Run Faster, Little Rat!

March 5, 2006

Teacher Ken’s post over at DailyKos today was the right message for me to hear right now. I’m facing down the prospect of preschool for my son, and I live in a town where education = competition. The pointy campanile on the UCBerkeley campus rises above the city like a lighthouse, a warning to every parent that you better get your kid into the best preschool, elementary school, middle school, and high school, or else your beloved offspring will be dashed on the rocks of mediocrity or worse. The waiting lists, the interviews, and the sense of competition have left me paralyzed.

It is all so foreign to me and my own upbringing, and I am having trouble reconciling this mad push for academic accomplishment at earlier and earlier ages with my desire to give my son a childhood filled with fun and enchantment.

Teacher Ken mirrors my concerns:

Our children no longer know how to play, except in structured environments established by adults. Part of early childhood, and even preadolescence as a whole used to involve children making up their own games with their own rules, learning how to cooperate, why they needed rules, and all of that.  I think that many of the behavior problems I encounter in our high school is because the teens are now trying to make up for having missed that experience earlier.

My shoulders slump when I think of the battery of government-mandated tests that my son will endure year after year, tests that suck the life out of teachers and their curricula. Teacher Ken continues:

The entire approach of the past few decades, supposedly offering more “rigor” has not proven efficacious. Each time another set of reforms fails to deliver the promised elixir of Lake Woebegon results (all children above average is not, after all, that far from 100% proficient by 2014 as required by NCLB) the inclination of our political elites has been to demand even more “rigor” and “accountability.”  Doing the same stupidity with even more fervor in no way lessens the stupidity.

A few years back I read some articles on the Waldorf education system, including this one in the Atlantic Monthly. In many ways, Waldorf is the antithesis to today’s education trends. It’s the “slow food movement” in a fast food world.

Beau Leonhart, who has taught math for twenty-two years at the Marin Academy, a non-Waldorf high school in California, and her husband, James Shipman, also a long-time teacher at Marin, have found that Waldorf graduates tend to exhibit unusually long attention spans. Shipman says, “Waldorf kids aren’t the ones out the door when the bell rings. They’re the ones who tend to linger, who want to carry on a conversation. If anything, they’re a little slower, because they’re thinking about it.” Leonhart adds, “If they can’t do it one way, they’ll go at it from another angle.” Shipman, who teaches aikido, among other subjects, told me, “In thirteen years I’ve had two black belts, both Waldorf kids. They know the meaning of focus and discipline.”

When I read this, I was teaching in a public magnet school that attracted lots of Waldorf kids. The qualities mentioned in the quote above really did set those kids apart in my school, and spurred my curiosity about the Waldorf philosophy. While I’m no Waldorf cheerleader, I appreciate the thoughtfulness behind their approach, in stark contrast to the knee-jerk education reforms rammed through by ambitious, impatient politicians.

I hope I have the fortitude to make choices for my son that don’t come from a place of panic. How awful to think the rat race begins at 2 now. My son’s no rat. And at this age, he’s running for sheer pleasure.