Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

To give the 1960’s countercultural guru and drug enthusiast Dr. Timothy Leary his due, he claimed his most famous saying—from which this commentary takes its title—was not meant to advocate a life of addled indolence. There is, however, little doubt that some variation of his advice has taken hold in a great many corners of American society, and even Cheech and Chong would be shocked at where we are today.

A recent article in the Washington Post contained these terrifying statistics about America’s current disastrous epidemic of drug abuse:

“In 2015, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures, heroin deaths alone surpassed gun homicides for the first time. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose, with another 20,000 dying from other drugs. A recent federal study found that prescription painkillers are now more widely used than tobacco.”

The article goes on to note that prescription overdose deaths have been rising since 2000 despite state and federal efforts to crack down on the abuse of these drugs.

It would, of course, be impossible to not point a finger at the pharmaceutical industry. Their aggressive marketing of all manner of drugs to cure every side effect of living our normal daily lives has been disingenuous at best—and outright quackery at worst. Although improvements in medications have made many diseases and maladies more bearable and even provided cures for some which were previously a death sentence, we have also been sold the notion that annoying or inconvenient variations in human behavior or function are now problems worthy of a visit to the doctor—and more and more of our lives are now wrapped up in gulping pills to cure more and more newly discovered “illnesses”.

Is your child is too rambunctious? We’ve got a pill for that! Are you shy around strangers? We’ve got a medication to cure you! Need to pep up? We’ve got you covered! Need to wind down? We’ve got something for that too! Sweaty? Yep! Not sweaty enough? Sure thing! Too hairy? You betcha! Not hairy enough? Step right up!

The predations of the pharmaceutical industry—now free to advertise their wares to a credulous and yearning public—are successful because they take advantage of two signal human weaknesses: our attraction to easy solutions and our desire—born of our insecurities—to “perfect” ourselves and our lives.

Just as we have a fantasy belief that eating fat-free foods will make us thin without the bother of exercise or that purchasing an expensive new laptop computer for our academically struggling child will guarantee future admission to an Ivy League college, so do we easily delude ourselves into believing that health, happiness, and success is available if we can find the right pill to swallow. The shamans of the tribal past would find the pill-sized hopes hidden inside our medicine cabinets, gym bags, bedside tables, and purses to be entirely unsurprising.

Of course, our routine use—and shocking abuse—of powerful and highly addictive opioid painkillers is another step beyond. If we knew how many of our friends, family, neighbors, and colleagues are gulping Norco, Percocet, and OxyContin—or perhaps even shooting heroin or snorting cocaine—in daily dosages sufficient to stun a cow, we would likely be shaken to the core. This is obviously an issue that puts all manner of medical practitioners on the front lines of any solution, but it also speaks to something deeper, darker, and more disturbing happening in towns and cities across America where the desire for the numbing escape these drugs provide for many has nothing to do with a physical pain.

It would be foolish to deny that many people like to get high, but most somehow manage to get through their freshman year of college only slightly worse for the wear, a few brain cells short yet ready for the productive lives lying ahead. There have, of course, always been a few who never really grow beyond their partying phase of life, and these men and women have always spent their lives dealing with the chaos and health problems that have resulted.

However, we need to ask what has so changed within ourselves that we are now landing in emergency rooms, rehab centers, or the morgue in such astonishing numbers—lives ruined, families destroyed, and communities devastated.

Many are wondering why Americans are now so often using these potent painkillers, but I ask a different question: Given the grim and aimless lives so many are now forced to live, why would you not turn to narcotics for relief from the emotional and spiritual hurts that somehow must be endured—day after day after day. If you look back over the span of human existence during the past several thousand years, we have counted on three facets of our lives for the purpose and pleasure that helps us deal with the daily rigors and challenges we all must face: our families, our faiths, and our work. Unfortunately, all three are under siege by societal, economic, and political forces that are eroding the foundations of much of American life.

Soaring divorce rates, single parent households, out-of-wedlock births, and lonely latchkey kids: All of this and more is grinding down families across our nation. Organized religion—now often derided as the last refuge of the ignorant and bigoted by the intelligentsia—is in full retreat from the onslaught of our ever more permissive society. Work that offers dignity and pride of craft has been often replaced by “McJobs” that offer little beyond a meager paycheck, and more workers are daily told that their livelihoods are being shipped abroad—or being replaced by a robot or piece of computer software. Taken individually, these trends are profoundly disturbing; all three together are an assault upon everything that many of us hold dear.

Those who wonder why so many voters are revolting against the status quo fail to understand that many Americans blame our national leaders for their blithe lack of concern with the agony that so many feel today. We don’t want another pointless regulatory commission, another ossified agency, or another clock-watching bureaucrat explaining just how wonderful the latest round of new and improved government policies will make our lives—long after our bones have already been picked clean. Until our elected and appointed officials get it through their thick skulls that our country and its people expect leadership that supports families, respects faith, and empowers American workers, they can expect little beyond our cold contempt and volcanic rage.

Until this happens, don’t be surprised if many Americans turn to a narcotic haze to provide some respite from the empty charade that so many of our lives have become. This might not be a great long term plan, and it certainly carries along its own measure of misery. However, for many who are desperately lonely, spiritually bereft, and physically exhausted, a little drug-induced escape makes more sense than not.

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Perhaps Our Compassion Needs A Little Push

Some news stories entertain us. Some arouse our curiosity. Yet others raise concerns.

However, on occasion we encounter a story that makes the hair on the back of our necks stand up and leads us to wonder just what in the heck is happening to our world—and just such a one recently tumbled out of the great state of Florida.

For those of you who may not have heard of this particular—and disturbing—event, please allow me to summarize:

On July 9th a man named Jamel Dunn drowned in a pond, and his body was later found. Local police were alerted to a cell phone video that documented Mr. Dunn’s drowning—and the five teens present can be heard taunting and mocking him from the shore as he struggled. None offered assistance, and no one thought it was necessary to use that cell phone to call 911. Their apparent glee as Mr. Dunn finally slipped beneath the surface of the water is both chilling and appalling. As there is no law on the books that affirms a responsibility to offer assistance or summon it, it seems the charges that can be levied against these uncaring young people begin and end at the level of a misdemeanor, which is a shock in itself.

One can hardly summon the words to describe just how horrifying all of this is.

Of course, the next—and entirely natural response—is to complain about the desensitizing effects of violent media and video games, the decline in our personal morality, our loss of a sense of shared community and responsibility, or the effects of neglectful (or absent) parenting on the youth of our nation. Although all of these factors may have played some part in the response—or lack of one—to Mr. Dunn’s struggles and demise, I wonder whether we are seizing on facile excuses that avoid the core of the issue before us.

We are, sad to say, not a naturally compassionate or gentle species, and the history of humanity is knee deep in the blood of others. Although we like to believe that we have outgrown our ancestral aggressions and evolved into a higher form than our forebears, the worldwide conflicts of the 20th century and many regional slaughters that continue around the globe to this very day seem to contradict the notion that we have entered an enlightened era of reasoned debate and spiritual awakening. Brute force—or at least the threat of it—still typically wins over uplifting rhetoric. One need only to remember Joseph Stalin’s blunt dismissal of the power of the Pontiff—“The Pope? How many divisions has he got?”—to properly understand the harsh limitations of moral suasion.

However, with all this said and true, there seem to be problems more worrisome affecting many of our young people today—and it is difficult to discern what they might be. When one adds up the broken—and breaking—homes where so many young people are raised today, an ever more coarse society, rampant drug use and abuse, and the economic stresses affecting so many households, one might find some reasons for what ails today’s youth, but I find these explanations to be unpersuasive on the whole. There seems to be more to consider.

First off, we need to ask whether our youth are actually more violent and troubled, or we simply perceive this to be the case. Although it is fashionable—and sadly acceptable—to roundly criticize the behavior and demeanor of young people today, I wonder whether the mass media finds the misdeeds of the dysfunctional few generates more viewers and readers than the plain fact that most teenagers are trying to do the best that they can in a bewildering and difficult world. Some follow the unhappy path of these Florida teens toward nihilism and numbness—and the pity we feel for Mr. Dunn for having crossed their paths might extend to these young people as well. All are, in their own ways, victims.

Still, the cell phone video and the comments captured on it are disturbing, and they speak to another unique problem facing young people today, the ready opportunity to document their mistakes on their cell phones right along with all the adults in this world who wish they had never sent that sexy text message, posted a drunk selfie, or engaged in a video chat with someone intent on embarrassing them. What has marked our world since the start of the 20th century—and has accelerated with lightning speed in only the last decade or so—is our ability to document man’s inhumanity to man or our own foolishness. Are we more shocked by hatred, violence, and indifference to the suffering of others simply because we can now so easily and thoroughly document and share it?

So are young people today more cruel or uncaring than previous generations? Stories that defend this idea are great click bait and may touch upon some uncomfortable truths about the most troubled of today’s youth, but to make such an assertion demonstrates what an insular and comfortable bubble so many of today’s commentators inhabit.

Just as we in the developed West are insulated from the horrors of war by our reliance on smart weapons and drone warfare, so have incredible changes in neighborhood policing helped to buffer many of us from the end results of daily human conflict. As much as some might decry this reality, infinitely more aggressive and sophisticated police techniques have successfully turned the tide of crime and violence in many corners of our society thanks to vast technologically-driven improvements in surveillance and detection. Those who complain incessantly about our terrifying young fail to realize that we now live in the safest society in the history of the civilized world—although some urban neighborhoods still suffer from elevated crime rates due to gang activity or localized issues The brutal behavior of some young people against this relatively placid background seems to scream out by comparison.

And what does all this mean in regard to those idiotic Florida teenagers who filmed a man drowning—and were later pleased and proud to share the video record of their cruelty with others?

On the continuum of human behavior, both their actions and inaction brand them as bullies and braggarts with no regard for others. Their obliviousness to human suffering and lack of concern with personal consequences certainly flag them for mental health evaluation, and some court-ordered supervision and treatment could provide some benefit, but I am eternally dubious about the practicable outcomes possible through modern psychology. Whether any of these youngsters will have further dealings with the legal system—their utter heartlessness could mark them as either future attorneys or defendants—will be for another day to tell.

However, the inability of law enforcement to hold them responsible for their actions speaks to grievous flaws in our laws—and only further sharpens our revulsion regarding their behavior. Perhaps something good can come from this horrible, terrible circumstance—although I am certain this is cold comfort for Mr. Dunn’s family and friends.

Given that human behavior often changes for the better only when a penalty is involved, perhaps we need to change our local, state, and federal laws in order to enact felony penalties for failing to report harm or potential harm to others. If we can require that educators be “mandated reporters” in cases of suspected abuse or neglect, we can certainly ask everyone to affirmatively act as his brother’s—or sister’s—keeper in order to save and protect lives. It seems nonsensical that any of us should be legally allowed to turn away from another in distress, and this strikes me as a change in the law that is long overdue.

We, of course, expect that everyone will watch out for everyone else without prodding or threat, but the case of these Florida teens is unique only because of the careful self-recording of their unconscionable conduct—people often fail to do what is right without anyone ever noticing it. I realize that civil libertarians are going to complain about the potential for new and improved laws to turn us all into “spies and snitches”, but I suspect that the benefits far outweigh any potential drawbacks. I am certain that I am not the only one who would rather everyone in the vicinity be legally compelled to pull out their phones and call the police if an old lady is being bludgeoned by a group of thugs. They need not jump into the fray themselves, but bystanders should be held criminally accountable if they do not phone for assistance.

Perhaps this is just weary life experience talking, but I no longer presume others will inevitably do what is right when asked to speak up to protect a stranger—or even a close family member. Therefore, it could be to our benefit to recognize this human shortcoming and move to remedy it. We might hate the fact that pushing people to do what is right is necessary, but it seems by far the wisest course of action.

We can, of course, still do what we can to reduce the violence in movies, television, and video games so they do not harm our children. In addition, focusing on improving our morals, building our communities, enhancing our personal connections to one another, and increasing our quality time with our families would be all for the good. However, a recognition of our flaws and limitations as human beings is also necessary so that we make changes to our laws that will compel us to help one another—just in case such actions do not come naturally.

Raining In Our Hearts

You Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live, Rock and Roll
The beat of the drum is loud and bold
Rock, rock, Rock and Roll
The feeling is there body and soul….
School Days by Chuck Berry

I have found myself recently taking a deep dive back into the filmed musical performances of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s and marveling at just what an amazing explosion of raw musical talent drove rock and roll in its earliest years. Moreover, the sheer energy with which these young men and women performed is an almost textbook example of the type of innocent exuberance we associate with those years—after we put on our rose-colored glasses.

Of course, we know those years were no more innocent than any other time in our history. Problems still existed behind those bright eyes and bouncy melodies. However, even knowing what we know today, listening to the opening riffs of Johnny B. Goode or Surfin’ U.S.A. will bring a smile to our faces, and we can still hear the joy those artists felt as they reached inside themselves to find new ways to reach us.

How very long ago that all seems….

Today we are perhaps a shade too jaded for our own good. Too self-aware. Too ironic. Too prematurely weary of life. More than once I’ve realized just how impossible it is too suggest that someone’s motives might be pure without being judged to be hopelessly naive.

Part of this problem is basic: many people in our society are damaged—and we have no one to blame but ourselves. Our cultural encouragement for addictions (take your pick!), sybaritic self-indulgence, and a lack of personal responsibility has destroyed more lives than The Black Plague. This has now dragged generation upon generation through horrific family dysfunction and breakdown, which has produced generations of teenagers whose default settings run the gamut from hot rage to cold disappointment. We sadly seem to now excel at producing prematurely burnt-out young men and women, which is not a prescription for a healthy and happy nation.

This all hit home for me some years ago when I was teaching Romeo and Juliet to a group of 9th graders. Aside from the obvious difficulty with working through history and language with which they were not at all familiar, another problem presented itself when we reached the scene with Juliet on the balcony and the love-struck Romeo in the garden below.

The reactions of my students—particularly the girls—to Romeo’s words of love and utter worship were both stark and harsh: Beware! I was, I will admit, a bit taken aback at first by the bitter worldliness and smug assurance of some of their comments:

“Oh, he’s just trying to get in her pants.”
“She’s an idiot if she believes that.”
“He’s got some moves!”
“All guys say stuff like than when they’re wanting some!”
“Just how stupid is this girl?”

The beauty of The Bard’s words of love were lost on these high school students, and I attempted to understand just why I was hearing these responses. I will always remember the chilling reality check that class period provided.

Many of the children in that classroom—and they were all children despite their all-too-mature understandings of human weakness and failure—were the products of home lives that, to be charitable, just plain sucked. Most had parents who were divorced or who had never married. Many had fathers who were largely absent. Some had mothers who were M.I.A. Others had bounced through foster care. A few had direct experiences with police officers or social workers entering their homes because of fights and abuse—and arrests had sometimes followed. “Home Sweet Home” they were not.

It was a litany of horrors until the bell rang, and I had to come back the next day and try to explain that, although it could perhaps be argued that Romeo and Juliet’s love was unhealthfully obsessive in the way that young love sometimes tends to be, it would be a mistake to presume that their emotions were anything other than genuine. If my students were willing to suspend some little portion of their stunning disbelief about the possibility of genuine love between two people, the play might be both intriguing and instructive.

I am not certain how effective of a Shakespeare salesman I actually was, but we made it through the play. Whether I managed to wear down just a little of the rough callous already covering too many of those young hearts, I cannot really say. I shuddered to imagine just how disillusioned and defeated so many of those youngsters would be by the time they hit sixteen. Where were the hopes and dreams that are supposed to be the touchstones of youth?

I wonder sometimes whether we have grown so accustomed to the damage inflicted upon our children that we have grown blind to it. We no longer notice the dreary and depressing—or scary and violent—music and films that fill their days and minds. We perversely celebrate piercing and tattoos as a form of self-expression and empowerment, which they may be for some, instead of recognizing it as simply the more socially acceptable form of “cutting” that it likely is for many. Are the cries resonating across our college campuses for safe spaces and trigger warnings actually desperate pleas for our colleges and universities to substitute for the protective parents that were terribly absent in far too many lives?

Every period in human history has its problems; these problems simply manifest themselves in a manner unique to their time period. Rock and Roll was itself a rebellion against mid-20th century cultural and social norms that many found stifling, and Elvis haunted the nightmares of many parents who were certain their children were going straight to hell in a handbasket. It is certain that every American generation has had its issues and somehow survived them.

However, there is a matter of degree that must be considered. I cannot really see the equivalency between teenagers screeching out their excitement at a Beatles concert and the violent element of the Juggalos exchanging tips for cooking Meth at Insane Clown Posse gatherings. Something has clearly changed, and continuing to blame the pharmaceutical industry, added sugar, Donald Trump, or plastic baby bottles for the skyrocketing diagnoses of depression and anxiety that now are typical among the young—and no longer quite so young—segments of our society is beginning to sound sillier by the day. Cruelty and coarseness now seem baked into virtually every aspect of our daily culture and conversations, and this didn’t happen just because we drank too many cans of Dr. Pepper when we were in middle school.

We often look for easy explanations to complex problems, but perhaps the answer for much that ails our souls and psyches is more obvious than we imagine: we need to address the voids within ourselves in order to begin the hard work of healing our families, communities, and our nation. Although we might desperately wish for some outside semi-parental force to swoop in and rescue us, this is something that we simply must do for ourselves if we want to avoid creating, enabling, or stupidly celebrating more pain in ourselves and others.

So Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll—please

The Pursuit Of Happiness: Random Thoughts For The New Year

 “You’re breaking up with him? Why? He has such a great car!”

I remember laughing to myself when I heard this conversation some years ago between two seniors at a high school where I once taught, but it perhaps amply illustrates how possessions—and their pursuit—have always tended to warp our judgment. We love stuff, and we presume that more of it (or at least proximity to someone else’s) will make us happier. This is certainly the case many times (particularly on Christmas Day), but it can also be said that—oddly enough—our pursuit of more and more often satisfies less and less these days. There are likely a couple of reasons why this is so.

First off, I suspect that the ease with which we can now purchase everything under the sun is not entirely a blessing. I know the convenience on-line shopping is an incredible boon for many—particularly if one cannot easily travel to the store. There is, in addition, the benefit of near infinite choice when shopping and excellent bargains can often be found. Moreover, there is no need to park a car or take public transit, wrestle one’s purchases down the escalator, or push through crowds only to find that the item we want is no longer available. All of this—and I mean all of it—is absolutely true. I cannot deny it, and those who love on-line shopping cannot see a reason why anyone would not celebrate Amazon.com as the finest achievement of our civilization to date.

I am, however, unconvinced because it seems to me that “retail therapy” no longer seems to provide the same pleasure it once did. I know I sound like a terrible curmudgeon to feel this way, but I am old enough to remember when shopping meant an outing with family or friends, healthy walking spiced by a great deal of conversation, and a stop for a pop, snack, or hot chocolate that provided a chance to recharge and regroup, which turned into yet more bonding and sharing in the process. Memories were created and relationships cemented. All of this seems to me to be far preferable to what we have today.

Perhaps it is simply the case that what we obtain without the social and emotional investment that the tradition shopping experience entailed is intrinsically less satisfying—or the holes is our souls are now sometimes too large to fill with throw pillows or a cute purse—but it does not seem to me that base consumerism lightens the load as it once did. Maybe I am dead wrong about this—and I would be foolish not to admit the possibility—but I believe that something of value has been lost that is diminishing our lives just a smidge as we move from lots of shops and stores filled with people to cavernous, fluorescently-lit warehouses supplying fleets of soon-to-be robotic delivery trucks that stop, drop, and drive off without a word.

In addition, although I readily concede that video games and virtual reality googles can be a hoot, it may be the case that the nature of what we now buy is far less exciting and provides less pleasure than what was available in the past. Presuming that in these difficult economic times we even have the cash to make the purchase, a reasonable case can be made that, for example, a Prius is far less stimulating than a 1969 Pontiac GTO once was. Moreover, so much of our spending on smart phones, computers, tablets, and other electronics tends to promote social isolation for many instead of providing the adventuresome physical joys we associated with a new baseball glove or cherry-red bicycle. Playing football on your iPad, although diverting, is nowhere near as much fun as catching a perfectly thrown pass on a crisp autumn afternoon, and it provides nowhere near the same sustaining memories to carry throughout our lives. I doubt grandparents will someday be dandling their grandchildren on their knees and regaling them with stories of their high scores on video games—or at least I hope this will not be the case.

However, I believe there is still yet more to the story here. For some reason, despite living in a nation awash in wonderful shiny stuff, many of us seem to feel increasingly annoyed with the present and anxious about the future—a feeling that was amply demonstrated in the results of this year’s Presidential election. Why is this so?

Setting aside the problem that many of us can no longer afford the wonderful shiny stuff, I suspect that many people today are cranky and frustrated because they feel that they have little or no control over their lives—so nothing they can purchase can really make much of a difference in promoting happiness or a sense of well-being. Pleasure cannot easily co-exist with the sad passivity that I believe is one of the most salient characteristics of our collective social fabric today. To feel anything intensely requires engagement, but we often seem not to be able to muster much passion for anything although—perhaps paradoxically—we grit our teeth in anger about being reduced to this state.

To have the control of our daily lives stripped away by bureaucrats, academics, and lawyers is infuriating enough, but to be told over and over again that we need to sit and take it is likely a major contributor to the tsunami of discontent that is now upending our politics and fragmenting our nation. Psychologists call this syndrome “learned helplessness”; the average person has a more prosaic description, “being forced to eat sh*t.” Pundits and credentialed commentators are bemoaning a rise of populist politics in America and elsewhere that they equate with sheer ignorance, but it may be the case that many are simply rejecting the statist supervision of everything they say or do. All the toys, texting, and tchotchkes in the world cannot compensate for a loss of agency. Everywhere we turn there is a rule, regulation, “voluntary” guideline, or law circumscribing how we can act, speak, or think—and what we must accept as our lot in life.

That which is done “for our own good” by others will never rest easy on our souls. For example, we now have to drive that Prius instead of that GTO not because we are no longer thrilled by racing down the open road but because big block muscle cars have been largely legislated out of existence by federal fuel economy, emissions, and safety standards that have—depending on your point of view—either saved the planet or condemned most of us to driving incredibly expensive putt-putt shoeboxes. Although one can argue for the necessity of government regulation in pursuit of a larger social good in this particular instance, the net effect of never-ending oversight of everything we do has been that the romance of unfettered possibility that once seemed an American birthright has been supplanted over the past half century by the demands of a metastasizing nanny state seemingly intent on controlling us rather that encouraging our dreams.

Of course, the parental nature of the state is, according to its defenders, designed solely to control our worst instincts and protect us from the great unknowns, and this is certainly appreciated—to a point. However, just as we all sometimes prefer to make our own mistakes rather than have someone “protect” us, we generally like to be able to live our lives with as few restrictions, controls, and monitoring mechanisms as are congruent with public health and safety. All of us would certainly endorse any rule that prevented us from living in a home that was likely to burst into flames any instant; few of us want to be told how we can interact with our neighbors, what our children should be taught to believe, and where our holiday displays may or may not be placed. No matter the fine intentions of the architects of policies designed to protect polar bears, teach tolerance, or support the impoverished, if a hammer is used to make the points or enforce the edicts, people are going to become awfully annoyed awfully quickly.

It is little wonder that so many are now pushing back against a governmental culture that is obsessed with overseeing the most granular details of our lives—up to and including how our toilets flush, whether we can burn leaves in the fall, and what time we put our trash cans on the curb for collection. The shape and scope of this soft rebellion is still a work in progress, but I expect we are going to see more and more battles in the years ahead over who has the final say about the most basic decisions regarding the paths of our daily lives, families, and communities. The results should be interesting—to say the least—and we should all resolve to think carefully and deeply about what we want government to do for us now that big changes—if change is what one wants—seem to be just over the horizon.

As for me, my goals for 2017 are to go out and engage with the world more, stop being beguiled by mindless distractions, and express due annoyance with having my words, thoughts, and actions subject to approval or censure from anyone who (mistakenly) believes that they have a right to do so. I also plan to drop the top on my convertible on the first warm day of spring and take my wife for a long drive in the country before stopping for an ice cream cone, ride our bicycles as much as possible, and play a game of catch with my grandson until the twilight chases us inside.

Finally, to the extent that is possible in our scorched retail landscape, I plan to browse in actual stores this coming year. I don’t know what—if anything—I will purchase, but I just want to get a taste of an experience that might be going the way of the Dodo as it disappears altogether.

And let’s all have a healthy, happy, and speak-out-loud 2017!

 

This Summer Ask Your Bored Child: Was Last School Year Too Easy Or Too Hard?

Summer vacation is now in full swing, but the new school year will soon be upon us, and the hard work of our students, teachers, and parents will begin anew. Parents, of course, hope what is being offered in the classrooms will seem quite the exciting adventure for their children.

However, if after only a few days or few weeks back at school, a student is tuning out, it does not foreshadow success. Indeed, it sometimes seems that many children are already looking forward to the next summer of vacation before the first leaf has turned in the fall.

The reasons for academic problems can be many: social pressures, loneliness, undiagnosed learning disabilities, bullying, inappropriate academic placements—the list is as varied as the students we send off to school each year. Nonetheless, it seems likely that the main contributing factor is plain and simple boredom.

Please understand that I am not suggesting learning is boring. Far from it. Education is a dynamic process that should challenge and enlighten our students. However, what do we expect our children to do if the content material in their schools is neither challenging nor enlightening?

Most students are astute enough to know when they are being fed make-work curriculum, and they are more than clever enough to notice that the teacher is as uninspired by the rote material they are being compelled to teach as the young people in their classes. Students may dislike the hard work that comes with difficult content material; however, I can guarantee they hate boredom even more.

Do you ever wonder why some students “act up,” particularly in lower academic level classes? Perhaps it is sometimes less that they are troublesome and more that they need some stimulation to counteract the low quality of what passes for their educations.

If you are curious why more and more parents are homeschooling, you need only look to a gentleman I met a while back who home-schooled all four of his children. By the time they reached 15 years old, they had all “finished” high school and were beginning work on college level work for credit. He would be the first to admit that his offspring were not super-geniuses by any measure. He attributed their successes to trusting them to step up to the challenge of more difficult material and letting his children discover they were capable of far more than they ever imagined possible.

The vast majority of children and young people are capable of working at a far higher academic level than they are at present—the more advanced public school curriculum available in many other countries should be proof of that. However, if the basic lesson taught by our system of education (and sadly by some of their parents and not a few in our society) is that “good enough” is more than enough and hard work is for fools, it should not be a surprise that so many students poke along aimlessly and find their joy somewhere other than the classroom.

School should not be something that our young are forced to endure; it should be a place where they can count on being pushed to excel, learn about talents they never suspected were within them, and become confident young adults who are sure of their capabilities and know how to deal with the next task set before them.

If we fail to engage our students by challenging them, the chronic absenteeism that infects our public schools will never improve; 13 percent of all students and 18 percent of all high school students miss 15 days of school or more each academic year.

There are many problems that our children must face when they are in school, but classroom boredom should definitely not be one of them, and I can guarantee that a sure cure for a great deal of absenteeism and problem behavior is to get children thinking and learning. After all, kids always torment their babysitters.

I encourage all parents to ask their children right now if the material they learned during the past school year was too easy or too hard. The answer may surprise many, and perhaps today is the time to march up to your local school and insist that your child be pushed a bit harder now so that they have a better chance of success later in life.

Also published on Head in the Sand (headinthesandblog.org) June 14, 2016