18 February 2012
Recently, we looked at why the Eat Smart!! program failed at Fishtown Central High: Because eating smart isn’t mainly about food, it’s about culture. But when we looked more closely, it turned out that many Fishtown teens were quite strict about their diets—without any input at all from the School Board.
These teens’ self-image is bound up with looking good or performing well. The advice they get from beauty mags and sports rags is faddish but not usually harmful. Organic blueberries? Whey? Better for a growing teen than chocolate bars and cheese puffs. Better still, the students seek and act on the advice. Which raises a key question: How can we make students want things that are good for them, in general?
Put that way, we can’t. Too much education in Fishtown consists of school authorities trying to make students do things—for their own good—that students don’t recognize as good. In that case, it isn’t really good. It has no staying power, it doesn’t shape lives. It’s just a conflict in which the authorities win for now because they have more power. But once the students are out of school, they are free to ignore the rules, for good or ill.
Where to turn? How about traditional philosophy? What have the classical philosophers always said about teachers?:
First, teachers can make clear that they do not personally wish to control students. A school is not a farm or a prison. On the contrary, teachers advise and direct students toward self-control because the freedom to lead the good life requires self-control.
Students may ask: Isn’t there such a thing as the freedom to lead the bad life? No, because the bad life means false friends, dangerous illusions, deadly addictions, deprivation, and points of no return. We are quite free to choose the bad life. But once we are in it, we are not free to lead it. It leads us, mainly into further trouble, pain, shame, and sorrow.
Second, teachers can inspire and motivate students to truly want the good life. That means teaching the classical virtues: reality-based thinking, a sense of justice, self-control, and courage. These virtues help students learn to live the good life in health or sickness, sufficiency or poverty, on the campaign trail or in a tyrant’s prison, on a hiking trail or in the thick of battle. The good life is a life worth living, not a “formula for success.”
Third, teachers can be good examples. A school board cannot be a good example, by definition, but a teacher can. That’s critical in Fishtown where some students live with adults who, by anyone’s standards, are just plain making a mess of their lives, and the lives of those around them. How will those students know that “growing up” doesn’t have to mean more and bigger trouble? They must see living examples of adults who pursue a vocation and solve problems daily, while respecting and caring for themselves and others.
Of course, many students won’t listen. But no classical philosopher has ever supposed that everyone who has heard about the virtues or the good life would listen. The only objective we can hope to achieve is that every student gets the chance to make a choice.
Next: What controversial sociologist Charles Murray had to say about Fishtown (details, details)
Can Fishtown teens learn to eat smart (instead of running a black market in junk food)?
“Fix Fishtown Central High” social work schemes: If low self-esteem isn’t really the problem, what is?
Why proposed improvements to failing schools don’t really work, Part I: Self-esteem rules!
Why proposed improvements to failing schools don’t really work, Part II: Eat Smart!!
Why proposed improvements to failing schools don’t really work, Part III: Stay in school!!
Is intelligence inherited? Is the race to the swift?
Is intelligence inherited? Jane North and Jane South take the state IQ test.
Why you are not your genes, and even your genes are not “your genes”