Of Reunions, Renewal and Reforms

Over this summer I was invited to speak at the 45th reunion of the class of 1972 from Souris Regional High School. It was a privilege and my wife, Peggy, and I enjoyed ourselves very much. It was revealing to ourselves to reminisce before the event, during the meet-and-greet, and at the dinner. 

Several things about the reunion class impressed me. First, this particular class had had a lot of deaths among classmates, including at least one death of a student while they were in school. It occurred to me that while we usually think of time as marching along in a somewhat linear fashion, in some ways there is a cyclical or attractor aspect to time – especially when there is some traumatic or memorable event which keeps drawing one back or revolving one’s life around because of the impact of that experience.

For this group of students the inclusion of the memory of so many of their departed friends was an integral part of their reunion celebration. I found the candle light ceremony and the opportunity to reminisce about their classmates very moving.

As I also mentioned to the meeting in my remarks, they also demonstrated compassion as a group, not only to their own fellow graduates but also to fellow students who should have been or could have been part of their graduation.  They showed this by inviting students (and spouses) who had failed a grade (or more), but who otherwise should have graduated with them.

In those days in school if a student failed one or two key subjects – usually Math or English –  they would have to repeat the whole grade over again. This terrible practice changed with individual subject promotion and credits, but it pointed out for me the inhumane aspects of our education system that were prevalent then.  As well, in spite of many student centered improvements, there is still room for many needed changes.

Even though all of these students at the reunion had experienced a wide variety of academic success in school, it was obvious that they had become wonderful people in their own many diverse ways – not the least of which was the way they had developed and maintained their relationships with each other over the years as well as the sensitivity they demonstrated to each other.

As I commented in my remarks, “the focus of academic learning certainly does not catch or do justice to all the many gifts you have, you truly are a special group of people.”

There is a popular book of essays  with the title of, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum. I have not read the whole book, only excerpts, however in my own experience some of the most important things I know, I  learned in Special Education – specifically from my wife and her experiences as a Special Education teacher.

One of the key ingredients in Special Education is the concept of the Individual Education Plan or IEP. It may go by somewhat different names and  initialisms (or acronyms – a difference I just picked up in Wikipedia). In the Special Education context the IEP was designed for each individual student by a committee that involved relevant teachers, administration, other professionals who worked with the student, parents and where appropriate, the student herself. Understandably it was usually an involved process and resulted in a formal document stating, among other things, educational outcomes and strategies to be followed for the student.   

I remember saying to another principal at some principals’ meeting that I thought every student should have an IEP. Given the considerable committee work involved in the commonly developed IEP’s this person gave me a sideways glance and an non-approving response. 

In my own mind however, I always felt that most successful students had at least an informal IEP of their own – a set of goals, activities and supports created by parents, family and friends, as well as personal support in various ways from teachers and other professionals. Students without these kinds of supports often had less success in school, but nevertheless many were able to be successful in many activities beyond school and sometimes in spite of school.

The educational system has many systematic faults – beyond the scope of a single blog entry to deal with – but one that came to mind is this gap between the academic success of individuals and the real life success they are capable of. Also, even more negatively is the stunting impact that lack of success in school may have in preventing people from finding and developing the true gifts that they have.

It is these notions which make me believe in the concept of developing an IEP for each student. Focussing on individual student needs and strengths is certainly not a unique idea, but some how it has eluded the education system of many parts of our world, and particularly our own western society. The continuing emphasis on standardized testing to evaluate the success of school systems is one example that demonstrates the “factory” model that persists in most educational systems.

In an earlier blog on The Accidental Universe, I made reference to the evident strength of a growing anti-scientific and, more broadly, anti-intellectual bias in large segments of the population – most recently shown in the US by the election of Trump. However, one does not have to go very far afield to find people who have a fear of science or math, or some other aspect of education. I have seen this attitude towards school and towards teachers far too often in my own experience. I mentioned in that blog the response of Science writers like Neil deGrasse Tyson to try to teach “the masses” about science.

It seems to me though that such a focus, while admirable as this mission may be, misses the target – the whole process of learning as it has been delivered by institutional schooling has failed to develop the goals of self discovery, creativity, freedom of thought and expression – which includes the freedom to make mistakes and correct them – and the many other facets of individual learning that idealists and theorists in education have championed for a long time. Instead we have in the western world a large segment of the population that has been bruised or stunted by schooling and in other parts of the world we have schooling that has been taken prisoner by ideology or religion.

I sound like a ranting opponent of “the system” and hasten to add that I have experienced many many positive aspects of our educational process, including dedicated teachers, fulfilled students and proud grateful parents, as well as, of course our success as a society in promoting and developing many of the values of education mentioned above.

My main point in this blog is that I think a major step forward in schooling and in society generally can be made by emphasizing the importance of each individual – that everyone is a valued “child of the universe;” in the specifically Christian context one would say everyone is a child of God.

One of the venerable maxims of education in my day was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. While there may be points of debate on the specifics of Maslow’s hierarchy, one of the key elements in his hierarchy of human needs was self-actualization. According to Wikipedia Maslow himself added a higher need later, which he called “transcendence.”

When I first encountered the hierarchy and some of the theory behind it, it seemed to me to be somewhat selfish or self-centered, something applicable to an individualist, competitive society. However, if we regard each person as a tiny part of the universe that is aware of and learning about itself, then self-actualization actually becomes part of a much larger purpose.

It is interesting to note that while Maslow (unsurprisingly to me) was a professed atheist his later work emphasized the importance of what he termed “transcendence” as a universal human need. Apparently transcendence, which he saw as a “peak experience” that anyone could experience independently of religion, could also include religious experience. It is not my intention to belabour Maslow’s ideas.

Rather, I wish to emphasize not only how important it is for schooling to value the gifts each individual brings to life, but to recognize how wonderful and beautiful each person is to the universe as a whole. The more we learn about our magnificent, mind-boggling universe, the more remarkable – even transcendent – it becomes to realize that, to our knowledge, we humans are the only piece of our universe that is aware of itself.

Of course many scientists speculate that there are other life forms and possibly other intelligent beings, but none of these speculations deflates the notion of what wonderful beings each of us is in our own right. 


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