Friday, April 2, 1999
Saturday Morning with John Silber
When I first read that the Carlisle Education Foundation was sponsoring a talk by Dr. John Silber at its Fifth Annual Carlisle Education Forum, Saturday, March 27, I knew this was a talk I didn't want to miss. Like many other citizens of Massachusetts, I have been reading and hearing about John Silber for a very long time. Of course with such a high profile, first as president of Boston University, then as a candidate for governor of Massachusetts, then as chairman of the Massachusetts Board of Education (now former chairman), and now as chancellor of Boston University, he has always had a platform to express his ideas on education reform in a most forceful way. This time I wanted to see and hear for myself what the man had to say.
I was not disappointed. For the two-and-one quarter hours he spoke, including a question-and-answer period, I was fascinated and totally engrossed by his ideas on education. I didn't agree with everything he had to say, but on the whole he made a lot of sense. And I must also add, what a pleasure it was to hear someone hold forth on ideas and concepts he truly believes inthere was no beating around the bush from this man.
I couldn't agree more with his concern for children and his identification of some of the problems: children watching an average of 25 hours of television per week; social promotion from grade to grade instead of promoting students on the basis of completing the required school work; disruptive children in classrooms; low teacher pay, his suggestion being to give teachers a tax exemption for the first $30,000 of their salary; the need for more intelligent and well-educated students to go into the teaching profession; the need to reform Special Ed. (Silber, early on, made it clear that many of his recommendations were not applicable to the Carlisle School with its high MCAS scores.)
The Carlisle Education Foundation deserves a vote of thanks for providing the citizens of this town with such a stimulating and thoughtful program.
One last observation I would like to make is that the audience in Corey Auditorium on Saturday was composed of predominantly older Carlisle residents whose children have long ago graduated from the Carlisle School and high school. I couldn't help but wonder where parents of present day school-age children were on Saturday? They missed a golden opportunity to hear a well-known, eloquent and outspoken educator talk about the crisis in American education, a topic that certainly must be dear to their hearts.
Wanted: Arthur and Alice and Buffy
Have you ever noticed that parents play no part in the best children's books? Kids crawl in the back of a wardrobe and get lost in a snowy Narnia, and no one comes to take them to a Play Date or a Soccer Game. Alice runs after the White Rabbit into Wonderland and has grand adventures all by herself. Sour old Eustace turns into a dragon. The Murry children fly through the universe and do battle with ultimate evil. The magic of these stories lies in independence; children are powerful and magical and fearless and heroic. Without parents. There might be a sympathetic Nanny (like Mary Poppins), but the real heroes and detectives and adventurers are children.
An article in Salon magazine* contrasts the freedom of fictional children with the controlled lives of modern American children. Author Yona Zeldis McDonough describes watching Arthur the Aardvark with her two young children. She is in awe of the self-sufficient little guy and his friends, who recall her own childhood. The parents are there, "But, although they love their children, they are not involved in the micro-managing of their lives."
She compares Arthur's freedom to her own kid's lives and their prescheduled Play Dates, supervised by five mothers who jump in to solve problems every time a conflict erupts. McDonough lives in Brooklyn, and she can't let her son go to school alone because he would have to cross a busy street. She writes, "My friends in the suburbs give similar reports; their kids are in organized activities, lessons and after-school programs. They are not allowed to just wander off for the day, to hang out, to invent their own amusement, to get bored, to figure out a life free from the constant watchful eyes of their parents and caretakers." She mourns the loss of "spontaneity the way Arthur and his pals meet for an impromptu kickball game or just ring each other's doorbells without phoning first."
That tears at my heart. I recall the wonder in just going outside and losing myself in a world that had nothing to do with my parents. I knew I could run home to fresh brownies and safety, so I had no fear. I was free. Carlisle has so many beautiful open fields and mysterious woods full of wildflowers and streams, birds and snakes — but I never see a child or group of children wandering alone in this paradise. My friends are aghast at the very idea of letting children out in the woods alone (let alone do battle in Narnia). In turn, I'm aghast at the suffocating control in the kids' lives.
Something essential has been lost in our inevitable cultural changes. Parents are absent from children's stories for a reason. There is a primal craving for independence, adventure, and triumph, without the help of meddling parents. And there's no way a kid now can have the tiniest adventure the way my generation did. Maybe they manage it on the sly, or turn to fantasy in video games or Buffy the Vampire Slayer (an updated version of the classic adventure story). I wish I could understand why this has happened and could convince myself that kids' lives are better these days. McDonough comments, "There is something liberating and healthy about letting kids work out stuff for themselves," but fears it's no longer possible. Why not?
* <http://www.salonmagazine.com>, March 22 issue.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito