My View

The Promised Land

April 30, 2013 


Lynen Harris, My View


At the edge of my grandfather’s garden lay a large, soil-filled area outlined with rocks.

A very permanent raised bed, it was the animal graveyard. When a kitten or chick or puppy died, my grandmother gave the children a box and the five siblings picked flowers, assigned roles, rehearsed prayers, and then processed toward the garden cemetery, minister at the head, gravediggers in the rear, all of them singing “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks I Stand.” A line of children bound for the Promised Land.

Recently I’ve been encountering the Promised Land a lot, listening to kids labeled “disengaged learners.” A more apt label would be “disengaged schoolers.”

Anyone who’s been around children knows it’s pretty tough to disengage them from learning. They are hard-wired to reach, to break, to smell and taste. There’s nothing quite like fishing a random discarded cigarette butt from your toddler’s mouth to remind you of that. So how do children go from hard-wired to explore to dis-inclined to engage at all?

These kids equate learning with school. And the most common words we hear to describe school are stressful, boring, drama, and disrespect. The most positive word I’ve heard is safe. So, if learning = school, then learning is basically something unpleasant that happens to you. Learning is about passivity, not passion.

Their teachers often say, “I got mine. Now you got to get yours.” Learning/school is a kind of paying your dues. It’s a passive punishment you endure in order to access a piece of paper called a diploma which will, if you’re lucky, in some magical way, transport you to a Promised Land where people have options. To these kids, the phrase lifelong learning is a threat.

Under-explored and over-tested kids can hardly be expected to understand that you don’t need the diploma; you need actual experiential knowledge. Our rule-bound public institutions are a testament to how a system created to address a problem can become the problem itself. I recently slogged my way through some of the new Common Core Standards. If you were involved in creating those, you have my full sympathy. A more deadening roundup of articulated goals is hard to imagine.

The more we feel the need to control what’s happening, to standardize everything, to keep issuing more and more policies and procedures, the less we respond to present reality, in the moment and on the ground. We end up struggling to validate the system rather than critically questioning why the system doesn’t validate us. Why it undercuts, rather than enhances, our humanity.

Igniting students’ innate love of experimenting and imagining and creating – aka learning – is not the system’s goal. The goal is compliance. No wonder students experience school as a deadening endurance test. Even a child from incredibly limited resources can sense that a system intent on repressing your native curiosity does not have your best interests at heart.

Anytime we look to systems for solutions rather than to people, we lose our way. The more we codify learning, the less it is actually that: learning. Learning is messy and time-consuming and open-ended. Learning is impossible to predict and map over time because it happens differently for each person, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

I ask kids all the time, “When do you feel most joyous at school? When are you most enlivened?” From the looks on their faces, you’d think they didn’t know those two things, school and joy, could co-exist.

How do we change that?

Heck, start anywhere. Start with the true common core. Human beings across millennia have engaged creative expression even in the most grueling circumstances and deprivations. Start there. Start with our driving human impulses: investigate, experiment, explore. Start with language: creative, spoken, written. Start with sound: rhythm and music. Start with performance: movement, connection, community. Start with anything alive and present and real.

The system itself is the problem. We keep trying to fix something that isn’t broken. It’s dead. We need to bury the system, with its overreliance on standardization and codification, and engage our strengths.

I actually think we have everything we need already. Any community, whether neighborhood or church or gang or school, knows at heart what its true needs are. And has the collective wisdom to meet those needs. We just don’t trust teachers and students to find their own solutions. I bet a gifted teacher and 20 kids could, over time, figure out most anything. Those human beings are where our strengths lie. The teachers. The children. You be the minister this time. You lead the singing. You dig the grave.

The role of education isn’t to create passive compliant consumers. The role of education is to breathe life into the spark of being that drives each child to move determinedly in the direction of his or her joy. That’s the Promised Land.

Lynden Harris is the founder of Hidden Voices. Contact her at

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