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On the Humanity of Education

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It was Aristotle who said: "Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all." I like to think Aristotle knew a thing or two about education. Mahatma Gandhi encouraged people to "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever." But my favorite educational anecdote is attributed to Mark Twain: "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education."

At some point in the engulfment of SAT scores, stellar extracurriculars, and preschool admissions interviews, on the conveyor belt churning out our valedictorians, we've hit a snag: We stopped educating our hearts. Really, we stopped catering education to the most basic of human instincts, and the one that comes to mind first is the instinct to care: the instinct to be curious, to be understood and understand, the instinct to be curious and seek to understand things beyond us.

Why is this concept seen as "above the heads" of preschoolers, but admissions interviews are not?

We started defining education by percentages and letters-A's for the good student, F's for the bad one, with not much attention paid to the in-betweeners. In fact, we started classifying students as "good" and "bad" to begin with, and that in and of itself is a problem. Students are humans. Learning is an intrinsically human trait-something we are quite literally designed to do, and something we do quite naturally. Would you classify a human as a good or bad human? Not a "bad person," who does bad things, but someone who had failed at being human?

We started categorizing learning. We started sticking labels to it, like AP or accelerated classes, advanced, average, and below average. We turned it into subjects: English, Math, Science, History, and barely scrape the surface of what any "subject" has to offer.

We started telling kids how to learn. And because we've so painstakingly, specifically defined a definition of learning that it is so sharp it cuts corners, we halted and disallowed kids from doing what they do naturally: Learn.

Learning isn't a desk thing. Learning isn't a textbook thing. Learning isn't something kids dread (though by society's warped definition it certainly is, and I don't blame them). Learning is what happens when we're not necessarily in school. Learning happens when we aren't thinking, as counter-productive as that may sound. Especially for kids, learning happens when we get busy living.

Learning is what happens when kids spend hours playing outside, creating their own games, their own rules, and solving their problems amongst themselves. Learning comes from letting kids experiment-which means messes, and broken things, and probably broken bones. Learning is what happens when a child sits and draws for hours, or kicks or throws a ball, or reads their favorite book until the cover lingers half-torn with the spine worn from countless little hands tracing the pages. Learning comes when a kid gets in a toolbox, or helps someone else.

Learning happens when you don't know it is happening. Learning happens with the natural things-the humanity, the heart, the inherent curiosity we all once had (but I must ask-do you still?). Learning comes from asking how someone's day was, saying hello, shaking hands with a firm grip and steady eye contact, from being spoken to as an adult and a person, rather than "just" a child and a student. Learning comes from fostering one-on-one relationships, really getting to know the person sitting across from you, from encouraging trusting relationships and partnerships and bonds.

We sweep thoughts, fears, dreams, and questions under the proverbial rug. Does your question fit the fill-in-the-blank answer? No? Then it's null and void. Does your fear involve a bad grade, or not getting into the college you're supposed to lust after? No? Oh well then. Do your dreams fit the mold we have so concretely set for you, and most of all, do the callings of your heart match the script we are all supposed to be reading from and living by?

No?

We're taught that following your heart is for losers, that questions are for the stupid, that fears are for the timid, and that questioning anything means you're an out-of-line troublemaker.

My wish for you, little human (also known as student) is that you will always be a trouble-maker, and always seek to stir up the best kind of trouble, the kind with a question, a motive, a sense of purpose, a dream. My hope for you is that you keep your humanity, and that you realize being kind is more important than any grade you'll ever make. What I dream for you is that you know it is always possible to follow the deepest callings of your heart, and that any struggle in that arena is simply an obstacle made for climbing, to keep you learning still. What I want for you is to know, that despite what's written on your report card and class schedule, your dreams and thoughts and fears are valid and worthy, and mostly, I want you to know that it is never a far-fetched ideal to try and change the world -- indeed, it is the only lesson worth your learning, and the only effort worth your endeavors.

To the rest of us: I hope we find, and keep, our humanity.