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Why Are We Afraid to Explore Issues Essential to Our Children’s Future?

Exploring the effects of advertising with a group of students

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?

Zoe Weil


About zoeweil

I'm the co-founder and President of the Institute for Humane Education (IHE). IHE works to create a world in which we all live humanely, sustainably, and peaceably. We do this by training people to be humane educators who teach about the pressing issues of our time and inspire people to work for change while making healthy, humane, and restorative choices in their daily lives. We also work to advance the field of humane education, and to provide tools and inspiration to people everywhere so that they can live examined, meaningful lives. I'm also a writer. So far I've written six books and several articles.


11 thoughts on “Why Are We Afraid to Explore Issues Essential to Our Children’s Future?

  1. Zoe, This post really strikes a chord for me. I cannot tell you how often, prior to a talk or a professional development session, I have to get on the phone with superintendents, principals and others to make sure my talks are going to be “appropriate.” Meaning, of course, not too challenging to the conventional ideas and paradigms about why we do school, what is appropriate to talk about in school, how we manage down the language to make it…not too alarming.

    I too feel great sympathy, simultaneously, for the individuals who have to run speakers through this gauntlet, as you express for your principal. But it DOES suggest the desert-like intellectual conditions that students and teachers must exist in (so many ideas embargoed! if controversy is not allowed, or only candy-covered, preapproved controversy, then how does learning occur?), and the ways in which the institution MUST manage the inflow of ideas and thoughts. It is too fragile not to, or perceives itself as too fragile…

    So I say we just keep challenging those limits. Maybe the teacher will ask you back this year, and get parents to commit to coming to the evening beforehand?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 26, 2010, 9:43 am
    • Such an interesting word: fragile. Thanks for that lens. We simultaneously think our children aren’t fragile at all (and so expose them to so much violence and inappropriate material way too young) and terribly fragile (and so limit their ability to know the truth and seek the truth and question what is delivered to them as truth).

      Posted by Zoe Weil | August 28, 2010, 8:42 pm
  2. This post and a puzzling question at work have me imagining what it would be like to learn in a school that let a kid ask any question and expect an answer from every adult. I think the trust, analysis, and synthesis in that school would be extraordinary.

    In public schools, adults’ ideas of doing the most good shouldn’t be inextricably linked to kids’ being the most polite to the most people. Polite questions don’t hold a monopoly on needed answers.

    What kinds of in-school follow-up are typical to your talks, Zoe?

    Also, thank you for the post, Zoe – it’s great to interact with you here.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 26, 2010, 7:58 pm
    • Thanks Chad! A couple thoughts. I’m all for politeness, but I don’t know what a polite question is and I would hate to see efforts to make children ask such questions. I think all questions can be asked in a polite manner – which I would love to see – but what would be an impolite question (barring a personal question not relevant to the subject at hand)?

      I don’t do many talks in schools these days because I spend most of my time with adults training people to be humane educators, but this is an important question – thanks for asking. Single presentations without follow up only go so far. I know that the teacher who invited me got a grant to bring me to her regions schools AND do follow-up community activities and service to augment the message.

      Posted by Zoe Weil | August 28, 2010, 8:46 pm
  3. Zoe,

    I have a presentation where I approach the question, “What should the aims of education be?” I play around with the current purpose of education to mostly be test scores, and then get serious. I ask that perhaps we need to look at what students will be faced to deal with and then work backwards to understand what education should be for. Like you I put forth the concepts of war, massive population migration, desertification, lack of food and potable water, etc.

    The picture is radically different when we understand this to be the context within which education truly exists. Knowing how to fill out a scan-tron does not help support a student to help imagine and build a world where the tragedies of today-violence, economic injustice, and so forth are not the realities of tomorrow.

    I think this scares people for two reasons:

    1. It is not commonly understood how much trouble we are in as a planet: How poorly we live on it today–from our treatment of its soils, waters, flora and fauna to our treatment of each other. And how our current scramble to save the economy is worthless if we don’t rebuild our economy based on principles of “rewealth” as Storm Cunningham calls them, as compared to “dewealth.”

    2. The inertia of our current systems are largely in direct opposition to the movement of thought and action that we truly need today. Again test scores based on the current curriculum mandates are irrelevant to the truth of what we face today and tomorrow. Thus, the prospect of deconstructing what we have built over the past century is daunting especially with the political (read salaries) pressure to keep going in the wrong direction.

    Thanks for shining the light brightly on this issue, Zoe.

    With hope,

    Posted by Adam Burk | August 29, 2010, 10:34 am
  4. Adam, Anything from your “aims of education” presentation you could share here? I’d love to see and share.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | September 2, 2010, 11:28 am


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