What Back to School Could Mean

This past week, over 70 million students from Pre-K to PhD went back to school in the United States.  Of those, an estimated 1 million students are homeless, an all-time high.  And this past week, many of us went back to school ourselves to teach these folks.  Maybe you have a adjunct position, or maybe you are supervising an intern, or maybe you are a school counselor or work at a university health service.

It has never seemed more urgent to me then now that we help people get the educations they desire and work toward.  Our country has been struggling immensely over the past several years with fiscal crashes, growing gaps between the upper, middle and working classes, and the sense of hopelessness and pessimism that accompany them.  When 1 million children are homeless in one of the 10 richest countries in the world, there is a lot of change needed.

Education should be fueled by optimism even though it always begins in failure.  By that I mean that we start off by not knowing stuff, and hoping to change that.  If we all knew how to read, write and think critically innately, we’d never need to go to school.  We begin not-knowing, but, and this is what is amazing, hard-wired to learn things.  We are wired to attach to caregivers, acquire language, and make meaning of the world.  And we all have the ability to have ideas.

Recently there has been a lot of useful commentary on how we need to get better at failing, in order to be able to innovate.  That is true, and it is only half the story.  To be able to innovate, we need to be willing to risk and tolerate failure, true.  But just as importantly, we need to allow for the possibility that we could contribute something important and transformative to the world as well.

Recently I was talking with a group of my graduate students, and I asked them to be honest with me and raise their hand if they thought they could get an A in my class.  I was heartened to see that 3/4 of class raised their hands.  Then I said, “Now raise your hand if you believe that you could have an idea in this class that could change the world.”

One student raised their hand.  It was a poignant moment for me, and I suspect many of them.

What has happened to our educational system and values that we teach people to expect they can get an A, but not come up with an idea that can change the world?

I do not fault the students at ALL for this, because I think they have been taught this pessimism by our system.  SATs and standardized tests are the ways we grant access to more educational privilege in the U.S., but numbers don’t allow for the reality that everyone has the ability to ideate, to come up with a new thought that could change the world in small and large ways.  And students are given or not given financial support based on numbers, which at best only indicate potential, the potential in many ways to know what has already been known, rather than the ability to discover the unknown.  These numbers become a driving concern to parents and children, to teachers and students 0f all ages.

Many of the students you are working with are starting the year feeling defeated already.  I remember a talk I gave a while back to students on academic probation at a community college, in the last chance class they had to pass in order to continue.  Every one of them played and enjoyed some sort of video game, and I asked them why they were willing to try and fail repeatedly with video games when they were having such reluctance to try and fail at school?

One student raised his hand and answered, “because with a video game, I might win.”

What a damning indictment of the educational environment we are shaping people’s hearts and minds in.  And yet, by the end of that class every one of the students had spoken, had put forth an idea of their own which brought us as a group further.

Recently, I have been playing a new MMO called Guild Wars 2 and I am finding it very timely for the back to school season.  Although I have played WoW for years and have leveled characters up to 85 there, suddenly I find myself thrown into a new world.  There is a completely unexplored map, a new economy to master, the game mechanics and character classes just different enough to make my keyboard skills rusty.  I didn’t have a clue what was going on until I hit level 5 or 6, when suddenly I began to “get it.”  The big question I have for you is, what kept me going to level 5?

I suspect the answer is that video games like GW2 create an optimistic world, where the possibility of success and creating something new is a distinct one.  I kept trying in places where I got stuck because I knew both that failure was a possibility but so was success.  I also had the opportunity to play the beta version, where we were always being asked by the game designers for our impressions and ideas.  Many of these ideas have been incorporated into the later iterations of games like GW2, WoW, and Minecraft.  These ideas have literally changed the worlds of these games.

What if we looked at our classrooms and studies more like a beta test?  What if we allowed for the possibility that each of us, any of us, could have an idea that changes the world?  What kind of learning and character building would that environment produce?

I highly doubt that if aliens were to visit our planet thousands of years from now that they would be impressed with anyone’s GPA.  I doubt that they’d sift through the ashes of a civilization to see its test results.  They might note the high levels of anxiety and rhetoric in the 21st century speeches on education reform though.

If you are a student reading this I hope you will take this to heart:  I believe that you are capable of coming up with an idea that could change the world.  If you are a teacher I hope you’ll fight to keep your classroom a laboratory of innovation or a beta test rather than crank out widgets of standardized educational achievement.  If you are a therapist I hope you will help support your patients and their families to maintain a sense of their capability and optimism.  If you are a parent I hope you will remember that your children’s willingness to take risks and find interests in the world may not always match your own or the status quo and that that is a good thing.

Someone, many someones, somewhere, many somewheres out there, a world-changing idea is about to happen.  Let’s not miss it.


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