Are schools designed for girls to the detriment of boys? Christina Sommers, of the American Enterprise Institute, argues they are. In a recent video, Sommers cites research indicating that boys succeed less and get in trouble more due to behaviors natural to boys: high energy, high mobility, aggressive tendencies, etc. She recommends that education be more accommodating to male dispositions in four ways: (1) turn boys into readers by including more enticing non-fiction and action oriented fiction, (2) inspire the male imagination by programming more action and adventure in curriculum and lesson planning, (3) eliminate “zero tolerance” violence policies that punish boys for making guns with their fingers or drawing violent pictures, or roughhousing at appropriate times, and (4) preserve or increase recess time. As a veteran teacher, I’d wholeheartedly support all of these suggestions. In fact, I would suggest them for an all-girls school as well in that these activities are integral to human nature regardless of gender or age.
For too long, schools have treated students as if they were disembodied minds. Intellectual development is rightly the central focus of education, but the intellect is integral to the body and spirit. Neglecting the physical and spiritual good of students promotes personal disintegration. The tendency to “cerebralism” is heightened by the dual obsession of modern schools with testing and career preparation. The more we reduce education to quantitative testing and vocational utility, the more students devolve into merely material assets.
It goes without saying that humane education—education that serves the legitimate mental, physical, and spiritual needs of students—consists in the sustained merging of mental, physical, and spiritual activity. Adults are well aware that sometimes they think better on a walk, or while working silently with their hands. Sometimes our minds are freed to reflect and innovate when we’re exercising, talking with friends, playing with our children, praying, doodling, watching a movie, or doing lawn work. It’s not incidental that we think productively while we’re active, because activity is a means of expanding our thinking. Our minds are more active when our entire self is engaged in a variety of undertakings.
Until recently, life was physically more integrated than it is now. Much of human development over the years depended on adults and young people working manually on everything from farming and gardening to building and mechanics. The great minds that formed our Western intellectual tradition were the DaVincis of the world, thinkers who tinkered. Today, our work and play habits center much more around sedentary activities, particularly working in one place for long periods of time on almost entirely mental tasks.
We’re well aware of the bodily effects of diminishing physical activity. We know we need regular exercise, and many (maybe most) don’t get it. We don’t often consider the impact that diminishing physicality has on our mental and spiritual development. The Desert Fathers, the 4th and 5th century hermits that retreated to the deserts outside Alexandria, testified in their writings that being out of their cells, gathering and weaving reeds, was essential to their memorization and praying of the Scriptures. In fact, “ora et labora,” work and prayer, was the mantra of the most common monastic rules. We need balance, and while schools may be “cloistered” environments of learning, they are not intended to reduce education to mere knowledge acquisition.
Our testing culture plays a major role in educational reductionism by shifting schools’ priorities from whole-person education to an assembly line education in which quality is judged by only that which can be tested and measured in standardized form. By definition, there is little thought to the individual—the unique personhood of the student—in standardized tests and the standardized curricula they spawn. When schools are judged by test numbers, for which they are given a public grade, and by which their teachers are evaluated, why make provisions for personal attributes like spiritual, physical, and mental well-being? After all, these things don’t show up on tests, and if they don’t show up on tests, they’re not going to show up in the curricula schools design or the texts they adopt.
Private, Catholic, independent schools like Lumen Christi have extraordinary freedom to read books that inspire the mind and the soul. Their smallness and intimacy allows teachers to know students on a much deeper level than their productive utility. They allow for older students to have an open campus lunch, spontaneous field trips, impromptu discussions, more frequent and more in-depth written and spoken assessments. They allow a quick trip to the gym for some kickball, or the formation of sports teams that don’t need tryouts and cuts. They allow for the hiring of teachers who may not have teaching degrees but have practical professional experience in the subject matter they teach. They make it easier to go outside and dig for critters in the dirt, or to map the neighborhood, or to identify plants and rocks.
There are a host of intangibles that a small, independent environment produces, if for no other reason than that the teachers interact with a classroom that more resembles a family than a factory. We can and should structure holistic activity in our classrooms and curricula, but the best source for personal balance is the natural effects of maintaining a learning community; that is, an environment that puts people before programs and remote policy directives. The challenge for schools like ours is that the teachers and parents remain true to an authentic educational culture amid the growing inanity, insanity, and inhumanity of today’s prevailing educational culture.