The World Is Our Classroom

Recovering the humanity of education

by Anthony Grimes

The form of education should follow its function. That is to say that once we agree upon the purpose of education, dialogue about which pedagogies best accomplish this end becomes more meaningful. We may even dare to raise the question, “Does compulsory schooling as currently constructed actually educate kids?” By “educate” I don’t necessarily mean help them to become more obedient or more assimilated to white American—schools do these things quite well. By “educate” I mean help kids to become more human.

Does school encourage kids to think more critically both about the world and all the profound, life-giving possibilities that they themselves embody? The great American crisis is that for all too many precious, pliable, and eager children riding the assembly line of schooling from preschool to a college degree, while sitting through thousands of hours of lectures and evaluations, the answer is “no.” The greater crisis is that some fall off this conveyor belt prematurely, robbing them of even the mediocre status quo. Both realities should cause us to pause and grieve. Selah. As my wise uncle and teacher Dr. Vincent Harding often repeats, “We’ve got work to do!”

Of course, we have the important work of innovating curriculum. Of course, under-resourced schools need more funding and better policy. (I recently worked for months in Colorado on a failed campaign attempt to pass an innovative school funding act called Amendment 66, because, as a former teacher, I recognize the economic restrictions that handicap urban and rural public schools.) Yet the much more important and often neglected work lies outside of the classroom–in the people themselves. We must find ways to shrink the ever-widening gap between schooling and education.

We do this by reorienting society to better value the informal and far less tangible ways that kids everywhere are becoming more human. Let’s celebrate much more a kid’s effort to think critically and compassionately about the world and far less one who can simply regurgitate the disembodied names of continents. What our country needs now more than ever is an awakening of ordinary citizens to take on the task of rehumanizing education right in the magnificently complicated neighborhoods where children live. School starts on the block–the world is a classroom.

Let’s summon our inner Moses to tell Pharaoh-like institutions “Let my children go!” Don’t disown them, but set them loose; let them create; encourage them to follow their naturally curious selves into aweful discoveries that we adults often overlook for the sake of expediency. Let them be a little less predictable and manicured and far more dangerous. After all, it was children who eventually led the Birmingham Campaign of 1963 that toppled the cities’ discrimination laws—children showing up by the hundreds, skipping entire days of school, enduring high-pressure water hoses at the hands of racist police officers, and, yes, being locked up in paddy wagons and then school buses on their way to jail. Maybe we underestimate the revolutionary potential of our little ones. Or maybe it’s that the very design of schooling makes it difficult for these kinds of expressions of democratic creativity to take place today. Instead, the next standardized test looms.

Creative education gets stifled in a market-driven society. The privatization and professionalization of schooling has influenced more and more academic institutions to elevate job placement as their crowning achievement. This is evidenced not only by more job-centric advertising methods at major universities but also by increasingly sparse enrollment rates in humanities departments. Consider, for example, a recent Wall Street Journal article, which revealed that the number of humanities degrees at Harvard University has dropped by more than half since the 1960s.

Likewise, it’s become rare to find subjects such as physical education or music offered in primary or secondary schools. When the financial future of students (or teachers) becomes the supreme end, school gets reduced to its most expedited form. The street hustler and student alike have the same goal–get paper at all costs. Such a process, void of passion for discovery and true character, would be utterly foreign to the ancient Greeks, who viewed education (paideia) as the means to becoming a more humane and involved member of community.

We are seeing glimpses of a reorienting, rehumanizing educational movement in Northeast Park Hill, an urban neighborhood in Denver, Colo., where I was raised and to which I recently returned, along with my wife, Erika. Northeast Park Hill is home to some of the most vulnerable youth in Denver. Roughly 56 percent of the kids in my neighborhood were born to teen mothers, mothers without a high school education, or born at or below the poverty line. What’s more, Holly Square, situated a few blocks away from us, has an infamous reputation for its long history of gang violence. A $5 million Boys and Girls Club was recently built there, but the area still evokes a debilitating aura of fear for some. A young street kid once sadly explained to me why he desperately wants to escape the neighborhood: “Everyone gets shot in Park Hill.”

One day, I curiously walked across the street to talk with Mrs. Jones—our 85-year-old Caribbean neighbor who has lived in her house since before I was born–and asked her, amidst the noise of sirens in the distance, what she felt our neighborhood needed most. Her response was simply that she wished people would unglue themselves from the TV and talk to each other more. Our block was missing that intangible quality of togetherness that I enjoyed as a boy and that makes a place a neighborhood instead of just a ’hood.

In response to Mrs. Jones’ wish, we launched a backyard community garden on our street to provide a safe place for kids to learn the life skills contained in farming and, more importantly, for them to rub shoulders with the gray hairs of the block. Our crops won’t win any farmer’s market awards anytime soon, but the vision caught. People are coming out of their mini fortresses–kids are outside painting Zechariah’s vision with the skid-marks of their scooters: “And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing” (Zech. 8:5). They’re beginning to plumb the deep wells of wisdom and knowledge all around them. The world is a wondrous classroom, filled with gifts. In this classroom there are no expert teachers, because everyone has lessons to teach, even them. And this process of eliminating the teacher-student contradiction is, as Paulo Freire describes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the starting point of education.

I often look across the street, right next to Mrs. Jones’ house, and see kids huddling around Mrs. Cici’s steps as she tends her front yard. Mrs. Cici’s imposing 6’2” frame houses the spirit of a hilarious Southern monarch. There’s always a funny joke imbedded in her riveting stories about characters she once met in Europe or deep inside Latin American jungles. Like a migrating herd, the children scurry along to whomever welcomes them–sometimes traversing in and out of our front door–always picking up valuable nuggets wherever they go: a recipe here, a history lesson there, family training everywhere, the spirituals of their African ancestors, social critique by Joel-the-Conspiracy-Theorist. This is learning undomesticated by a discombobulated series of bells and analysis. They are becoming, in the words of Freire, “people educat[ing] each other through the mediation of the world.” Jesus himself taught like this–like a person who realized the infinite potential of the world around him to illustrate the mysteries of his kingdom.

I know, I know. “This kind of ’education’ is wildly unpredictable, irreproducible, and intangible,” the critics will be quick to respond. Indeed, and that’s exactly why I would never claim that the experience on our block can replace formal schooling. Still, I wonder: What would happen if we took the best of what is happening on Eudora Street and in renewed pockets of poverty-riddled communities all across the US and, somehow, someway merged it into more formal classroom spaces, and vice versa? I think it would be revolutionary. Because although the education served by this ragtag roster of eclectic resident-teachers may not formally prepare these kids for the next standardized test, it does what education is supposed to do: It makes us all a little more human. And it’s about time we celebrated that.

Writer and activist Anthony Grimes has a vision to see empowered neighbors building beloved community. He is the founder of UrbanMuse Media. As a leader within the Christian Community Development Association, he locally and nationally engages the social issues of education and mass incarceration.

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