Transforming the School System Begins With Feeling its Heartbreaking Impact on Children, Past and Present

Transforming the School System Begins With Feeling its Heartbreaking Impact on Children, Past and Present

Note to the reader: If you require a brief history of education to provide context for the first few sections, scroll further down to “A brief history of school”. 

 

“Be confused, it’s where you begin to learn new things. Be broken, it’s where you begin to heal. Be frustrated, it’s where you start to make more authentic decisions. Be sad, because if we are brave enough we can hear our heart’s wisdom through it.” ~ S.C Lourie

At the beginning of many of the talks I lead, the organizer of the event takes a moment to acknowledge the traditional and ancestral territory we stand on and the people it belongs to. It’s a brief period of time in which I pay my deepest respect and offer my most sincere remorse to those whose lands were brutally taken away from them. It’s a time to remember what brought us to this point, standing here now, under the glowing chandeliers of the conference room, overlooking the pristine country club golf course.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an effort to bring to light the stark reality of what modernity has its roots in. The revelations of genocide, torture, the tearing apart of families, removal of traditions, all carried heavy weight and responsibility in the hearts and minds of those listening to the stories shared. It was not a time to take action, to do something different; rather, for those in the audience, it was an opportunity to sit, listen, and reflect on history and what has come to be, to feel the ramifications of colonization, to sit with the absolute heartbreak of it all.

Feeling is the beginning of taking responsibility, of showing the necessary remorse and empathy for what our Native friends have endured and still suffer from. Through feeling we bridge ourselves to our brothers and sisters, and we bridge past, present and future. We thin the veil of denial and separation, of our lives from theirs, the veil that keeps us trucking along in our industrial world without truly digesting what our streets pave over, what our monoliths stand in and for, the price of the Euro-western consumer culture.

Feeling is not something we do so easily here in the West. Unlike traditional societies, we don’t willingly give ourselves over to grief. We’re good at planning, analyzing, strategizing; we’re good at engineering and building; we’re good at moving on in the spirit of “progress”; we’re good at coming up with industrious solutions and advances. But what are those solutions and advances rooted in? What have we forgotten and continue to run from and pave over?

The gift of heartbreak

“If you’re really listening, if you’re awake to the poignant beauty of the world, your heart breaks regularly. In fact, your heart is made to break; its purpose is to burst open again and again so that it can hold evermore wonders.” ~ Andrew Harvey

One of the gifts of suffering is that it changes our orientation to life. Someone who endures severe loss or comes close to dying is forever altered. Maybe he commits to living in the moment and more easily forgoes fearful thoughts and worry. He thinks more positively of the world, takes greater risks to love, create and make a difference, all because of what arduousness has brought him to. He could not have tenderized his heart and opened his mind simply by changing his thoughts. Suffering was the necessary catalyst for heartbreak, for feeling what could not be felt before, which then changed his thinking.

It’s what life does to us. Health troubles, loss and aloneness seem to be what’s necessary for us to humble, think differently and be redirected along more meaningful routes. We try so hard to be happy and successful within our current mindsets and routines, to keep going and build upwards along established paths; but life knows something we do not amongst our ambitions, and shows us the way with an unexpected curveball that brings us to our knees, and hearts.

Perspective is found through the crack of heartbreak. It’s where, as Leonard Cohen tells us, “the light gets in”. That light brings us the unexpected—new worldviews, new ideas, new solutions, new priorities, a sense of what is true, what really matters. We open to inspiration, a surprise pathway that no amount of determined rationale could have led us to. And we feel more empathy for the sheer devastation of it all, the tragedies of the human story and their consequences, which leads to further heartbreak, as well as the desire and purpose to create something new. It’s so often what happens when people fall to tragedy. They want to make a difference.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Our inner light is necessary if we are to create positive change, for without it, we confuse the dark room for one that’s illuminated. We continue trying to make the dark room a better place to live and work in. Tables are polished and chairs reupholstered, but still the room is dark, and we don’t know it. Without the light, without genuine heartfelt perception, we cannot see with clarity the subtleties and realities of what’s been, and what continues to be. And we cannot choose something different. We lose ourselves to normal, including the normality of how we educate.

There’s a cartoon by The Far Side depicting cows on a pasture, one blithely grazing grass, and another whose head is up in sudden revelation and anger, exclaiming, “Hey, wait a minute! This is grass! We’ve been eating grass!” We’ve all had experiences when suddenly there is an inner shift and we see things for what they are. Something dawns on us. We realize—see with real eyes—that it’s time to leave this relationship or move to that location—to no longer eat grass! We just know in our heart it’s time for change, scary as it may be.

How do we know? We just feel it. It’s beyond rational thought. So much so that when we act on this somatic impulse we’ll often hear those who care about us suggest we are being “irrational”. It’s true, because the impulse has little to do with logical thought.

“All of our reasoning ends in the surrender to feeling.” ~ Blaise Pascal

Heartbreak opens us to that knowing, or felt-sense. It leads us to the dawning of new perspective, to a reorientation to life, to questioning what’s always been. That has certainly been the case for me. The more I’ve traveled the courageous journey into my heart, clearing away the clutter that has long concealed it, the more I’ve come to question what I used to so easily accept as normal. I’ve become like the child who stands more in the question than the answer.

This points to the myth of normal respected physician and author Dr. Gabor Mate speaks of in his international presentations. I like to think of it as more of a spell

Once upon a time we believed that people should be burnt at the stake for following their spiritual traditions. Once upon a time women could not attend university or get certain jobs, second-class citizens they were (and still are in so many minds). Once upon a time black people were not allowed in movie theatres, on buses or other public locations. Once upon a time it was widely acceptable to sexually assault women. Once upon a time residential schools were considered the right thing to place children into; abuse was warranted.

Normal had its views and ways, and we were blind to them, until that moment when, like the cow, the light of dawning perspective found us. Courageously we questioned and challenged. Things were seen more clearly from our hearts versus hidden by the veil of our divisive minds.

And so it behoves us all to regularly consider where we’re tolerating grass, to ask ourselves, and each other: How much have we normalized the practice of schooling? Where does normal come from? What else have we acquiesced to?

It’s through genuine heartbreak that the veil enspelling us thins and cracks. And with each unlayering we feel into education and life more deeply. This is the much-needed process of transformation our world awaits. Inner transformation always precedes outer transformation. The depth of heartbreak and its stirring light must be the ground within which we plant new beginnings.

Feeling into education

“The instinct to want things to be better without the work of trying to understand how they have come to be as they are is guaranteed to keep you where you are.“ ~ Stephen Jenkinson

Imagine for a moment the consequences of spending little, if any, time reflecting on where our education system comes from. What are the consequences of not settling into and honestly exploring and feeling into why education is the way it is today?

Imagine if the heads of the institution, administrative staff, teachers and parents all gathered like those at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not with the intent to change anything, to come up with solutions, but simply to listen, reflect and feel; to learn from those who know what they do not about the roots of the establishment they work in and support.

What if during that gathering they first remembered, truly reminded themselves, that our education institutions are built on stolen land? Second, what if they then honestly considered why the Euro-western education model was created in the first place, and this includes pre-colonization models? Third, what if they humbly recognized in great detail how schooling, for hundreds of years across the world, has negatively impacted children, families and cultures worldwide? Fourth, what if they honestly considered how much our current education system reflects the original religious/control-based values of centuries past? Fifth, what if they inquired into what else has been normalized in our socio-economic system, and how education feeds those systems?

What’s possible? What might change if those gathering didn’t need to change anything, but simply sat together, listened, wondered, made way for heartbreak? What might find them through the crack?

Before I go further into detail about these five points, I must acknowledge that there are positive efforts being made to make education more consent-based through project and competence based models. The British Columbia Teachers’ Federation and Ministry of Education, for example, are determined to update the current education system to better support and inspire learning. There are movements worldwide, large and small, to bring public education into the 21stcentury. And while well intended and considerate of the needs of kids, I am here to say something I feel must be said:

Without grieving the heartbreak of how our education system came to be and how harmful it continues to be, without honestly assessing the implications of the institution’s brutal history, we cannot effectively create a new system. Our eyes won’t see clearly enough, for our hearts will not have opened to the extent they need to. The spell is that strong, so the medicine—heartbreak—must be as well. The illusions of the past and our societal norms veil our perception more unconsciously than we know. So too does our unresolved trauma, trauma inflicted through “normal” family dynamics, “normal” education practices—the accepted proclivities of Euro-western culture.

Therefore, try as we might, in our attempts to update education, we’ll find ourselves simply reinventing a better version of a broken system that still has its roots in historical abuse and control. We’ll polish it, re-package it, but it’ll still carry the strong scent of what has always been.

We’ll still be educating in the dark room.

Change must begin deep within where tears flow and from where acceptance, empathy and responsibility emerge. Grieving helps us to see things as they are, not as we’d like them to be. It is how we honour what is true, past and present, and how we transition from old to new, while never forgetting where we have been. With the help of our tears, we don’t exclude the past or the pain held in our hearts, or the hearts of others, but carry them forward with us, letting them be guides to a better future.

Again, as mentioned already, grieving is not something we do well here in the West. How quickly do we say to people “There, there”, or “Ssshhhh, it’ll be alright” when things get messy, when death knocks on our door? Quick we are to move on and return to “normality”. Quick we are to bypass the messiness of the deluge of snot, tears and raw emotion wanting to cleanse and renew us.

Teachers regularly express their grief in my playshops. They feel the heartbreak of having to work in a system that handcuffs children and teachers; that makes control and assessment far more important than connection and love. They feel and see it firsthand every day. They feel history playing out through the plain fact that standardized curriculum is still taught, and that we continue to standardize the unique spirit of children, forcing them to be who they are not. Teachers feel the ripples of history forcing them to manage so many demands, to follow orders against their heart’s knowing that longs to joyfully and imaginatively co-construct learning moments. Indeed, my playshops provide a rare opportunity for teachers to speak out loud with anger and concern, to express the tears long held back by their professional disguise. It is their moment of truth, a time to feel their longing for reconciliation.

Feeling precedes honest and worthy change, not intellect alone. You cannot transform a system, especially one like education, which has its roots in so much pain and suffering, without knowing and feeling where it has been and the impact is has had and continues to have. The raw heartbreak and history must be included. Only then can education be something very different from what it has been.

A brief history of school

Public schools began in the form of Protestant “correctional institutions” where the purpose was to break the will of children, to make them pliable to the authority of teachers and God. Children, in their wild exuberance, were perceived as born sinners—disobedient, uncontrolled, curious, imaginative—wilful—, all recalcitrant qualities that would encourage self-direction and lead them away from the Church’s order, the will of God. They needed to be controlled and contained. Their sinfulness justified regular beatings, for their unruly behaviours would only lead them to hell; and a sinful, hell-bound child would not be tolerated. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15). The rod and cane were regularly used to break a child’s will. From taps on the hand to blows to the mouth, children were made to be broken.

Some consider the father of modern schools to be the Pietist clergyman, August Hermann Francke, who developed a system of compulsory schooling in Prussia in the late 17th century. As mentioned in this article, it was subsequently copied and elaborated upon throughout Europe and America. Francke wrote in his instructions to schoolmasters:

Above all it is necessary to break the natural willfulness of the child. While the schoolmaster who seeks to make the child more learned is to be commended for cultivating the child’s intellect, he has not done enough. He has forgotten his most important task, namely that of making the will obedient.

In early Protestant schools, the method of learning was forced, rote memorization, a far cry from creative self-exploration. As Peter Grey writes in Free to Learn, “The goal was indoctrination, not inquisitiveness.” And, as you can imagine, there was little time for play. Play was considered the enemy, a distraction from the necessary work at hand of obedience training. John Wesley, in his rules for Wesleyan schools, points this out clearly when he wrote, “As we have no play days, so neither do we allow any time for play on any day; for he that plays as a child will play as a man.”

And a man that plays and is creative is far harder to control than a man who is obedient.

Our current need to push children and turn them into compliant “little workers”, as one grade two teacher said was her purpose, has its roots in history, much more than we realize.

As colonization spread, these abusive practices plagued the world. Religious-based residential or boarding schools were formed in Africa to Asia, Australia to North and South America. There, missionary teachers colonized the human spirit of millions of children, attempting to make brown and red people white-minded, subservient to a man-made, “civilized” God. Education was sheer genocide—the cruel assimilation of children into Euro-western, Christian values. Forced from their families at a young age, children were coerced into forgetting their traditions, including language, and into conformity, often through physical and sexual abuse.

Malidoma Some, in his book, Of Water and the Spirit, describes how, at the age of four, he was taken from his village in Burkina Faso by a Jesuit priest and driven to a boarding school. There he remained for fifteen years enduring various kinds of emotional and physical abuse. Much like in the residential schools of North America, his identity and culture were stripped away. His name was changed to Patrice and there were brutal consequences when he spoke his native Dagara tongue, or when he became disobedient in general. Malidoma writes about the first time he was whipped: “The pain of the first blow was so bad that I didn’t even notice the many other times the whip struck my body.” Eventually, at the age of twenty, he escaped, found his way back to his village, but had forgotten most of his language.

Religious colonization is but one influence on current schooling practices, and we could go on and on about its impact, endlessly exploring atrocities children and their families endured. Hopefully, you know enough by now through your own reading. I can only write so much here.

There is also, however, the important matter of industrialization’s influence on our current education system that must be tended to. By the end of the 1800’s the industrial revolution was burgeoning. There was a real need for workers to fill the growing amount of job vacancies. Schools would be the supplier. Classrooms were designed to replicate factories, to churn little, diligent workers, to mould them just right so there would be an “easy” transition from school to work, from innocent child to responsible contributor to society.

Placed in straight lines in ordered desks, and made to study repetitive, dry material, children’s minds were thus shaped to fit the demands of growing industry. They were fed streams of standardized information much like a conveyer belt tediously feeds workers nuts and bolts. In 1898, Ellwood P. Cubberley, Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, explained the role of schools perfectly:

“Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials – children – are to be shaped and fashioned into products… The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

Schools were manufacturing standardized units – children – through standardized learning, pumping them out like de facto cogs to feed the growing manufactured / consumer world. Each child was another piece of the industrial machine that included factories and factory modeled schools. Ultimately, as is usually the case, it was about money, not preserving the spirit of children. Schools were designed to fill the pockets of those white suits seated at the top. They were designed to grow bank balances and the economy, an economy that, at the time, was fuelled by mundane, perfunctory jobs that demanded compliance, not creativity.

Education was not about what children needed. And it certainly wasn’t about imagination. Each would have been a serious threat to existing paradigms and authorities, a deviation from money-making conveyer belts. Suppressing creativity by asking for blind obedience and conformity protected the power and wealth of those in charge. It ensured children kept their heads down, focused on the task at hand, for that is where they needed to keep their attention if they were to one day bring in the bacon.

Children were indoctrinated into believing themselves to be objects to be manipulated, not humans with feelings and needs. It’s no wonder that today we fear feeling our feelings, expressing our needs and trusting the artist within so much. The suppression of all three has been a staple of education for generations.

Today, children who feel too much are diagnosed and medicated. If they put up too much of a fight resisting what does not feed their spirit while seated at their desks for hours on end, they are made wrong or punished. Again, their will is broken. They are the problem, not the system. Their creative pursuits (their will) in the classroom are not encouraged, for creativity, still today, is seen as a threat to the system. The programs cut when funding goes south are arts and music, not math or science; for pocket books are filled by the intellects, not the artists. And how many stories have you heard of children being shamed or graded an F (same thing) for expressing their creativity, for deviating from the standards? (A tree needs to be drawn like a real tree, not an imaginative, otherworldly one.) As this research suggests, children who are the most creative are less likely to garner favouritism from teachers than students who conform more to teacher/behavioural expectations.

Obedience and conformity make the teacher miserably happy, especially if she is being reviewed and rewarded based on how much her students walk the straight line and get those grades. Remember, the economy, which the institution feeds, depends on the teacher and school’s performance, and, ultimately, the student’s grades.

And so it continues…

As much as some may like to think otherwise, the school system still functions from fear and control. One teacher to thirty students is not a ratio that easily supports creativity and self-directed learning. We demand conformity and use punishment to control kids. We expect them to do hours of homework in elementary / primary school when they should be outside playing. Meanwhile, how many adults have homework when leaving their 9-5 jobs? We continue to use standardized curriculum and impose shame inducing grading and ranking systems. And we still, like it or not, run a system that’s primary purpose is to feed the industrial, consumer machine, not nurture creativity and uniqueness.

As it stands, corporations benefit from the institution of education far more than children do. Those who want higher education standards are often the ones who most directly reap the rewards from the manufactured systems schools feed.

So long as education fails to nurture the gifts and purpose inherent in each child, schooling will be more about feeding an increasingly broken socio-economic system than supporting children to change that system. We’ll continue to sacrifice their native gifts and purpose for what we insist they learn, most of which they’ll never use. We’ll prioritize old, outdated ideas of economic prosperity over what’s good for the child’s soul, and the soul of society. We’ll sacrifice loving kindness and respect for illusory agendas of “success” and “progress”. We’ll treat children like standardized cogs instead of wise and powerful beings.

It begins with taking the time to honestly reflect and feel. It begins with questioning “normal”. It begins with surrendering to the heartbreaking truth of what is and has been.

Take a moment to consider what’s written in this article. Set aside the temptation to figure out strategies, to “fix” the problem. The fixing mind is a way to bypass the feeling heart. It’s so often why we go to solutionsin the first place—so that we don’t feel. What and how deeply might we grieve if we suspend the need to have an answer? What inspiration may find us if we give ourselves over to the light within heartbreak? That’s where the solution will come from, the next iteration of education, not from the linear, logical mind, but from a humble heart swelled by tears.

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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

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  1. Pingback: How Better Attunement to Children Co-arises with Empathy and Care for Mother Earth - Vince Gowmon

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