President's Corner

Liberating Minds and Spirits

by JOSEPH J. CIRASUOLO



Years ago there was a movie about African lions called "Born Free." It followed them in their natural environment. On a recent trip to Kenya, as we bounced across the vast Masai Mara on the northern end of the Serengeti searching for the next pride of lions, I found myself humming the theme song from that movie: "Born free, as free as the grass grows, as free as the wind blows, born free to follow your heart." And then I found myself thinking of our children and the education we give them.Years ago there was a movie about African lions called "Born Free." It followed them in their natural environment. On a recent trip to Kenya, as we bounced across the vast Masai Mara on the northern end of the Serengeti searching for the next pride of lions, I found myself humming the theme song from that movie: "Born free, as free as the grass grows, as free as the wind blows, born free to follow your heart." And then I found myself thinking of our children and the education we give them.

On the savanna, life is rich, complex and fluid. There is nothing more magnificent than animals in the wild. They are sleek, healthy and free. In fact, I think it is their freedom that makes them sleek and healthy. The natural order of life is at work there. The animals move to their own rhythm and rhyme. They compete and collaborate in a totally natural way.

As we pulled up next to them in our land rovers, it was clear we were the intruders. We were in the cages and they were free. There is something exhilarating about freedom, which is probably why so many wars have been fought for it and so many have been willing to die to preserve it.

Confining Structures
Think with me about how we approach learning. We take our children, who are magnificent in their freedom, and we put them into containers with others. We take control of their time and we try to control their minds. And then we move them to another container and another keeper. We make them sit still and be quiet--totally unnatural acts for a healthy 5-year-old (or a 50-year-old, for that matter!). And if they get too restless, we suggest they control themselves or, as Archie Bunker used to suggest to Edith, "to stifle."

As our nation has rushed precipitously toward common standards and high-stakes assessment, we have built even stronger and more constricting containers. Now it is not just children’s behavior, but also what and how they learn that must be controlled. All those things that might be natural to children, such as the joy of movement and creative expression, are being squeezed out of the curriculum so that a common set of intellectual learnings can take place.

And we test their performance. Here the image shifts from zoo to circus. We place them in the center ring, shine the spotlight on them and demand they jump through hoops. With the advent of high stakes, we have set the hoops on fire and if they get singed, we make them jump through again.

At some point, we must recognize that natural is better than artificial; that reality is superior to virtual; and that, above all, a balance is better than an overemphasis on only one thing and performance on a test is no substitute for the real world.

Yes, we must challenge their minds, but do so with meaningful challenges--not artificial activities that act as surrogates for the real thing. And while we challenge their minds, we also must address the needs of their hearts and souls. Otherwise our attempts at fixing their minds could become like the lobotomy performed on McMurphy in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He became docile and controllable. But when they took out his baser impulses, they also lobotomized his spirit. We must make sure we let our children’s spirits run free.

The ancient wisdom of Taoism, which comes from the Far East, suggests that water is stronger than rock. That is because it is fluid and it can wear the rock away. That which moves trumps that which is stagnant. In tropical climates, one avoids standing water, for therein lies the beginnings of disease and death. It is only that which moves and is free that provides life. We must make certain that our education is fluid and flowing and unconstricted.

Movement is energy. Energy is life. When energy is contained, it builds up and ultimately explodes. Is it any wonder that we have to worry about violence with our children? When we contain their energy, we create an explosive potential in them. Or, perhaps just as sadly, we kill their spirit and their will to be active, creative people. And that may be a greater violence.

Removing Shackles
Education is about putting shackles on children’s worst impulses, but it also should be about freeing their minds and liberating their spirits. Education should be about channeling their energy, not containing it. Children are born free. Our task is to let that freedom blossom into a life that is rich with the promise of possibilities.

Education isn’t about setting limits. It’s about widening horizons. It’s about letting children see the world in all its breadth and beauty. Education, at its core, is about creating freedom--freedom of thought and action.

As we look at improving education, let’s spend as much time worrying about that as we do worrying about test scores. The ultimate act of education is not about following directions. It is about following your dreams and your heart.