Book link: https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=xTgHAQAAQBAJ&source=productsearch&utm_source=HA_Desktop_US&utm_medium=SEM&utm_campaign=PLA&pcampaignid=MKTAD0930BO1