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I began to reflect on my own school years, a sobering process. And not for the reasons one might assume. I was a “topnotch” student; I drowned myself in schoolwork. But the expectations I placed on myself did not serve me well. Being an honor roll student did not encourage me to ask pertinent questions about how the world worked or provide me with the essential skills required to be a holistic and scholarly thinker, let alone a balanced child or compassionate human being. Those A grades did not ennoble me or make me more content. Far from it. What they did was establish an impossible and warping standard. They instilled a fear of failure, and, more specifically, a fear of letting my immigrant parents down.

The conditioning was so deep that it has taken me years—and a dedicated yoga and meditation practice—to lessen the striving voice in my mind. The voice is quieter these days but there is still a background murmur. Walking into my son’s school and seeing gold stars, trophies, ribbons—all our culture’s more blatant yardsticks of competitive performance and achievement—I can hear the voice again, an ancient din of self-judgment and comparison. And I don’t think I’m alone. How many adults can claim to be completely intrinsically motivated, or independent of other’s approval? How many of us have entirely shed the ghost words of teachers we have known, those exhilarating or stigmatizing judgments we misconstrue as our “inner” critic?

It’s hard to find equanimity in a culture so defined by competition, so locked in “comparing mind.” Lately, I’ve found some inspiration in the Buddhist concept of puñña, merit, which is based on the principle that we don’t earn merit but make it through our actions—of giving and kindness and engaged conduct, etc. With puñña, we measure ourselves against our intentions rather than some abstract benchmark. The goal is not important; it’s the way we live and practice that counts.

“But what about the badge?” I can hear my son chiming in. Well, funny he should ask. I recently came across a series of merit badges created by Jane Chika of Disorderly Goods in Los Angeles. Designed to recognize “excellence in life” and “matters of the heart and soul,” they harken back to embroidered scout badges of yore. They include the Zen Stones badge “for living a life in balance,” the Sprout badge “for growing from adversity,” and the Big Dipper badge “for dreaming big.” The merit badges seem to proclaim: Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world populated by caring, creative, and well-adjusted people?

While I find Jane Chika’s merit badges clever and charming, they do miss the point somewhat. It is not a matter of inventing more refined or beautiful incentives. The last thing we need is to be graded for our inner qualities or to start striving to be inwardly extraordinary. But they do point to a mindset that lurks behind even the kindest of intentions, a mindset based on outcomes and acquisition: if I do this, I get that. Just think of the perennial question heard in classrooms across North America: “Do we have to know this? Does this count?”

The reality is that it’s not easy to wean ourselves from traditional measuring methods if that’s all we’ve known. As Kohn observes: “I’ve taught high school students who reacted to the absence of grades with what I can only describe as existential vertigo—Who am I, if not a B+?” But it’s worth breaking the dependency because when that attachment (to being good and right) dissolves, we open up space for a different kind of merit to be cultivated: a merit based on the immeasurable. Call it character or compassion or curiosity. Call it our intrinsic buddhanature.

So back to where I started. In my ideal school, assessment would be nonstandardized. It would speak in a human voice. Generalizing data and numbered outcomes would be dismissed in favor of individualized narratives, anecdotes, and meaningful conversation about a child’s strengths and areas of challenge. Children would not be made to feel that they were defective or falling short. (To paraphrase Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: we are all perfect just the way we are and we could all use some improvement.)

I know such schools exist, for people who can afford them or are lucky enough to live in places with progressive public schools. But what makes the school I have in mind ideal is that it would be universal. As John Dewey maintained: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children.” As a result, the quest for proficiency would be replaced by a love of learning. Schools would be flourishing, soulful places. As educator and activist Jonathan Kozol writes: “Teaching children of this age, when it’s done right, is more than craft; it’s also partly ministry and partly poetry.” As many teachers know from experience, when students have meaningful and interesting things to do, rewards to boost achievement are needless. Rather than imposing our culture of suffering and competition on our children, we have a chance to beckon a different citizenry into being.

I’m happy to report that my eldest son has stopped grading us. Or maybe he has just taken a sabbatical. This fall, he started at a new public school, a smaller program with a bit more space to be noticed, where it’s more okay to daydream and be odd, even “sensitive” (as he was once negatively labeled in a school report). I know grades will still be given as required by the school system but I also know that his teacher believes in minimizing the harm. That doesn’t stop me from dreaming of a grade-free future in which every child has the support they need to develop the skills, inner confidence, and sense of community required to face the ups and downs, the sweetness and melancholy, of this world.


Read this complete article in the May 2012 Shambhala Sun magazine. Click here to browse the entire issue online.

Illustration by Alberto Ruggieri/Corbis.






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