Our Youth and the American educational system

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Alfred North Whitehead, the great English philosopher and mathematician (1861- 1947) and Harvard professor since 1924 wrote in the first chapter of his famous work on education, ‘The Aims of Education’, page. 2: “Do not teach too many subjects,” “What you teach, teach thoroughly”. He criticized the American educational system by arguing that we have turned our students, young and old, into jacks of all trades and masters of none by teaching them nothing in depth. Our children and our teen agers are systematically bombarded by heavy artilleries called ‘ homework’ whether they are in public or private schools. However, those who attend the latter (private schools), at least benefit from much better administration and some moral and religious disciplines which are, by and large, missing in the former. Of course these are the children whose parents can afford to give their young ones better quality education, though at the risk of subjecting them to another Religion, namely, ‘Christianity’ in the forms of either the Catholic Church or one of the Protestant denominations which is fine as long as we can keep an open mind in respecting other Religions besides our own. But what happens to the former group, that is, those who, due to financial reasons or other problems, can go to neither private, nor the prep-schools? Perhaps the advantages these children have over the other are first the freedom of Religion and second the fact that they are more exposed to the real world, which is very different from sheltered ones of the private schools. In the midst of this educational chaos, we as Buddhist parents, try very hard to have our cakes and eat them too. On the one hand, we want our children to grow up with Buddhist values, on the other, we cannot convince them to come to the Temples with us to attend Dhamma (Buddha’s teachings) classes. Why do they not show any interest to do so? The most important excuse is because they have a lot of homework. Do they? Yes. But is this the only reason why they show lack of desire to come to the Temples? No. What is that? Their interests are now shifting to other more interesting matters. They are growing up after all. Childhood faith in Buddhism alone, religious stories, and lessens no longer attract them. The new world of science and technology along with the magic world of the Internet and hundred other kinds of activities are now in direct competition with Buddhist philosophy. Then we as parents expect the monks to educate our teen agers and College students like those professors at Colleges and Universities. They also have hard time relating the Buddhist lessens they have learned at the Temples to the real world they are in. Some have learned their parent’s language and can speak it however, cannot read and write. Some only talk English but take French or Spanish at College level. We see before our own eyes how fast our traditional values are disappearing while we feel so helpless to do something about it. The Western world has been able to separate them from us so they can easily make them one of their own. Our children gradually become strangers in our homes especially if they are born and raised here or were sent to the West very early in their life. We, as parents, who thought we were sending our children to the West for better education or were happy they were born and raised here are now wondering what to do given the imminent loss of our kids in our midst. We are now on the horns of a moral dilemma. What are the causes of this predicament we are in? The Buddhist Temples, ourselves, the school system, the loss of the Christian values in the West or the gradual decadence of our Buddhist cultures? Where are those Henry Steel Olcotts of the past who warned us in time about the collapse of the Western world both religiously and philosophically? Great thinkers of the early nineteen century such as Henry David Thoreau(1817-62), whose civil disobedience philosophy influenced Mohandas Gandhi(1869-1948) who in turn influenced Martin Luther King, Jr. Both Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) being influenced by Indian Religions informed us from within their cultures regarding the dangers of the modern industrial world. Buddhism entered the Western world in the latter part of the nineteenth century but confronted a great challenge. The monks witnessed the interest among the Westerners, who were tired of the personal Gods in their Religions on the one hand and the absence of desire among those whose parents had come from Buddhist countries. What were or are the causes of this inferiority complex among our youngsters? To be politically correct, we parents have given the steering wheels of our own cars to our children to decide for us where we ought to go and how we should behave just because they are a lot more advanced than us in how to solve their everyday problems by simply move a few fingers on their computers. And when they ask us concerning Buddha‘s response to the most fundamental philosophical questions, we are simply dumb founded! What are our moral duties given these problems at hand? In the absence of Buddhist Schools in different states, we are facing grave difficulties with the schools we send our children to, be it private or public ones. Teachers whether they are highly paid or not are under tremendous amount of pressure to abide by the school’s curriculum and therefore they pass the burden of educating their students to the parents because they are unable to cover so much in a short amount of time. Parents, as a result, either can help their kids or cannot. If they are unable to do so and yet can afford to higher tutors or put them in learning centers, then they do so in order to assist their youngsters to catch up with others in this rat race. Ironically many of these teachers, who are tutors or teach at learning centers, are the same ones who also teach our children at schools. These students naturally do a lot better than those whose parents cannot afford to provide them with such help to succeed. But who are those who finally get credit for our children’s high achievements? The answer is, our beloved teachers. But what about those who do not do well in the class? The answer is: they are just not very smart. Is this fair? Is this ‘justice for all’? At the end we have students who do very well compared with those who were not able to make any progress in their studies and consequently do poorly. This is nothing but the failure of our educational system which creates unnecessary division among our students. However, let us give credit to even these teachers who did not join or have not yet joined the corporation for better salary. What are the roots of these inequalities in our educational system? The answer again is not that difficult, ‘freedom’ which is the foundation of our democracy. What happened to the spirit of equality expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence of 1776 which reads: “All men are created equal”? A ground breaking article by Ezra Bowen appeared in the Time magazine of August 17, 1987 on ‘Education’ title, “Are Student Head Full of Emptiness?” subtitle,‘ Two Scholarly authors have beach-time best sellers that blast U.S education’. In this article Bowen refers to now late professor Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch Jr. In 1987 Bloom came out with a best seller title, ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ with an astonishing subtitle, ‘How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students’. Finally Whitehead’s criticism of American educational system reached its fruition in the works of these two authors.

Given our deteriorating educational institutions and the absence of Buddhist schools, we have a moral responsibility to teach our youngsters how to swim before they drawn like their brothers and sisters in another sea storm. Our youth today are very much like those on the shores of the Island of Sri Lanka years ago with absolutely no idea why the ocean was retreating its normal line. They accepted her invitation without realizing that mountains of waves were about to swallow them. Apparently the animals who were free and approximating the shorelines escaped to safety having felt the tremor unless they were tied to trees. We, as parents, have a moral responsibility to first free our children from the tree of our educational system and then quickly alarm our other youngsters of the dangers of the illusion of more land of opportunity to move and walk on. Let us remember that just as tsunami warnings were noticed by certain living beings but we, as human beings, did not feel them, the dangers of losing our youth in this sea of educational chaos are also felt by some and not everyone. Let us listen to those who have felt the tremor. Let us ask what our Temples can do for our children and teen agers. Yes our monks are fully capable of Buddha’s teachings to our youngsters. However, this is not enough. Let us also ask ourselves what we can do for our children. This is where we parents should enter these Temples and help our youth in their homework so they can compete with other students and succeed. We can ask our members as well as some of our own monks, who can teach more than what Lord Buddha taught, to assist us in this matter. Having embarked on such a journey would create incentives for our children and teen agers to become interested again in coming back to our Temples. We are not going to achieve this sacred task of giving by either criticizing the monks or others for the problems we have with our own youngsters. Dr. Wayne Dyer, who is a familiar face on our public T.V, once said: “When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change”. We need to change ourselves instead of constantly trying to change the world. Let us put away our differences and do something significant for our children who are our future. For example, let us volunteer to help our kids who are behind in math, science computer, Chemistry, Physics, English, etc. Let us dedicate a little of our time to bring them back to our Temples. This way those students whose parents cannot afford to send them to learning centers or get tutors for them will be able to catch up with the rest. And children who are already doing well at school should come to the Temples to assist their friends in their studies. Eventually the money that goes for tutors and learning centers can be used to build a hall so that more kids can be helped in this act of giving. Remember in the final analysis we feed the monks so we can learn how to give. Is not it time for us to give? We and the monks together can give a helping hand to our kids not only in teaching Dhamma but also in other fields of studies. Let us show what the real meaning of giving is. Once our children know there are people who care and are willing to sacrifice their free time to help them, they in return will learn to also do the same thing. Let us teach our youth the real meaning of giving. Let us make use of the talents of our members in teaching our young ones. When it comes to morality the West in general and America in particular are sinking like the titanic. Rome fell from within not necessarily by the attacks of the Germanic tribes. However, if we can light a candle in this dark tunnel of the West, we should hesitate to do so. If we do not see a light at the end of the tunnel, we can help with the light of our knowledge.