Honesty, they say, is the best policy, or the best practice…but when we look at the way we live our lives, treat our loved ones, and explore our selves its probably fair to assert that we are hardly honest about anything. We fear the brutal, harsh, and uncomfortable quality that difficult truth will wear on us because it has hurt us in the past. In an effort to avoid a repeat of that, we eschew direct truths, we dance around them, we avoid or change them everywhere we go. Whether our avoidance is in our professional or personal contexts, we often shield the truth, filter the truth, soften it, lessen it, euphemize it thinking we are protecting ourselves or others, when really we are doing a disservice. We do everything we can to avoid honesty and dodge discomfort, and in the process, we often leave ourselves missing on great revelation, fruitful understandings, and beautiful experiences.
This is certainly the case in my profession, education, which arguably is the last setting in which the truth should be obfuscated—at the very least from a philosophical and ethical perspective. We’ve become so inundated of late with Danielson, APPR, Common Core Standards, evaluations, rubrics, assessments, standardized exams, and “best practices” that the actual educational element–the search for knowledge and truth–has been lost amid a sea of “accountable” and quantifiable jargon and formulas. In being accountable and quantifiable, the actual pursuit of knowledge has been lost in pre-assessment, assessment, reassessment, and book keeping…because these are best practices. The truth is, that nobody is ever going to ask these kids for their Standardized Test Scores from 5th grade on a job interview, or how many boxes they checked off a standards list, or how many words they can read in a minute–but they may want to know how they can cope with difficult situations, hard decisions, and choosing the best of bad options. Education is supposed to be enlightening and broadening, and truthful and no matter how much the truth may hurt or be harsh, it is only through knowing difficult scenarios and being presented with choices that students can be prepared for a difficult world.
As educators, we’ve become afraid of the truth. We have to find soft ways to tell truths that need telling to children, parents, and administrators; we’re like abused dogs not sure how to ask for food, so instead of barking we whimper. As a scapegoated profession, we’ve found ourselves at the bottom of the food chain, with the buck stopping loudly and clearly on our teacher desks. When students are having issues—academic, social, behavioral, whatever—we employ soft language, and back pedal, and try to contextualize fairly black and white issues to spare people the weight of the capital T truth. But without that harshness, there is no revelation, no need to understand, and no impetus to act. When we present things as hunky dory we’re spinning our wheels because we aren’t lighting fires, and inspiring students to think, ask, and challenge.
Our fear of the truth is as equally disturbing in actual classroom practices. I recently wrote about the experience of having my 5th grade students put Christopher Columbus on trial for the death of the Tainos. This was an exercise in truth dealing. Students had to wrestle with the lies they had been told over the years about Columbus and his “discovery” and also needed to accept and understand an even more terrible truth than the fact that they had been lied to. They were able to quickly grasp the truth—some even stating the truth has a certain quality that they recognized immediately as true, even if it was terrible—and were able to move on and think critically enough to find a culprit in one of the great crimes of imperialism in the Americas. They proved that even children are capable of recognizing and accepting truths—even uncomfortable and terrible ones.
Being able to accept these kinds of truths is also indicative of powerful insight and understanding on the part of students in general. Instead of trying to shelter them from the world with misdirection and myths about “everyone believing the world was flat” or avoiding difficult questions with lies-by-omissions–that special kind of lie we tell when we know we have to tell some truth. The insights that truths provide lead to questions, conversations, and understandings that are not only engaging, but broadening and valuable to the growth of individual thinkers–which is the ultimate goal of educators, after all.
Following the recent election, I spoke to my same 5th graders about elections, elected officials, and their ability to affect change on the part of the people. I spoke to them about the varying degrees and impacts of issues—which are global issues versus regional versus local issues—and asked them to think about what issues matter most to them in their neighborhood in order to gear up and prepare to write a letter to Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio. I told them that they needed to identify three critical components in order to have a fully realized issue:
1) An issue that warrants Mayoral intervention—I told them the price of video games or the distance to the nearest “Game Stop”, while tragic, was not a mayoral emergency.
2) A reason that supports the issue as being important enough for the Mayor to be involved and act to resolve or rectify the matter.
3) A proposed solution to the issue. I told them that they didn’t have to have a full plan to solve the problem, but they should certainly offer some ideas in how to approach the issue. If you can’t think of at least part of a solution you haven’t thought about (or possibly understand) enough about your issue.
I allowed them to brainstorm with their peers before we generated a list of ideas, rationales, and solutions and I must admit, their ideas were quite mature and sophisticated. While one group of boys suggested cars that fly and time machines as solutions, they generally had thoughtful and wise issues to undertake—and many had surprisingly accurate solutions to problems that confound adults. Some students noted problems with traffic patterns in their neighborhood, while others cited pollution, and others still mentioned the need for more electric cars, one boy raised the issue of gun control.
At this point, others shy of honesty, and unwilling to tackle a complicated and sophisticated question with their students would have brushed it aside. I seized the moment to explore the problem. I did contextualize it before we offered solutions by reminding the children that the Constitution (the topic of another series truthful and difficult lessons we’d had a few weeks prior) had provisions for the right of people to bear arms. Once I explained that “the right to bear arms” didn’t mean what they thought—and several students connected “arms” to “army”, “armed and dangerous”, and “armed robbers”—they offered surprising solutions:
- Responsibility tests that would determine who is responsible enough to have a gun.
- Cameras on guns that would show how and who were using them
- A difficult licensing program to track all guns (I informed that that this exists, but just like licensed drivers go over the speed limit not all legal gun owners use their guns responsibly, and some people have guns illegally which is really a big part of the problem)
- Rules about the use of guns (for hunting only and so forth).
I was impressed by the sophistication of my students. Except for some wording and some logistical issues, they approached the problems from many of the angles that grown folks—elected to office or not—have been doing for years. During the course of our conversation, my supervisor stopped by just to see what the nature of the conversation we were having was. When I spoke with him later, he had already surmised that we had been having some kind of relevant conversation to important issues, rather than a specific and planned lesson about guns and gun control—while not worried about ramifications, I was glad that I needn’t explain if for no other reason that I wouldn’t want a rumor floating around that I tell my students about barrel markings in an unsolicited and extracurricular way. My supervisor went on to tell me that he was specifically impressed with the comments of a particular student on the issue. I had been as well.
After a good, legitimately good and interesting conversation the students went back to their desks and started constructing different issues that mattered to them. Allowing them to hear and speak the truth didn’t make their nine and ten-year-old brains explode, they didn’t have nervous breakdowns, and they weren’t hurt by the idea that guns are legal and also dangerous. Instead, in allowing students to hear the truth about the issue, and speak their minds they were engaged and suddenly felt like their opinions and thoughts mattered. They do, and that’s the beautiful truth that they were able to realize because someone took the time to talk to them about the uncomfortable truth about guns, and the twisted and difficult path of gun control.
Does that mean, then, that unbridled truth is the ultimate best practice? No, of course not…some lessons aren’t appropriate for a particular group, time, or place…but it should never by allowable to lie. Students—elementary students especially—are highly durable beings. When fed a harsh or mature truth from a trusted and sensitive teacher they may reel, but will find ways to come to terms with it. I mentioned to a colleague that was in the room with me during this lesson that it was amazing what students will relate to us, if only we’d treat them like people. Then it occurred to me—we do treat them like people for we are rarely honest with people in full context.
The lesson that I’ve been learning, both in the pedagogical sense and in a personal one, is that truth needs to be released. Suppressing bears a terrible burden, while its relinquishment—even for uncomfortable and painful ones—bears the freedom from euphemism and lies and can also offer beautiful understandings and provide for great strides. It only requires the bravery to step forward and speak that truth to those that need to hear it, in the time it needs to be said, in every place it can be presented. In education especially, we should be offering as much of it as possible—but it wouldn’t hurt to throw it in liberally into our political processes, businesses, and lives. It is, after all, the best policy, and with so many people unhappy out there perhaps it’s the kind of best practice suggestion we really need.