Holistic Education Column
Education that Honors Children
Usually, when policymakers and business leaders focus on education, and when the mainstream media cover educational issues, they are primarily interested in defining the content of the curriculum, establishing "high standards," requiring accountability through rigorous testing, dealing with funding issues, or quelling violence in schools. When local school boards meet to set policies, financial and legal concerns are usually center stage. Rarely is there serious discussion of the developmental needs of young people themselves. Almost never does anyone in these positions of authority stop to consider the nature of learning or the characteristics of learners—the very people who are at the heart of the educational process.
Our society holds a "transmission" philosophy of education; the underlying assumption is that schools exist to transmit a certain body of knowledge (as this is defined by certain elite groups), and the role of students is to absorb this instruction as effectively as possible, to be rewarded or penalized according to their success. How young people actually learn, what they are actually interested in learning about the world, and what social, emotional, and cultural obstacles get in the way of their learning, are generally considered irrelevant. We tell them, in effect: "Here’s the curriculum. In this grade you will meet these standards. Your scores on standardized tests will determine your educational and vocational future. Do your best—or else."
By neglecting the natural developmental needs of growing human beings, we have created a toxic, violent, ruthless world that is unhealthy for all of us, and for the living planet.
Alternative educational approaches, which include diverse methods that may be called "holistic," "progressive," "democratic" or something else, are alternative precisely because they begin with young people’s experiences and aspirations. In one of the classic books in this literature, The Lives of Children, George Dennison wrote in 1969 that "the business of a school is not, or should not be, mere instruction, but the life of the child." Or, as the evocative title of another classic put it, "today is for children, numbers can wait." This educational philosophy trusts that young people, when given a supportive and caring environment that nourishes them as whole persons, will learn effectively, even passionately, without being herded or coerced.
The famous children’s troubadour Raffi Cavoukian has launched a campaign for a "child honoring" culture that is a wake up call to modern society (see www.raffinews.com/child_honouring/what_is_child_honouring.) As Raffi has observed, if we want to bring peace, healing, and happiness to the world, then we must critically examine how we are treating our children. To support them and honor their natural developmental patterns, we need to provide a more caring environment for their learning and growing. Thus nourished, they will become adults with the commitment and strength to transform society even further. Raffi calls this the "Compassion Revolution."
A century ago, the brilliant educator Maria Montessori reached a similar
conclusion. The visionary basis of her entire career was her belief that "If
salvation and help are to come, it is from the child, for the child is
the constructor of man, and so of society. The child is endowed with
an inner power which can guide us to a more enlightened future. Education
should no longer be mostly imparting of knowledge, but must take a new
path, seeking the release of human potentialities" (from Education
for a New World, published just after the Second World War).
Child honoring and democracy go together, and a culture that is authoritarian toward its children will eventually become, if it is not already, authoritarian toward all but the most elite of its members. It is revealing, I think, to look at the No Child Left Behind program, with its relentless testing and rigid control of learning, in this light. I have heard NCLB referred to as "Childhood Left Behind," which seems to me a troublingly accurate description. If childhood is left behind, so too is our essential personhood.