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Maria Santillanes @ Atheneum School

Maria Santillanes


Today, teenagers do not wake up bursting with excitement to pursue their education. They are not eagerly searching to discover their deepest passions. They are not surprising themselves by realizing their own potential and how much they are capable of. When they look at the world around them they see what is given for them to see, people suffering greatly, the environment falling apart, kids a few years older than they becoming soldiers immediately sent to war, drug addiction, hate crimes, school shootings, immense poverty lining the same street as extreme wealth, not realizing that at the core of all of these problems is the absence of education. And why is the pursuit of education important? Instead of becoming independent thinkers, most become brainwashed cows. Instead of realizing how much there is to learn about the world and the way things work, they turn on their video games and gossip about celebrity relationships. Instead of seeking truth, they seek entertainment. And with a world available to us for an unknown length of time, it is important, to seek understanding and discover our passion for learning. For most students, an "education" consists of memorizing many facts, only to forget them after passing the test. You learn the facts for no other reason than passing the test and pleasing the teacher. It has even gotten worse, instead of teaching a subject and then giving a test on the information, the teachers are instead teaching the test. There are children in the third grade overwhelmed with anxiety because they are worried about passing a test. I would like to know what these students are being given as an explanation to why they are memorizing facts. So we are learning this because it is on a test? The student however most likely will not be asking that question. In fact, after years of flashcards and filling in the bubbles on the answer sheets, most students will stop asking questions altogether. Why does memorizing facts not lead the student to a passion for learning? Why does taking the test not reveal to the student how much there is to learn about the world? Why is giving what the teacher asks for not inspiring the students to become independent thinkers? The education is disconnected from the student. As children nothing is as exciting to us as asking questions. Our questions are important to us and we demand satisfying answers. As children we are free and our education consists of exploring the world, asking questions, learning how to speak so we can talk about things that we are excited about, as children we are constantly discovering things we love. And as children, we also lose this love for learning. In the middle of our childhood, we begin the separation between our education and ourselves. It starts with a schedule. School takes place during the day, home during the night. And instead of school being a place where we go to ask our questions, it is a place where we are given select information and memorize it for a short period of time. It only takes a few years for the student to figure out how to please the teacher and do the minimal amount of work necessary to get the grade to please their parents. Whether it is easy or difficult for students to receive the grade they want, the questions that were once so fascinating are no longer present and the student learns to zone out as the minutes pass by. Kids even make deals with their teachers that as long as they pass the tests they do not have to turn in any homework. This occurs not only from elementary school through high school but for many in college as well. All you need to do is pass the test. Is this where the education ends? Hopefully, it is just temporarily put aside. The longer you are not focused on your education, the harder it will be to rediscover your once thriving passion for learning. Where your mind was once filled with questions and wonder, it is replaced with a desire to be cool, being popular, noticed, having friends who are equally as cool as you. High school becomes its own society, you have to be popular to be powerful and you are weak if you do not at least fit in. While education is put aside, students instead focus on their desires. Since no one is asking them questions that push their thinking or inspire them to pursue their passions, the students fill their time with whatever they can just to get through the day. I have heard many parents explain to their children that sometimes you just have to do things you do not want to do. Suffer through it. Distracting yourself from the suffering replaces your education. This is where depression, anxiety, eating disorders, drug overdoses, selling each other’s ADD medication.... and incredibly low self esteem come in. Students become content with the world around them, suffering through the classes that will get them into college and living for the distractions; such as basketball, television, music, phone calls, emailing, internet chat rooms, drinking, smoking, shopping, eating, gossiping, etc. They want to be entertained as they wait for the time to pass. This summer I was hired to live in Taipei and tutor a seventeen-year-old boy. His parents were worried that if he did not spend the summer studying that he would slack off and waste time. The first two weeks of tutoring started out slowly. Painfully slow. He had already made up his mind that our meetings were a waste of time because they conflicted with his free time. Who enjoys feeling forced into doing something that they do not want to do? Studying with me was just another event of his life that he felt he had no control over. For the first few weeks he would usually show up late, say very little and try not to fall asleep. One day my student called me to apologize because he had lost his notebook. Why was he apologizing to me? Because he was not sad about losing his notebook instead he was apologizing to me because his mother was upset with him and they both assumed that the notebook was more important to me than it was to him. The apology however upset me much more than the lost notebook. It is easy to help someone who is eager to learn but how do we help someone who is simply not interested? At first I tried selecting interesting texts that I thought might catch his attention. But when Edgar Allan Poe short stories were "too boring" and he wanted to watch Frankenstein instead of reading it, I let go of my agenda. I asked him, "What are you getting out of this?" It had not occurred to me to ask that question before. For the first time in weeks, we were actually talking to each other. You can have the most exciting text ever written and the student might be completely uninterested. However when you direct the question to the student, including them in their education, they are suddenly open to thinking about it. In responding to my question, my student began speaking more eloquently than I had ever heard him speak. This was the first moment of studying where he was fully present to the idea. He clearly explained that he felt forced by his parents to study and showing up was easier than dealing with them. He also said that he did not understand why he could not just enjoy his summer vacation like all the other kids. After he explained his position, I asked him if there was anything he could get out of studying with me so that he did not have to fight with his parents and the time was not lost. "It's your life, so what do you want to do?" We agreed that his homework would be to think about that question. For our next meeting we went to the bookstore and I gave him a list of authors I thought he might enjoy. He looked through many different books, including authors that were not any of my suggestions. That is where I had to meet him to start over, and there is nothing like a great bookstore to make you want to read. By the time we left the bookstore he decided on two books, Call of the Wild, by Jack London and Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger. We spent the rest of our studying together reading and discussing the text he chose. As the summer ended, he mentioned to me that on the day he was going to fly back to school in America, on the calendar he had written "back to prison." I wondered if he would have written that if he were going to Atheneum instead. At Atheneum your education is not something you are doing to please someone else. You are learning to ask questions that will push your thinking further. It is your education. You learn not only from your teacher’s questions (not answers), but from your fellow classmates as well. The friendships that develop while asking questions become an important part of your education. You become a free independent thinker. Your time becomes precious and you are no longer willing to waste it. You discover the return of your passion for learning and you realize how much you are capable of. You discover how interesting the world is and how you want to participate in it. Your life is being lived instead of being suffered through. You start spending less time worrying about what your friends think and more time discovering what you think. You also learn how to meet others in their thinking without violently claiming your own thoughts. You learn how to listen to others. You learn how to learn. Right now there is a small group of students learning how to learn at Atheneum. And as a graduate of the first Atheneum class I think that is very exciting. I think you as the Atheneum students are doing something remarkable and very rare. While most are back in prison, you are becoming free independent thinkers. You inspire me every day to return to the questions.
Atheneum School is a non-profit 501c3 Corporation. All donations are tax-deductible. Atheneum School admits qualified students & staff members of any gender, race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs and activities generally accorded or made available at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, color and national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs administered by the school.