Would I have ever found out that American spaghetti is terrible had I not taught a class full of Italian girls who made me the best spaghetti of my life? Probably not.
In life, is knowing the terrible, dirty, truth and being sad about it, better than knowing nothing at all?
This afternoon, as I was walking out of my classroom and into the sunny Santa Barbara afternoon, a student stopped me and asked an interesting question.
Mei Lun, a student from China, asked me, "Teacher, why is it that American education is focused on telling students what is wrong and evil about society?"
She continued, "In China, we always learned great things about our country. We learned about our long history, our dominance, our great abilities in art and science. We learned about innovative thinkers and artists. We learned about the value of communism and hard work. We were happy at school."
She added, "Here (in the U.S.), I am afraid for my son to go to school, because I am worried that he will only hear terrible things. He will be afraid of the world instead of excited to be in it. He will become cynical."
After Mei Lun told me her opinion, and asked me that tough question, "Why does the American education system focus on what is wrong with society?" I had to stop and think.
Here is what I said:
"I think that the American education system reflects our culture. In America, we (the people) want to know what the problem is so we can fix it. In the most perfect Democracy, the people have the power to fix their own problems, so this system is reflected in the best educational settings. In China, I think the education system also mirrors the culture. There, the government deals with the problems, the people are not entrusted with that responsibility. So, I think systematically people are told the highlights and the problems are kept secret."
Though this is a pretty simple analysis of two models of education, I think it conveys what, idealistically happens in both countries. Since I am not an expert in the Chinese system of education, I'll add to my thoughts on the American education system (the unbroken version).
First, I think that the best schools and teachers in the American education system do not focus on what is bad and wrong with society, but they focus on the truth, and what students can do to make our society better.
In my classes, I tell students about issues that are important and eminent. I want students to know what troubles they will face, what issues are pressing, and what needs fixing in society. But I do not stop at educating students about problems. After I present these problems, I often try to go a step further and let students know what they can do to improve society. I want students to know that problems exist, and that they have the ability to create solutions and foster change.
Second, I think that in an ideal classroom/ educational setting, it is the responsibility of the educator to show students that life is not always perfect, and that they should have the skills needed to deal with a sour situation.
The reason why social studies and humanities classes teach about terrible things is because people need to know that these things happen so that they can stop them from happening. Educating people about the ills in society makes them part of those ills, for better or worse, and they must choose to do something (or not do something) about those things. The beauty in education is knowing what is going on in the world, and choosing what you want to do about it.
Third, I'd like to think that by educating students about abhorrent occurrences, they will prevent them from happening in the future.
Students are entitled to know what is going wrong, and what has gone wrong before in this world so that they can learn from those things and not repeat them.
Though Mei Lun is long gone (I won't see her again until Wednesday), I want to tell her this:
I hope that students have teachers who explain sad and difficult situations with thoughtfulness and courage. I hope that teachers do not shelter students from reality, but give them tools to deal with it, and then to make it better. I hope that students realize that truth is scary and sad, that the world is difficult, but that knowing this is true and knowing that reality is changeable, is a blessing.