I love to watch Tucker when he is learning. His eyes widen, his face lights up, and he cannot contain himself, shouting out answers—no, not answers but ideas and concepts and “ah hah”s—and he often gets in trouble for being insensitive to his peers who are still struggling to do their work, for being self-centered, and there are times he is frustrated by the trouble he gets into, and other times he seems to accept it as the price he is paying for his education. He grimaces for a moment and then reinvests his energies into his school work. He is eleven years old.
One of my first mentors believed, and so have I, that education is healing.
When I have expressed frustration to my friend Adam that life for so many seems mean and filled with pain, when it could be filled with so much more joy and kinship, he says he admires my idealism. He is a doctor who works with the elderly poor. He says that life is that mean and painful—not that it seems so—but that it is so, which is why he marvels and takes solace that humans can achieve great moments of transcendence in the midst of our suffering as a species. He and I share the exuberant sweat-filled passion of basketball, the rock band that hits a groove and sends an entire bar into a pulsing mass, the books we are reading that are keeping us up late. My friends and I are junkies for transcendence.
Adam is a member of a very liberal synagogue. My only religion is education. Tucker is my proof.
I practice my religion, education, in schools. I don’t care about prescribed academic content, and I abhor standardized tests. I abhor the industrialization of education, the ridiculous over-crowding of young people into narrow hallways, the regimentation of bells ringing, the hyper force-feeding of irrelevant textbook tasks that leads to cognitive indigestion and shut-down. Most kids shout for joy when they are released from the building.
I’ve observed affluent suburban high schools. The students go through their paces. They seem less distracted than kids in the city. As rarely as all students, few of them ask interesting questions and a decided minority show passion—some for art, some for physics, some for writing. Their teachers are more relaxed than their urban counter-parts. The pain of the world is less palpable. Here education evokes not religious fervor but a ritualized ennui.
Despite the boredom and enforced pass-fail monomania of schools, I still love being in them. I see when students experience, despite all the barriers, the moments of joy for having their minds opened and their neurons firing in unexpected patterns and, in those moments, transcendence. I fear my friend Adam is right that those moments are exceptions to our suffering. And I hope my friend Adam is wrong that such moments are the exceptions to our suffering; I am an idealist: schools can provoke less pain; they can inspire more transcendence.