Where will children learn life’s lessons if not in the classroom?

“Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult.”   The Road Less-Travelled by Scott S. Peck

Teachers wear many hats. They are at once advocates, analysts, coaches, counselors, detectives, disciplinarians, instructors, mentors, motivators, social workers and sometimes surrogate parents. Still, there is one role that many teachers would prefer to shed; that is the role of edutainer. Teachers are not here to entertain their students; the very suggestion demeans the noble labor they have undertaken.

Suffice it to say that there was not one course in comedic improvisation required for a Master of Education diploma. If teachers could sing and dance and tell jokes, they would be in New York or Las Vegas. Yet, the most egregious mistake teachers can make today is to “bore” their clientele. Kindly read “bore” as a failure to entertain.

The children of today have watched MTV, Sesame Street and commercial programming to the point where the attention span of average high schoolers renders them incapable of reaching the period at the end of the sentence you are currently reading without the onset of acute somnolence.

Today, education experts urge teachers to change activities every ten-to-fifteen minutes to cope with this phenomenon. It is recommended that each activity appeal to a different sensory mode (visual, auditory, tactile, spatial, etc.) Teachers are encouraged to include games and student-centered group activities. The emphasis now is on how much “fun” can be generated in the classroom. Is it wise to always cater to what can be perceived as an intellectual frailty?

It is not my purpose to malign any of these strategies. They are, in fact, a part of my instructional repertoire. Every teacher should strive for an eclectic blend of methodologies and offer diverse strategies to their learners, but somehow it seems a disservice to our children to convey the idea that a “good time” is high on the list of inalienable rights.   After all, the founding fathers only saw fit to guarantee the right to pursue happiness! The realization of happiness is our personal responsibility.

Where, if not in school, are students going to learn about mental discipline, intellectual focus, short and long term goal-setting and overcoming adversity? Do we not risk spawning a generation of intellectual butterflies that flit ceaselessly from one train of thought to another without pursuing any to competency and mastery.

For my students, the unthinkable occurs every day in my classroom. They are expected to work (that most dreaded of four-letter words!). Every single day they must learn a new skill or perfect an old one. Decades of study may not suffice to truly master a second language, but real glory arrives with the attainment of improbable goals. Knowledge, though, is not a gift to be bestowed; it is a prize won through perseverance and tenacity. Unfortunately, these values do not mesh well in a society that tacitly endorses instant gratification as a lifestyle choice.

One morning before school, one of my promising students arrived early in my classroom. He had acquitted himself rather well in his first two semesters. He professed an undying love for the French language. He asked what it would take to attain fluency. He stated that his goal was to major in French. He wanted my advice. He pushed all the right buttons; he said that French sounded musical; he praised my teaching. He insisted adamantly that this was his dream and he would not be denied.

Then, I made my first mistake. I told him the truth.

“If you are really interested in becoming fluent in this language” I began, “then you must find a way over the next decade to dedicate 4,000 to 6,000 hours to the study of French dividing them more-or-less equally between the skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. You will be obliged to wear headphones until your ears are sore. You will probably need to spend a year in the target culture, preferably after acquiring the rudiments of the language. You will have to live several years with a dictionary in your hand and be prepared to be the object of hopefully good-natured laughter as you make your first million mistakes. Fluency is seldom acquired prior to the completion of six years of daily study.”

This earnest young man calmly looked at me and replied, “Whew! I guess that eliminates being a French major.” He stood up and departed.

My answer, however truthful, was not the one he wanted to hear.

It would be undeniably more comforting to students, at least initially, to have the amount of work required for great accomplishments purposefully understated. Heck, learning to conjugate and spell accurately is just mindless drill after all! There’s really no need to practice your scales to automaticity in order to play an instrument well! Practice is just a sadistic form of perpetuated tedium! However, except for genuine prodigies, this attitude is the roadmap to mediocrity.

It seems today that we have placed the cart before the horse. We try to teach our children to hold themselves in high esteem before they have properly earned the right to do so. We attempt to protect them from the slightest notion of adversity while forgetting that the hardest steel is forged in the hottest fire. Where will our children develop character and tenacity if the classroom becomes an extension of the playground?

The path to the summit of Mt. Learnèd is a long and torturous climb fraught with trials, tribulations and sometimes even peril. It is a worthy undertaking because the higher we climb the farther our eyes reach to new horizons and the perspective from such heights is gloriously illuminating.   How will we inspire our children to depart the beaten path of all that is base in this world and make the ascent toward enlightenment?

Addressing the challenges of another generation, John F. Kennedy said, “We choose to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Our students today need to know that nobody is going to carry them up a slippery slope cracking jokes along the way.   They need to appreciate that hardship is involved in the acquisition of knowledge. Granted a helicopter ride to the top might be more diverting, but would it induce sufficient wisdom to appreciate the view?


[The original version of this Commentary appeared in the now defunct Prince George’s Journal in August of 1999. Slightly revised in 2016.] 

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