Last May I had a busy day doing MOGO talks out of state. (MOGO stands for “most good,” a short way of thinking about what does the most good and the least harm, which is the basis of my book, Most Good, Least Harm: A Simple Principle for a Better World and Meaningful Life.) I was scheduled to give three talks – two 2-hour presentations for middle schoolers and a public talk in the evening. I have to admit I was a little worried about maintaining the interest of 150 6-8th graders in a hot gym for two hours, but I was not worried about my subject matter. I’ve taught thousands of middle schoolers, and I’m pretty good at making sure my talks are age-appropriate and engaging.
So I was relieved when I was able to keep the kids’ interest for the duration, and make it lively while still being able to maintain some proverbial order. I thought it went well. So did the teacher who’d invited me. So imagine our surprise when we found out that the second assembly program was canceled because the principal – who’d come in a few times during my presentation, but wasn’t able to attend the entire talk – felt it was too political.
We had the opportunity to talk to the principal, and I asked him to tell me what aspects he thought were too political. There were some words I used – ones that have become buzzwords in our society – such as “war,” “health care” and “illegal immigrants.” While I didn’t discuss current wars and the politics of them, health care reform or the various opinions about it, or the debates over how to handle illegal immigration, the very mention of these terms was, he felt, political. He worried that the kids would go home and share things from the assembly (whether accurately relayed or not) that would anger some parents.
Ironically, the main points of my talk had nothing to do with these “buzzwords.” The take-home message came from the 7 Keys to MOGO from my book, Most Good, Least Harm. I had encouraged the students to:
1. Make connections about their choices and their effects
2. Model their message and work to change systems they didn’t believe were right or good
3. Take responsibility for their actions
4. Pursue joy by helping others
In talking about these four points, I did indeed expose the students to some behind-the-scenes realities. We did the exercise True Price (pdf), examining the positive and negative effects of a conventional cotton T-shirt and then a fast food cheeseburger, and this was ultimately too political in today’s climate.
How distressing. If we cannot uncover truths in school and debate and grapple with systems in an effort to become not only better-educated about the realities behind our choices but also gain the power to be conscientious choicemakers and future changemakers through our careers and professions, then what are we hoping to achieve through education?
I do not blame this principal. He faces stresses and challenges in his job that I not only don’t know about, but can only imagine make his work as an educational leader difficult. We live in an educational climate that buries controversial issues under the rug, making schooling blander with each passing year, and depriving our children of the critical and creative thinking skills they need to face a challenging and uncertain future. Despite all the evidence that shows that discussing controversial issues in school leads to greater educational achievement, skill, and learning, we shy away from the issues that may be most important and relevant to our children’s future.
This principal worried he would be inundated with calls from angry parents the next day. He spent the afternoon after my talk assessing the learning the students obtained. I was delighted to know that by and large the students came away from the presentation able to articulate the four primary points I had made. As far as I know the principal did not receive complaints. I do know that some people were delighted to have these issues presented at their children’s school.
It’s hard not to feel despondent though. How can we ever hope to create a generation of engaged and knowledgeable citizens if we cannot discuss so many crucial topics among youth?