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In my previous blog post, I wrote about how the Church suffers from what I believe to be narration sickness, why this is so, and what alternative story can and should be told to redeem it. In this post, I turn my attention to education.

The fact that children are forced to spend the majority of their formative years in educational institutions with little to no say in the matter, places a huge responsibility on the shoulders of those of us in education to get it right, for the sake of the children in our keeping as well as the democracy we all share.

Unfortunately, the current way we teach our young far too often creates generational cycles of poverty, neglect, homelessness, violence, disenfranchisement and inequality because we fail to hold up our pedagogical models to the proper critique. Compulsory schooling is a moral enterprise and, as such, can and should be reviewed and appraised with a fine eye towards passing down a future generation capable of bettering not only themselves but also the common good. As a society, we can no longer accept the epidemic statistics related to students who dropout in large part because we fail to “do” school right.

The research presented in The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropoutsa report commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, shows that each year, almost one-third of all public high school students fail to graduate. Again and again, in survey after survey of high school dropouts, nearly half of the respondents report that the major reason for dropping out was boredom and disengagement from the school. It wasn’t that they couldn’t do the work; it was that they didn’t see any value in it. Most indicated they wished that they had been inspired in their classrooms to do better and were disappointed at the lack of engagement with both the material and the teacher.

What is it, then, within our current pedagogical system that offers so little sense of hope, connection and engagement? Where is the disconnect between elementary students who say they want to graduate and the actual student who chooses to dropout in large measure because school holds no interest for either short-term interest or long-term gain? What are we getting wrong and, more importantly, what must we get right to curb this problem? When even our best students cry out for an education that recognizes them as human beings and not cogs in the assembly line machinery, we need to look for a better story (read this heart wrenching valedictory address by Erica Goldson, for example: http://americaviaerica.blogspot.com/2010/07/coxsackie-athens-valedictorian-speech.html)  I believe the problem is that the story we offer students today holds little relevance or recognition of children as valuable in and of themselves apart from their value in the marketplace.

Listen to the story we tell our poor students: You are not worth very much to us. In fact, we believe there are more important things than you to worry about in our system, so we are going to cut education spending year after year, even though we know that education has the power to lift students out of generational poverty, gangs, homelessness, incarceration, etc. Instead, we are going to lock you into an underfunded, underperforming school that bears a familiar resemblance to a prison. Once you are there, we are going to test you according to what we think is important for our own ends, rather than ask you what you think is valuable. In fact, we don’t want you to talk at all; the more silent and complicit you are, the better. Once you start to realize that we don’t care about you and drop out of our system, we are going to punish you for choosing not to tough it out. And if, after all that, you end up trying on your own to make it on the street, we will imprison you at alarmingly high rates so that we can feel safer and avoid dealing with how broken you have become.

Or how about the story we tell the other, “luckier” students: We care about you a lot! In fact, we care about you so much that we are going to preach to you, in every way possible, that the American Dream is within your grasp if you will just apply yourself to your studies in school, get into college, graduate with a degree, and get a job so that you have the money to buy our stuff. Never mind that we have divorced “work” from “calling, meaning, or passion,” or that we have defined success, wealth and value solely in terms of your paycheck; we want you to have a job to make a living (you can worry about all that idealistic stuff related to making a life later). We want you to be happy (even if the pursuit of fleeting moments of giddiness keep you bouncing job to job, marriage to marriage, drug to drug seeking more and more “happiness”). Remember, we care about you, so work hard, get your education and come buy more of our stuff!

If these are the only stories we are telling, no wonder the sickness we see around us exists. I am becoming convinced that our high divorce rates, drug and alcohol addictions, incarceration rates, rampant sexuality, etc. are symptoms of the narration sickness inherent in every fiber of our culture. Rather than address it, we seek to numb it through petty pursuits, vain purchases, quick fixes, shallow relationships, and impotent theology.

What is needed once again is for the voice of the prophet to call us back to a better Story–a Story worth living for, a Story worth dying for, a Story worth learning over and over again.