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Schools Face 'Crisis in Caring'

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The language of crisis is commonplace in education. Educators have learned to live with "crises" of finance, curriculum, competence, and confidence.

But there is a genuine crisis in our society and schools that is receiving far too little attention--a crisis in caring.

In schools, the crisis manifests itself in two ways: Students often feel that no one cares for them, and they are not learning how to be carers themselves.

At a time when an already enormous need for caregiving in the larger society is continuing to grow, schools are for the most part ignoring the task of preparing people to care. And being cared for may be a prerequisite to learning how to care. Yet James P. Comer, professor of child psychiatry at Yale University, writes that the most common complaint of school dropouts against their teachers is, "They don't care."

Such concerns are grounds not to blame teachers--who in most cases are trying to care--but rather to look at education from the perspective of caring and to consider changes that might strengthen human relationships as well as intellectual pursuits in schools.

As I use the term, caring properly refers to relations, not to individuals. We do, certainly, talk about the capacity of individuals to care, and we often praise a particular individual as a "caring person." But in an ethic of caring, both parties--carer and cared for--must contribute in characteristic ways.

People need to learn not only how to care but also how to respond to care extended them by others. Genuine involvement as the cared-for party in a relation requires receptivity and discernment.

It is delightful to do things for people who notice our efforts to care. In most situations, tacit signs of receptivity suffice; open expressions of gratitude may not be necessary. A student who dives into a science project, for example--even if he doesn't say a word of appreciation to his science teacher--supports the teacher's effort to care. But most of us find it difficult to go on trying if the cared-for person does not respond.

And because people differ widely in their expressions of caring, discernment, too, is often necessary to establish caring relations. Students are not always capable of assessing their teachers' attempts to care. For example, a gruff old algebra teacher who cares deeply about his students may believe that making them toe the mark is in their best interest. At the other end of the spectrum, a long-haired, bearded young teacher who lets students call him by his first name may also care deeply and believe that students who are treated with respect will make wise choices.

Schools do little to prepare children for the task of evaluating others' capacity for caring. Indeed, we usually make discernment more difficult for students by establishing a rigid description of what constitutes good--or caring--teaching. In one decade, the gruff old algebra teacher is out--"caring" teachers don't behave this way. In another decade, he is "in" and bearded Bill is out.

And when young people can't get along with teachers and request a change, we rarely credit them with discernment or help them to develop it. Instead, we usually just tell them they have to stick it out: "You have to get along with all kinds of people," we say.

I suspect we cannot teach the skills of receptivity and discernment directly. They develop in close relationships over time, and even then children and teenagers frequently make mistakes. Teenagers often fail, for instance, to receive even their own parents' attempts at caring, especially if there is little family time for conversation. In schools, teachers and students need more time together.

Indeed, to encourage the development of strong relationships, educators must reconsider some of the most entrenched forms of instruction. As one means of fostering trust among children and teachers, for example, schools should plan class schedules so that teachers remain with a given group of students for, say, three years rather than one.

In elementary schools, that approach would seem fairly easy to plan. And at the high-school level, a mathematics teacher, for example, might take on a group of students when they enter and guide them through their entire high-school math curriculum. This sort of arrangement could continue, of course, only by mutual consent.

Such extended contact would have at least three benefits. First, it would provide time for a caring relation to develop. Students would recognize that they were indeed receiving care from good teachers, and they would have an opportunity to learn more about appropriate forms of response. Second, students' cognitive capacity for discernment might be better developed as they studied for an extended period of time with teachers who regard this capacity as a legitimate target of development. Third, students could begin the sensitive work of learning to be carers as they saw caregiving modeled.

I offer the idea of extended contact as both a realistic recommendation and an illustration of how we should think about education. A focus on helping children learn how to be cared for and how to care changes the way we look at all facets of schooling. It leads us to distrust technical solutions that address only symptoms and approach issues from narrow perspectives.

Some years ago, for example, educators came up with the idea that middle schools should be created to attend to the developmental needs of adolescents. But what still has not occurred to most school people is that isolating a particular group may not be the best way to address its developmental needs.

Suppose that one of the great challenges facing the group is a moral task--to learn the skills needed to care effectively for others. Middle-school children have exactly this need. They should be in schools where there are younger children to be helped, and it should be part of their education--an important part--to learn how to provide that help.

We need a new cast of mind in education. While we should not reject technical means to solving problems, we should resist trying to resolve them as though they were only problems of finance, for instance, or curriculum, or teacher competence. When we consider employing such a solution in human domains, we should ask: What will the solution do to us as a caring community? Will it strengthen or weaken bonds we treasure? Is there a way to accomplish this new end and, at the same time, to enhance human relations?

At a time when the traditional structures of caring have deteriorated, schools must become places where teachers and students live together, talk with each other, take delight in each other's company. My guess is that when schools focus on what really matters in life, the cognitive ends we now pursue so painfully and artificially will be achieved somewhat more naturally.

I do not mean to suggest that caring is an intellectual panacea. Hard work and great pedagogical skill will still be required. But I think it is obvious that children will work harder and do things--even odd things like adding fractions--for people they love and trust.

Schools cannot end the crisis of caring in our society, but they can help young people to learn how to care and be cared for, and those people may eventually make this crisis a phenomenon of the past.

Vol. 8, Issue 14, Page 32

Published in Print: December 7, 1988, as Schools Face 'Crisis in Caring'
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