Her daily lunch of sandwich and fruit made her "different," the 10-year-old daughter of a friend said recently.
"How?" her mother asked.
Well, the child responded, chin on fist, many of her school friends were sent from their nice homes with a veritable junk bag of candy, Fritos and Doritos.
My friend and I knew these were no cases of parental neglect. Rather, we surmised, the daily junk-food lunch seemed more a phenomenon of our times--the loving parent who abdicates his responsibility because he cannot say "no."
Parents don't provide guidelines for their children's behavior, and the kids, who face a bewildering smorgasbord of choices, have not learned to provide their own.
On the surface, the answer to the question of the junk-food lunch is simple--parents must have the conviction to say no and to provide guidance for children. On a deeper level, though, it seems symbolic of much more. The self-centered child and the abdicating parent are two pieces of today's education puzzle that are the focus of a new book, "Education for Intelligence or Failure?" by Robert E. Bills, published locally by Acropolis Books Ltd.
In the '60s and '70s, many children became egocentric and absorbed much of the mentality of the "Me Generation." Many students don't understand the meaning of sharing and cooperating and resist discipline, even as they are more vocal in expressing their own wants. Egocentric children pose tough problems for teaching today.
Dr. Bills surveyed 124,000 school-age children in 315 public, private, and parochial schools around the nation and came to this startling conclusion: No matter how hard schools try (and they are trying), the longer students remain in school the more they reject values such as honesty, trustworthiness, truthfulness, sincerity, cooperation and other values vital to the survival of American society.
He found that students become frustrated and rebellious, not because of oppressive rules and regulations but because most of us believe education should consist of knowledgeable teachers handing down knowledge to passive students.
It's a formula that is all wrong for today, says Bills. Instead, he thinks, teachers must become more like consultants. Successful consultants open clients to new ways of viewing their problems. They help clients develop plans for evaluating their own efforts. They help clients become less dependent and more responsible for themselves.
This is a radically different idea from that espoused by most critics of public education, who seem to believe teachers should be more in control. But Bills' extensive survey shows that students flatly reject controlling teachers. Since no one can teach a child who doesn't want to learn, I think it makes sense to listen to what the kids themselves have to say.
Any adult would agree that the purpose of education is to develop and nurture our children's intelligence. But to achieve that requires teachers to first of all understand--to try to see kids and their world as they see themselves. Bills has come up with suggestions that include:
Allowing students to participate in making the decisions that affect what they learn. In short, students should be treated as responsible and worthwhile people.
Teaching children in self-contained classrooms, as opposed to open-space ones, to facilitate better relationships between students and teachers.
Not permitting a child to leave elementary school until he has mastered reading, writing and arithmetic.
Modifying high schools to meet the students' real needs and adopting greater flexibility in high school curricula.
I would like to see Bills' book read by parents and teachers, taken seriously and debated, not because it is the only blueprint for the future, but because concrete actions must be taken to reverse the decline of education if our society is to survive.
Bills' ideas won't provide the total answer to why loving parents permit their children to gorge each noonday on Fritos and Doritos, but it presents such behavior in context. It gives hope to students, administrators and parents that students can be taught to behave intelligently in a world that will demand more of them tomorrow than it does today.