Commentary: The Journey to Individuation—and Responsibility: Part I

by K.J. Wetherholt

On Tuesday night, President Barack Obama stood before a group of students in Virginia to commemorate the first day of a new school year. His spoken remarks, and those found online here, show a president who is asking the students of this country to understand their role and their responsibility, not just to themselves, but as citizens of the United States.

I was happy, at first, to see that he did not give students a way to get off the hook. No matter what background, what family conditions, what race, gender, or economic status—something is expected from each student. To be his or her best. No momentary difficulty or failure is an excuse to give up entirely. There is no quick fix for success. It is hard work, and the questions he asked hearkened back to the most quoted speech of President John F. Kennedy, asking “not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

President Obama:

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country? “

I was instantly reminded of something I had written back in college about Jung’s concept of Individuation. Individuation is the concept Jung came up with for the second phase of life, after the education and structures of young adulthood—when one in middle age seeks to answer larger questions about him/herself and his or her place in the whole—while seeking, too, to be a whole human being. You have already established yourself and have given of yourself to your family and to the community. You have already outgrown the more immature phases of life that demanded structure—you are ready now to ask the deeper questions.

Unfortunately, this process out of necessity is now being demanded of our very young. While these kids are entering kindergarten, elementary school, middle school or high school, eventually, if they haven’t come upon it already, will inherently be the question, who do you want to be? This is ostensibly the very foundation that leads to the question, what contribution do you want to make? This would be fine if this were an open-ended question, given to students so they can start dreaming now, and they can start discovering themselves based on a solid foundation. I remember my answer as a child to what I wanted to be changed every time I read another book or saw something that inspired me. But instead, these days, parents, teachers, and administrations are pounding the future into kids’ heads and saying—ask these questions now. You must also answer these questions now and plan for it. Your future is not going to be handed to you. Even as a child, you must work for it. And you must know what you’re working for. There is no time to dream. There is no time to be irresponsible. Here—if you’re having trouble concentrating, you must have ADHD. We can do something about that.

There is something seriously wrong with this picture.

These days in school, and having been at the forefront of teaching in one of the more challenged public school systems in America, I can honestly say that the education system is indeed faltering—and anything but a stable place in which these students can have the freedom to ask themselves such questions. If schools nationally are like the schools I experienced, administrations at times have categorically lost their way. It’s not enough to ask kids who they’re going to be and what they’re going to contribute to the world—the question is if the schools can even support them at all in that quest—or are the kids going to be on their own in determining answers to those questions.

The first thing that is more prevalent than we would like to admit in education and in speaking about the view of students by administrations, despite the protestations to the contrary: students are numbers. From their ID numbers on paperwork to the amount allotted in the budget per head. They are their test scores. Test scores equal money—whether for test prep, for budgets, or for the bonuses principals sometimes do or do not get depending upon increased test scores. Numbers of students per class. Numbers of students accepted into the school. Numbers of students passing or failing. Governmental officials and administrators alike are proudly pointing to the amount being spent on the schools instead of where or on whatit’s spent.

Depending upon the numbers, administrators pass on the pressures to their teachers. Instead of teaching for knowledge, some administrations are often ignoring the needs of teachers or making them fill out endless paperwork on each student—whether for academic or behavioral reasons to cover the school in case of a litigious parent--instead of letting them teach. Classes for teachers on data entry and crunching numbers are expanding at an exponential rate. Even learning levels are by the numbers instead of grades. “Let’s move this kid up from a ‘2’ to a ‘3’.”

One of the most frustrating aspects of this loss of perspective is in the actual demands in terms of teaching style itself, because according to statistics, this method works better over the “old” style of teaching. Never mind statistics, as anyone who has taken a class in them knows, are inherently relative, if not faulty, depending upon the sources used—and on what those using them want to prove.

As a result, thousands and thousands of dollars are being spent on new programs which promise advanced means of teaching children, but what parents don’t realize is that often, they are the newest, “in” programs which truly often take the emphasis off of learning content. Instead, vast amounts are paid to use especially high-needs students like lab rats in promoting a system of offering concepts of teaching instead of actual, literal knowledge. (More on this in a moment.) This, proving how progressive a school is, particularly high-needs schools--is often to improve the schools’ ratings, which are also based on numbers, not to mention, in the end, depending upon what the proposed standards are, are often wholly political. Rankings make or break a principal, just as they do an administration.

Those government officials who demand the latest teaching techniques have never been in a classroom for an extended enough period of time to see how well these systems work—and with more and more government officials trying to run education like a business, and because of a learning system’s half-life (here’s another number—many learning systems have a life span of 1-2 years before being switched out for another system suddenly en vogue), if immediate results aren’t shown, then a new system is brought into place, regardless how much money was spent on the last one, regardless of the inability to have seen whether or not it worked in the long term, and regardless of the vast amount of money it’s going to take to train teachers on these new theories and practice. The appearance of being progressive, spending money, and taking “action” seems to be a lot more important than the actual efficacy of these programs with students themselves.

An example of this which may look good on paper, and with ivory tower academics touting success—is the emphasis on this “conceptual” framework for learning currently being encouraged for use in middle schools. The schools are ostensibly throwing students into the deep end of the pool without having taught them to swim. This system stresses concepts over content. Never mind, the kinds of conceptual frameworks we’re talking about were often used—by other names, or even intuitively instead of systemized—for honors students in high school or for college. For advanced students who can handle conceptual thinking, this may be acceptable. But for general middle school students, for instance—upon whom I watched conceptual frameworks foisted—and who are, as a rule, generally very literal—they get lost with conceptual thinking when what they want are facts. You start telling them there are no facts—only perceptions and concepts—that everything depends upon a person’s lens of perception—that all textbooks in one way or another “lie” (as was actually said in a professional development meeting among humanities teachers as to what to tell their students—including as to why they weren’t going to be learning from the textbooks which had just been bought)--and they look at you like you’re insane. They then ask, what’s the point?

Therefore, to the middle school, adolescent brain, anything you tell them from that point on can be seen as a lie—it’s from someone’s point of view. So, if nothing you teach them means anything anyway, or can be proved false, so why should they care? More than that, if there is no authority on anything, and everything is according to lens of perception, why should they listen to the teacher, the principal, or any other authority for that matter?

“You told us yourself. Everything is relative. So why should I believe you?” asked one student in a class where this conceptual framework was being taught.

Anyone who knows children, and particularly adolescents, knows this is the age when adolescent figures may challenge—but need—authority figures—and stability—the most as their rapidly changing minds and bodies throw them into enough chaos as it is. Take away structure, authority, and anything solid, and you’re asking for trouble. They don’t know where to turn for that structure—or knowledge. Any wonder why gangs are an attractive alternative in urban areas and in high-needs neighborhoods? At the time when teenagers need structure and authority the most, gangs offer definitive structure, authority, rites of passage, and family—even if lawlessness, injury and death are the results—what teenager truly understands even the concept of death to realize that may not be a good trade? But what they do know is that someone is at their backs. Someone gives a damn. And that deserves loyalty. They aren’t a number—they’re a part of a close-knit, cohesive whole where there are definite laws at work—you break those laws, and you’re not just in trouble, you may have signed your own death warrant. This is definitive.

I remember in college discovering, truly, the Romantics—and what I wrote back in college had everything to do with the inherent fascination I had for the poetical quest—and in the case of the Romantics—for that of the Sublime. This was an advanced concept—suitable for older students. Granted, I could have probably handled the concept in my last two years of high school—but I was damned happy to have approached it from the right professor at the right time in my life for those ideas to truly take root, and when I was old enough to understand them, and I had had enough experience as a human being to understand the implications of those concepts. As a result, those ideas are with me even now—and helped to found the basis of who I would become as an adult, and what I deemed important. Perhaps those roots revealed themselves in certain nuances when I was in middle school—even in elementary school. But the point is that I was allowed to progress at a steady pace—taught material when it was appropriate to learn it based on my age and my development as a human being. Only when I was older did I learn that content helped to support conceptual frameworks—when I was learning to do proofs whether in geometry or later in college when taking Logic--but I wouldn’t have understood that in elementary or middle school. I wanted, then, to know, that there was something solid—something inherently fundamental—that I could hang my hat on, as it were. Then I had the confidence to walk forward, supported, to the point where then I could begin to probe the nature of reality and ask deeper questions. You teach without any of those fundamental building blocks, and you confuse the student to the point of there actually being no point to learning at all. It doesn’t just lead to educational implications, but existential ones--if everything is relative, if there is no right and wrong, no true and untrue, and they learn that just when they need structure the most, then, again, what’s the point?

It’s with this in mind, that I understood but had a few lingering thoughts on Obama asking the youth of this nation what contributions they are going to make and what discoveries are they going to bring to our country—and perhaps to humanity itself. There is that underlying, even more fundamental question—who are these kids going to choose to be as human beings and who are the support systems for these students so they can ask these questions? Who you are determines what you do and why.

But how can any child know, when he or she is confused about much in this world and are consistently being pressured not to be kids—but to be more and more adult at younger and younger ages? I know this wasn’t Obama’s intent—to pressure kids to make a decision now, but to inspire—but the reality is that these students are going to pressured to make such decisions before they’re ready, on even an emotional/physical level. And they’re going to rebel. And there is no educational learning system on the planet—when being “progressive” is seen as being more important than offering real knowledge—which will take away the frustration of students who are seen as numbers, who are sick of being used as guinea pigs, or are used—in a rather mercenary fashion--as the means of a school administration to gain recognition. It’s the surface perception being lauded of a system—not the students themselves.

And often, and I can’t make this point strongly enough--as for one of the most fundamental figures in a school--sometimes, these kids’ last bastion of support is the teacher. Often, the teacher is the last figure of traditional authority these kids can count on, especially in cases when a student can’t count on his or her parents. But administrations even take the best of those teachers away from the students—because of the numbers game, and because of the time administrations demand for teachers to accomplish administrative tasks instead of teaching. That, and again, instead of being allowed to use tried and true methods of teaching, being forced to learn the newest “learning systems” (which this time I’m putting in quotes)–is detrimental to the teacher, too, as well as the student when that system will most likely be thrown out the window in a couple of years as the newest fad will come up—and the school will get another pot of money to learn it, again, to look more progressive. And for teachers, the emphasis on standardized test scores in many schools now mean more than any grades the teacher might give. So, teachers’ authority is even symbolically being cut off at the knees. They are told to emphasize success on the tests—and are told, categorically, they have to bring up those test scores. Better do a test prep unit instead of the unit they had planned. The tests themselves often calculate how well a student takes a test rather than for content—and they are a billion dollar industry unto themselves. Teachers know this, and they also feel as though they’re also being pimped for the purposes, again, of numbers.

So, more and more pressure is falling on the student, unsupported by the administration—and because of the vast demands that have nothing to do with learning—or teaching—they are also unsupported more and more by the teacher. And this is exacerbated even more when parents are absent, for whatever reasons. There was an article in response to Obama’s speech on Tuesday asking when he was going to give a speech to the parents, too. I can identify with that question. I can attest from both my own experience and from the experience of many friends who are teachers in the schools that parents sometimes don’t even want to hear about what is happening with their kids—if they’re even reachable at all. On every level, the kids are being given short shrift. The pressures of others are placed on the kids, who more and more can find no safety anywhere except among friends, who have no more maturity than they do. Individual responsibility is now something students also have to learn at a younger and younger age, and this is a test they’re failing.

My feeling is, is it any wonder.

The pertinent question is, then, so what to do.

As the old saying goes—you must learn the rules before you can even have the audacity to know how to break them. Kids are breaking rules out of spite, for reasons they don’t even understand. And adults, unfortunately, aren’t much better.

Adults are going to have to learn, all over again, to be adults, and let kids be kids for the first time in a while. No excuses. Take up the gauntlet of responsibility. You truly do need to be the “elder” kids are lacking. The same goes for teachers and administrators.

In other words, adults, perhaps, need to realize they also need to be "schooled" in terms of responsibility.

Humanity, in the rush for information, for knowledge, for material success, for results—have sometimes missed some fundamental steps. Think of the adults who have often grown up missing a childhood, who are then having children themselves. This has become true more and more often among every race, every class, every background. What it even means to be an adult has become lost in that mire. If one hasn’t learned the responsibility necessary to be an adult, how can our kids possibly understand that concept at any age?

It seems we, perhaps, as a society have some catching up to do.

[More on that in Part II.)

K.J. Wetherholt is the Co-Founder/Board Chairman of The Humanitarian Media Foundation (HMF) and the HMF Consultancy, a published author, and a producer of an upcoming documentary on the power of the media with MediaStorm.

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