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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


We've Ruined Childhood. Let's Not Double Down in College.

It's become clear that school is bad for students. This is why I'm focused on helping them learn.

August 18, 2019

Classes at the College of Charleston commence Tuesday, and for the first time since spring 2017, I will be teaching a course.

My emotions are a-swirl: a mix of excitement, anxiety, determination. Being away from the classroom has reconfirmed how much teaching means to me, even as it has also hardened my fears about the unsustainable trajectory higher education finds itself on along several fronts.

I’m participating in the school’s first-year experience, a themed, seminar-style course combined with a once-a-week session headed by a peer facilitator focused on adjusting to the intellectual and social demands of college. My course is titled So You Want to Write Something Funny.[1]

I have very specific curricular goals for the course, but I also have larger goals rooted in my belief that the system of schooling many students have navigated prior to entering college have been harming them intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

I’ve been arguing for quite some time that students have not been coddled; rather they have been defeated by a culture of scarcity and precarity and a system of schooling that reinforces that culture, making students feel inherently insecure.

Writing in The New York Times this past weekend, Kim Brooks sees something similar, arguing that “we have ruined childhood.”

Children are overprogrammed, deprived of free play, and kindergarten is “now an academic training ground for the first grade.” The incidence of depression and anxiety among students continues to climb year after year. Rates of suicidal completion, attempts and ideation during school months are twice that of the rest of the year.

Research suggests that giving young kids more recess, longer lunch -- essentially time to take a break from being programmed, conditions children of previous generations took for granted -- may have significant benefit. Like any humans, they need time and space to take a break from the pressures of the world.

I believe that disrupting the growing culture of surveillance within schools is also a necessary step. Relentlessly tracking student data, developing AI tools to monitor their emotional states, nudging students this way and that based on algorithmic flags only serves to increase anxiety and deprives students of the necessary space and chances to develop agency they need to learn.

Brooks describes the state of childhood as “one long unpaid internship meant to secure a spot in a dwindling middle class.”

This should distress us. This is the culture of precarity. Meanwhile, the conditions of scarcity among children whose parents are not already in the middle class does even greater harm than to those who merely feel precarious. Approaches like “no-excuses” curricula which privilege compliance so students can successfully join in the larger battle with the well-heeled crowd ignore both the underlying systemic issues that create the conditions of scarcity and the reality that no matter how much is sacrificed to join that particular rat race, those of relatively greater privilege will find ways to maintain that privilege.

As is probably apparent, I’ve managed to wind myself up pretty good about this stuff once again. A certain amount of powerlessness begins to creep into my thinking as the same debates crawl through my social media feeds, with plenty of solutions being offered by thoughtful people, but none of them seeming to gain any traction in the spaces where they could truly make a difference.

Rather than deeply exploring the systems of education and their impact of well-being on students, we have the Gates Foundation investing heavily in figuring out how to quantify the economic return of different college degrees. This is doubling (or tripling) down on the misguided and dangerous philosophies that have created this mess.

Since publishing Why They Can’t Write and The Writer’s Practice, I’ve seen dozens of articles, tweets and messages about how poorly students write and how we don’t know enough to help them do better, and it’s all I can muster to not scream, "Read these freaking books and talk to a teacher or two, why don't you?"

We very much know how to do it better, but it requires the abandonment of some notions around standardization and accountability that some folks seem to treat as unquestionable gospel.

It’s enough to make you think that there’s some forces aligned against wanting to actually solve some of these issues, or those forces at least not being interested in solutions that are not systematized, datafied and therefore monetizable.

Anyway, one of the places where I can exert some measure of control and therefore provide students the kind of space and freedom I believe they need to develop and expand their intellectual, emotional and social capacities is our classroom, so that’s what I’m determined to do this semester.

This is why my pedagogy -- writing based in experiences, ungrading, freedom for students to write on subjects of interest -- is focused on mitigating the damage that has been done to students by schooling prior to arriving to college.

I have set up a series of experiences as interesting and engaging as I can make them, which will allow students to explore our shared subject of the theories and practice of humor. What students will learn will be up to them, and when it comes time, they will be required to articulate to me and their colleagues what they have learned.

This is what education should do, and by God, I’m going to do my best to see that it happens, even as I recognize that changes in pedagogy by themselves are a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound.

Still, you gotta do what you can do.

Good luck on the start of your semesters, everyone.

[1]I wrote about my syllabus planning two weeks back. The planning continues. One of the best parts of teaching is the syllabus planning.


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