THE BLOG
08/28/2014 03:29 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

A School Isn't About Teaching Subjects, It's About Teaching Children

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A school is a sacred place. It reveres every child as a being of infinite worth and dignity, whatever his or her ability.

A school is about teaching children the skills they need to prevail in a world that makes it difficult to keep one's bearings.

It is about helping them develop belief in themselves and instilling trust in their own judgment to think for themselves.

It is about having them discover and appreciate the different cultures of the past and present, with their different ways of viewing the world, their different beliefs and values, their different ways of being human; and that these cultures may be able to teach us important things about ourselves that we, in our blindness, might never discern.

It is about suggesting that these beliefs and values are different, not better or worse, but different from those of their own; and that they can only be understood within their own time and place, as later generations will hopefully judge us as we were given the light to live our lives according to the truth as we saw it.

A school is a sanctuary where children can be put in touch with their inner selves to lay the foundations for a richer, deeper, and more meaningful existence.

It is a place where they are encouraged to question their assumptions and discover that their truths may or may not be shared by others.

It is where they can discover that the world is a much bigger place than their little corner of it; realize that what is, need not necessarily be; and that things can be changed if they have the courage to do so.

A school is not about teaching subjects, but about teaching children subjects.

Therein lies the whole art of teaching, and everything else is dust and ashes.

A school takes students from wherever it finds them and moves them forward as far as it can.

It provides an education that is not about possessing the "answers," but understanding the magnitude of the questions.

It creates an environment in which education is not learning more and more arguments about why one is right, but rather attaining more detachment from oneself to see the world in a broader perspective.

It endeavors to train each student to think, read, and write critically in order to think for oneself, and not to be indoctrinated into the myths of one's tribe.

It is a place where a student can learn to become tolerant toward all points of view, not necessarily to accept them as one's own, but to understand why one in good faith might embrace them.

It enables a student to realize that if one had been born in a different time and place, of different parents of a different race, in a different social class of a different faith, and were of the opposite sex with a different kind of childhood, one would have a different view of oneself, the world, and the meaning of life; and that one's present outlook might simply be a matter of chance; and that one would have had another set of beliefs held with the same conviction as one does now; and that, realizing this, one might not want to judge or condemn others because they don't share one's views.

It teaches that questioning is the way to truth, not authority, obedience, conformity or blind acceptance; and that one ought never coerce the consent of another, for every conscience is as sacred as one's own.

A school is not about testing or teaching a child to test well, but rather uses test scores simply to help understand each individual child's needs and strengths, not equating a child's worth with those scores.

A school does not turn away children from its doors because they may test poorly because children are more important than tests, for tests exist for children, not children for tests.

Doing well on tests is not an education, but simply a skill in taking tests.

To make tests into a god is to abuse both them and the children they are meant to help.

Once upon a time over the portals of the fabled Library of Alexandria were chiseled in stone these words: "The Hospital for the Soul." This majestic phrase captured for all times the eternal dream of the pure and unfettered pursuit of knowledge and our need for quiet places like schools whither to repair to find the peace and repose in renewing the spirit.

Amidst the confusions of this distracted world, the Greeks never lost sight of the importance of thinking about the big questions of life, its ultimate meaning, and the need to develop to their utmost all of one's powers. We must not be misled by the obsessions of the moment, they warn us, for in turning a blind eye to the more important concerns of the spirit and of our humanity, we court our destruction and that of our children.

The school and all that it stands for are now under siege for its very existence. Greek Paideia, that noble dream of classical antiquity in the transformative power of education, the belief in the potential of self-enhancement through knowledge, the heroic single-mindedness in channeling the energies of youth toward the creation of an aware citizenry, this enduring legacy is struggling for survival in these dark times.

The 19th-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt referred to an age of "terrible simplifiers" that would come to replace Western democracy. We are now in that age, with the school especially vulnerable in being taken over by this mentality.

The school offers an education that is too precious to be surrendered to those with no understanding of learning's ultimate meaning and value. They believe that its efficacy can somehow be measured in numbers, which, sadly, reveal more of these measurers than the unfathomable mystery of what they, in their hubris, would presume to measure.