ON SPELLING BEES & SCHEMAS - Dr. Joël Núñez

Only moments before I had brought up the anecdote of my 7-year-old daughter’s experience at a spelling bee in which everyone won because the children who were not prepared to do well were given on-the-spot assistance from a teacher; I employ the anecdote as a vehicle to discuss my deep conviction that when we shield children from failure we are invariably denying them an opportunity for growth.  Although I, like most in the room, vehemently disagreed with her, her contribution was monumental.  Even as I listened to her and tried to convince her classmates to listen, I couldn't help but smile at the realization that her statement was the raw material for true education.  By “true education” I don't mean the vapid charade that passes for education where a teacher drones on-and-on in soliloquy as his students sit passively, accepting his version of truth without questioning, committing his lesson points to memory and to laptop simply in order to pass a test and move on to the next grade.  Paolo Friere, the Brazilian-born champion of education among the marginalized masses, argued powerfully for the notion of empowering people through the liberating, transformative power of pedagogy.  In his celebrated book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he rejects the banking notion of education, reflected above and brought to life comically in the 1986 film, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (Think high school economics instructor in deadpan monotone: ‘Anyone know what this is? Class? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone seen this before? The Laffer Curve. Anyone know what this says? It says that at this point on the revenue curve, you will get exactly the same amount of revenue as at this point. This is very controversial. Does anyone know what Vice President Bush called this in 1980? Anyone? Something-d-o-o economics. "Voodoo" economics…Bueller, Bueller..’  Classic.  If you are under a certain age, and that monologue means nothing to you, Netflix it.  Totally worth it.)  What Friere, and John Dewey before him, argued is that education ought to be a collaborative enterprise that respects and restores the humanity and dignity of the student by helping him/her discovery the capacity each of us has to transform our world and make it a richer, fuller place for ourselves and for others.

The point argued by the student during my presentation was particularly meaningful because, unbeknowst to her, it revealed her deepest thoughts; a hidden root responsible for keeping her life in suspended animation.  She attends Kenmare High School in Jersey City, NJ.  It is an extraordinary alternative school for young women who are single mothers and sometimes homeless.  It is a revolutionary experiment because it understands that these women will never have the opportunity to escape cycles of poverty and dysfunction unless they are educated.  But they will not become educated unless capable, trustworthy people care for their children while the mothers are in school, and unless the mothers and children have a safe place to live and adequate food to eat.  Kenmare, as part of the York Street Project, attends to each of these needs under one complex of buildings in a beautiful section of the city.  Poverty, the insatiable devourer of the hopes and successes of these women and millions of human beings, is more than a condition.  It is a mind-state.  That's why social programs designed to eradicate poverty will at best under-perform and at worst fail miserably to the extent that they ignore the principal location where poverty takes root: not in the pocketbook but in the mind.

Schemas, those deep-seated beliefs residing in our core that quietly shape our cognition and conduct in powerful, mysterious ways can only be uprooted if challenged.  But they can only be challenged if evoked.  And they can only be evoked if an environment is created wherein the student feels comfortable enough, engaged enough, and empowered enough to say, “I don’t agree.  Here’s what I think…”.  Even if what she has to say is dead-wrong and elicits outrage from others; even if it reveals a profoundly faulty expectation that life will reward children/adults simply because they show up, whether they are prepared or not, just because they had the courage to get up to the podium.  Most of us believe that life tends to reward those who study for the exam, who arrive on time and prepared for the interview, and who practice their craft in order to become proficient.   The young woman’s admission revealed one of several foundational errors at the base of the poverty mind-state: that someone else will always do for you even if you fail to do for yourself.  But once revealed, this belief can be dealt with; it can be examined, questioned, exposed to evidence not previously considered, and done so within a context that values the dignity and humanity of the student even while it chops her argument to pieces, only so she can forge a novel, healthy way of seeing herself and her child in an unforgiving society that tends to be merit-based.  Ultimately, that’s when learning that is liberating and transformative can take place.  It won’t always be so, the educator must be knowledgeable and artful, and the student must be willing to allow longstanding beliefs to be dislodged by newfound evidence, but it is within this therapeutic environment that true education can occur, if it is to occur at all.

These are my thoughts about what education can be and under what conditions the mind can flourish.  I'm curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.  

Joel Nunez