March 21, 2002
Slaves to Higher Learning
When it comes to education, it's time to free the children.
Here's a thought for Passover: We are Pharaohs to our children. We have made them our slaves. Their mud bricks are the books that fill 30-pound backpacks. Their mortar is four hours of homework every night. The straw we deny is sleep. Ask child therapists across the country about the headaches and self-starvation, and the girls who make shallow cuts in their wrists to "let the pressure out, to feel on the outside the pain I feel on the inside." Ask the school counselors about how teenagers use drugs and sex to try to escape. Ask the pediatricians and chiropractors about what those 30-pound loads have done to the children's posture. Ask the college admissions office about their nicknames for incoming students: "crispies," the 18-year-olds too fried from high school to function at college, and "teacups," freshmen too fragile to manage on their own without their parents, tutors and housekeepers.
Olympian Sarah Hughes knows the score. When asked about her plans after winning the gold medal, she said, "I just want to keep up with my school work and get in the high 1500s on my SATs." The best figure skater in the world worries that if you want to get into the Ivy League these days, having only one sport may not be enough. College placement advisors complain that parents think there are only 10 good schools in the country, and that if their child doesn't get into one of them, the whole family has failed. This is Mitzrayim, the land of Egypt. The word also means a narrow place.
Don't look outside to find the Pharaoh. It's easy to blame the schools and colleges, but some of our terror is inflated myth. We read pornography -- U.S. News & World Report's ranking of top colleges and universities -- and we panic that our child "won't get in" even as we look into the crib.
Some leaders are taking the first steps towards freedom. As I travel around the country speaking at schools, I see them beginning to acknowledge their hand in the oppression. They are recognizing that having a fifth-grade math curriculum in third grade creates math phobias. They are cutting back on homework. They are giving students time away from academics and sports -- time for group reflection and for service to others.
Colleges are starting to change their policies. Some are accepting, without prejudice, students from schools that have eliminated AP classes. They are holding places for accepted students who choose to take a year off after high school. Admissions officers are weighing teacher recommendations on par with SAT scores and GPAs. If a student looks spectacular on paper, but isn't enthusiastic and generous of spirit, the schools don't want him around. The Talmud teaches that every parent has an obligation to teach his child how to swim. As parents, our most important job is to prepare our children for life, not just for class. I'm not denying the competition. For many of us, if we applied now to the colleges we went to, we wouldn't get in. No matter how fervently we wish it, the children are no smarter or stronger than we were, but they are smart enough to get into a good enough school and have a good enough life.
If the Taliban reflect the Arab world's panic over the advent of Western modernity and marketplace culture, the sacrifice of our own children on the altar of the SATs is of a piece with the same fundamentalist anxiety; the fantasy that a life with no room for play or rest will save us from chaos. We have lowered the plague of darkness into our lives, and the darkness is so complete that no one can move. It is time to let them go.