About 50 years ago, a small but dedicated group of people began challenging American society’s attitudes toward food production. The prevailing opinion at the time was that vegetables should be judged primarily by their outward appearance. Bigger and redder tomatoes were deemed more desirable, and so American agriculture brought in the chemical fertilizers and pesticides that would support this type of farming. But a group, who gradually became known as the organic farming movement, persisted in pointing out that the real worth of tomatoes lies not in their appearance, but in their nutritional content which was being sacrificed in the race to improve the more superficial features. It took awhile, but gradually people began to listen, to the extent that a recent study1 shows that 75% of Americans now purchase at least some organic food.

Today we face a similar misconception in an even more important part of our lives, our children’s education. Everyone wants our children to succeed; the problem lies in how we define success. Much like the misplaced focus on bigger and redder tomatoes, many people accept the theory that student success can be measured by standardized test scores. These tests are mandated in almost all public schools and exercise an enormous effect on our children’s future, as well as on the careers of their teachers and administrators. With such compelling consequences, it is appropriate to ask what exactly these tests are measuring.

Below are some of the topics covered at the fifth through eleventh grade level on one of our most widely-administered standardized tests2. In going through the list, notice not only the number of items you are familiar with, but also how important this information has been in your adult life.

1) the function of the esophagus,
2) the difference between a stereoscope and a laser light with holograph
3) the reason fossils are found in sedimentary rocks.
4) the contributions of Hammurabi,
5) the differences between metals and nonmetals
6) the form of energy released or absorbed in most chemical reactions.
7) the Schlieffen Plan
8) the Tennis Court Oath.
9) the Social Gospel movement
10) the Reconstruction Finance Corporation

The point, of course, is not that the Schlieffen Plan, the Tennis Court Oath, or any of the other items might not be valuable pieces of information in their own specialized fields of knowledge. It is rather that in using such relatively obscure data to measure the overall effectiveness of our schools, we make the same type of mistake that people made in judging tomatoes: we are once again focusing on superficial factors at the expense of far more important considerations. When teachers and administrators feel pressured to make sure their students have been exposed to the “right” set of facts, creativity and enthusiasm are quickly replaced with what has been termed “dead-ucation”.

In a recent New York Times article, a teacher questions this emphasis on standardized testing.
“This push on tests is missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful
human. Whether it’s the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon or someone coming here in the 1920s
from southern Italy, there was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real
grit, that you could be successful. Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy
time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that every-
thing they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re
screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”3

From an insightful website comes a parent’s indictment of the consequences of dead-ucation.
“I saw the light in his eyes extinguishing…These energetic, engaged, accomplished, six year olds
turned into twelve year olds who ask ‘Are we getting graded on this?’ or ‘Is this going to be on
the test?’ That flame they had at age six didn’t burn out on its own, we smothered it.”4

And from an administrator at Peking University High School in Shanghai, one of the “winners” in the most recent worldwide standardized testing administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development,
“Test taking is damaging to students’ creativity, critical thinking skills and, in general, China’s
ability to compete in the world. It can make students very narrow minded. In the 21st century,
China needs the creative types its education system isn’t producing.”5

The time has come to ask what a more “organic” approach to education would look like. What if our schools shifted their focus from the previous list of facts to the following considerations?

How to take initiative and exercise creativity
How to concentrate
How to cultivate a passion for lifelong learning
How to be responsible
How to live healthfully
How to overcome negative moods
How to respect different points of view
How to discern the difference between right and wrong
How to find peace and contentment within yourself
10) How to know yourself and express your highest potential

You could ask yourself again, how many items on this list have proven useful in your life, and then, which of the two sets of objectives you would rather have as the primary educational goals for your children’s schools.

Yes, a shift of this magnitude will take considerable effort, but no more than that required to switch from chemical pesticides to organic gardening. Traditional subject matter (the tomatoes) will still provide the basis for a well-rounded education, but our approach must be transformed to incorporate these broader, more nutritive elements. Much work has already been done. We need only to share resources and insights, and provide each other with the support to make the necessary changes. The “fruits” of this movement will transform our entire world.

The author of this article, Michael Nitai Deranja, is president of the Education for Life Foundation, founder of the Ananda Elementary School, and co-founder of Living Wisdom High School. He is the author of For Goodness’ Sake: Helping Children and Teens Discover Life’s Higher Values.

References
1 The Hartman Group Study, “Beyond Organic and Natural”, 2/22/2010
2 Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR), starsamplequestions.org
3 “What if the Secret of Success Is Failure?”, New York Times, 9/14/2011
4 Montessorimadness.com
5 “How Shanghai’s Students Stunned the World”, msnbc.msn.com, 11/2/2011

Each year the students at Living Wisdom High School take a two week trip somewhere within the US or abroad, to serve in some capacity and to experience the adventure of being in a new culture or other unique situation. Past excursions have taken students to an orphanage in Baja Mexico, a sea turtle sanctuary in Mexico, to Machu Picchu in Peru, on road trips to national parks throughout the Southwest, to Mother Teresa’s center in India, to Hong Kong, and to the largest no-kill animal shelter in North America in Utah. The students pay for these trips by earning “student tuition” which they make by working at various jobs throughout the year and also by various fundraising dinners and projects.

The idea behind these trips is to get kids out of their habitual comfortable environment, to open them up the realities of people of different cultures and ethnicities, to put them in situations where they need to think on their feet and be a part of making important decisions, to help someone or some situation outside of their normal world, and to stretch their bodies, minds and hearts.

This year the girls have planned a trip to South Africa. Their teacher is a native of South Africa and is helping them set up service projects in schools and an orphanage. The boys will be traveling to Nepal. Some of their activities will be serving in several schools and trekking through villages near Pokharra on their way to a famous view of Annapurna Mountain.

Last fall our whole school had a celebration of the life of Malala, the young woman from Pakistan who was almost killed by the Taliban a few years ago and has been courageously working for education for girls in that part of the world. She recently won the Nobel Peace Prize. As a part of honoring her, we collected school supplies for our high school students to deliver to schools in South Africa and Nepal. It’s pretty exciting to think of those notebooks and pencils in the hands of South African and Nepalese children!

The students and teachers will be gone from March 9th to 23rd.  Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers as they experience this amazing opportunity to help others and learn and grow in the process.

When I was growing up, one of the fascinations of childhood was learning to spell the word antidisestablishmentarianism. It was the longest word my friends and I could find and presented a fitting challenge for our budding intellects. (Some will say it has since been surpassed by the likes of pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis and supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.) Of course none of us had the slightest idea what the word meant and no motivation to find out. Later as a young man though, the word drifted back into my memory along with the curiosity to finally look up its meaning. To my surprise I found that it provided a very helpful clue to understanding something that deeply concerned me, the lack of values and moral direction in our educational system.

The word itself refers to the question of whether or not a country should have an established church, a major concern when the United States was forming since European countries of the time were firmly aligned with either Catholicism or some form of Protestantism. Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were firmly opposed to this practice, and thus we inherited the doctrine of the separation of church and state.

At first, the application of this doctrine was confined to keeping religious prejudices out of our courts and government. Schools, however, were for many years left to reflect the overwhelmingly Christian basis of our culture by incorporating such practices as prayer, the celebration of Christmas, and an emphasis on developing sound Christian values. As our country diversified, people began to challenge this bias in light of the separation clause. In recent decades our courts have consistently, if unpopularly, upheld that it is unconstitutional to impose any religious ethics and practices in a secular institution. Today as we observe the consequences of these decisions, it is appropriate to ask if we are cultivating the kind of society that Jefferson and the others were envisioning, and more importantly whether it is the society we want for ourselves and our children.

When we interpret the separation clause to make it illegal to emphasize moral instruction in our classrooms, we can only offer our children a narrow, superficial view of life that has grave consequences. Most poignantly, we have the school shootings. While the shooters themselves are extreme examples of social isolation, insensitivity, and moral confusion, it will be clear to anyone visiting a typical American high school that there is a strong and growing subculture of our teenagers who share these same negative attitudes toward life. With no positive ideals to aspire to, they “glorify” cynicism, apathy, and decadence. In these circles achievement in academics or any constructive pursuit is grounds for ridicule and ostracism.

This absence of positive values is also disturbingly apparent when we shift our focus to another key aspect of society, our economic situation. Here too we find the notorious “villains”, the Bernie Madoffs and Ivan Boeskes who personify unbridled greed, insensitivity, and dishonesty. But once again we can see that they are only the most visible examples of a morally deficient environment that also brought us the credit default swaps and robo-mortgage signings that produced the latest economic collapse. How did we get to the point where our primary financial institutions like Bank of America, J.P. Morgan and others are subject to outright fines in excess of 100 million dollars and “settlements” that run into the billions? [1]

In looking for answers it is instructive to examine how this broader social drama has played out in one particular educational setting. Many of the people in charge of our major financial institutions received their college training at Harvard which lists such people as Jamie Dimon (J.P. Morgan), John Thain (Merrill Lynch) and Jeffry Skilling (Enron) among its graduates. This institution’s response to the crisis of leadership in our economic and financial sectors is revealing. There is a page on the university’s website entitled “Global Financial Crisis Continues: Harvard Economists React” [2] As one might expect, it is a rather imposing collection of articles on the pros and cons of bailouts, regulation, cap and trade, and financial stimuli. While these topics are no doubt worth examining, not a single article addresses “the elephant in the living room”; that even the best economic system will fail us if the people running it are lacking in the basic moral sensitivities.

Harvard was founded as a divinity school in 1636 during the Puritan era of Massachusetts. During the 1800’s it was heavily influenced by the Unitarian Church and was “secularized” under the presidency of Charles W. Eliot from 1869-1909. Eliot’s motivation however, like Jefferson’s, was to promote religious toleration, not the abandonment of the cultivation of moral values [3]. But here again we see
sincere efforts at promoting religious toleration somehow getting sidetracked and leading instead to moral decay. Faced with results so diametrically opposed to the intentions of people like Jefferson and Eliot, it is time to ask ourselves if there is not some basic flaw in our understanding of the relationship between religion and morality.

The Dalai Lama recently offered a profoundly helpful insight into this discussion. In his book “Beyond Religion: Ethics for a Whole World” he equates religion with tea. He notes that everyone likes tea, but some prefer it with certain spices, others with sugar, and in Tibet, with a pinch of salt. On the surface there may seem to be broad differences. But he makes the point that the real reason people like tea, is that everyone needs water; and tea is simply a way of meeting this universal need. He goes on to show how religions (like teas) are simply different approaches to meeting the universal human need for morality.

Utilizing this insight we can see that our fear of encouraging morality in our schools is based on a false identification of moral values with a particular religion. Is there really a Christian monopoly on humility? Have the Buddhists cornered the market on compassion? One of the advantages of a pluralistic society is that we have all met kind, honest people who were different from us in religion, ethnicity, and race. On this basis we can begin to see that there are universal values like courage, honesty, and justice that are simply the bedrock of any healthy and successful society.

In separating church and state, we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater, or as the Dalai Lama might put it, deprive people of water while making sure we don’t impose a particular brand of tea. We are intrinsically moral beings. Would you rather buy your next car from an honest or a dishonest person? The next time you use public transportation, would you rather sit next to a kind or an obnoxious person? By focusing on this universal basis of morality, we find the path that allows us to bring moral training back into our schools, not in the mode of dogmatic indoctrination, but in a spirit of experiential, free-ranging exploration that allows students to examine what really works in creating the happy, fulfilling life that we all aspire to.

Nitai Deranja is the president of Education for Life International and the author of “For Goodness’ Sake: helping our children and teens discover life’s higher values”

[1] (CNN, April 10, 2012)

[2] (http://www.economics.harvard.edu/about/views)

[3] “The second eminent contribution which the [people of the] United States have made to civilization is their thorough acceptance, in theory and practice, of the widest religious toleration.” The Oxford Book of American Essays. 1914. Volume XX. Five American Contributions to Civilization by Charles William Eliot