14 Dec
  • By Elaine O Neill

Education: It’s Absolutely Insane

Based in the London borough of Waltham Forest and produced by Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning, Barbican Junior Poets runs in partnership with local schools and aims to provide high quality poetry and spoken-word skills development for participants. There are performance opportunities within the borough, at the Barbican and elsewhere, and provides progression into Barbican Young Poets, as well as routes into other existing cross-arts programmes at the Barbican and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Yolanda M Guns, Arts Coordinator for the Chingford Academics Trust, has been part of the programme since its launch in 2015 and has seen her students develop writing and performance skills that translate into increased confidence both in class and outside of school. She said “The work with the project facilitators and the Barbican Young Poet mentors has broadened our students’ outlook on life. The programme is quite extraordinary in the breadth of opportunities it provides for all involved.” In education life is omnipotent. “Education must not simply teach work-it must teach life”, W.E.B. Du Bois.

The journey towards achieving life, emotional fulfillment and contentment is a complex one. For we have in “the World we live in, unspoken fight and inner struggle”, Jane Beatrice Ovbude. The essence of being human requires us to find meaning on a number of different levels in our lives. Self-fulfillment is rarely achieved through material and social pathways alone and inevitably requires us to find true meaning in our lives. Very often this is found in education. Finding education enables us to live an emotionally healthy life and connecting with our educated and creative side is an intrinsic part of this journey and vital vision which is “the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” Jonathan Swift.


“Living is the functionary…A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think, character is higher than intellect.” Emerson wrote in his spectacular 1837 speech on the life of the mind and the enterprise of education. Yet in the century and a half since Emerson, the notion that education’s highest task is the cultivation of a great soul has become increasingly radical as we’ve grown more and more reliant on measuring the intellect and standardizing those measurements to the point of absurdity. I believe a great soul is immeasurably dovetailed with the excellence of spirit.

How to reclaim education’s essential engagement with the spirit is what writer and longtime educator Parker Palmer, a contemporary counterpart of Emerson’s, explores in his 1983 treatise To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education (public library ). One must concede that “Excellence must be pursued, it must be wooed with all of one’s might and every bit of effort that we have each day there’s a new encounter, each week is a new challenge. All of the noise and all of the glamour all of the color all of the excitement all of the rings and all of the money. These are the things that linger only in the memory. But the spirit, the will to excel, the will to win, these are the things that endure.”

— Vince Lombardi (The winning coach from Super Bowl I and Super Bowl II). What then are the barriers to excellence in education in spirit and in soul?

More than three decades before his fantastic recent Naropa University commencement address and twenty years before his clarion call for inhabiting our hidden wholeness, Palmer writes:

I call the pain that permeates education “the pain of disconnection.” … Most [educators] go into teaching not for fame or fortune but because of a passion to connect. Most feel deep kinship with some subject; wanting to bring students into that relationship, to link them with the knowledge that is so life-giving to us; most want to work in community with colleagues who share our values and our vocation. But when institutional conditions create more combat than community, when the life of the mind alienates more than it connects, the heart goes out of things, and there is little left to sustain us.


In the midst of such pain, the spiritual traditions offer hope that is hard to find elsewhere, for all of them are ultimately concerned with getting us reconnected. These traditions build on the great truth that beneath the broken surface of our lives there remains — in the words of Thomas Merton — “a hidden wholeness.” The hope of every wisdom tradition is to recall us to that wholeness in the midst of our torn world, to reweave us into the community that is so threadbare today. What role then does community have in education?

To begin with one in five children in the United States has a diagnosable mental health disorder, but only 21 percent of those children needing mental health services receive care. Consider these comments from a parent of a young girl in south Georgia, where the poverty rate is high and high school graduation rates low compared to the national average: “She is continually talking about killing herself and she tells me that I don’t understand,” said the parent of a 12-year-old girl who has been seeing a therapist at a public middle school. “She tells me that ‘my therapist understands me and I can talk to her.’ She can see the school therapist whenever she needs to do so. This not only provides her the support that she needs to stay in school but it reassures me that whenever she has suicidal thoughts, help is nearby. The therapist has helped us find a group for family therapy and has met with us at home, too.”

While some may argue the job of schools is to focus solely on academics, it is difficult to ignore the issues that may impair a child’s ability to focus, engage and learn. Children with emotional disturbance drop out of high school at high rates and have higher rates of absenteeism and suspension or expulsion than their peers. In addition, racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in children’s mental health status and care still exist. Director and researcher, respectively, at the Center of Excellence for Children’s Behavioral Health at Georgia State University, extensively studied these issues and examined potential ways to address them. We know this is a serious public health problem that affects the children involved, their families and society as a whole. We are supporting solutions by partnering with state agencies to promote optimal care for youth with behavioral health difficulties. Increasing access through school-based mental health is required.

School-based mental health programs were first introduced in the 1980s. According to the most recent data, over one-third of school districts in the United States utilized school or district staff and over one fourth utilized outside agencies to provide mental health services in the schools. Recently there has been increased interest and momentum in integrating behavioral health services into the school environment due to several factors. Federal legislation targets access to mental health services, and there have been education reforms focused on outcomes, early intervention and flexible learning supports. The Affordable Care Act has been a boost, allocating funding to support improved and expanded services at school-based health centers and community-school health partnerships. Evidence from existing state programs shows school-based mental health initiatives increase access to needed mental health services and promote earlier identification of and intervention for mental health needs of individual students . Additionally, these programs foster a better school climate with increased attendance and academic performance, and fewer discipline referrals and classroom disruptions.


Helping nearly 1,000 students a month, in Georgia, the Office of Children, Young Adults and Families (CYF) in the state’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities initiated and funded the Georgia Apex Program, during the 2015-2016 school year to increase school-based mental health services. The intent, according to CYF Director Danté McKay, is “to provide early detection of mental health needs, increase access to services, and spark increased collaboration between community mental health service providers and schools.” In its first year, the school-based mental health program provided more than $9.5 million in state grants to embed therapists from 29 community service provider agencies into schools across the state. The goal was to promote universal prevention and to provide early intervention and services for at-risk students and their families. Preliminary results from the first year of the Georgia Apex Program show the program served an average of 951 students each month over the school year. It also provided services to more than 2,400 first-time recipients referred to school-based mental health services. Providers began serving 104 schools in August 2015 and eventually served 136 schools by May 2016.

There were challenges, such as space and family engagement. There were also successes, such as expansion of access and enhanced partnerships between providers and schools. These findings mirror those from school-based mental health programs implemented in other parts of the country. There are notable examples of individual student successes, including at-risk students graduating high school, better school attendance, fewer discipline referrals and improved grades among program participants. But, like most new endeavors, support for the program must be built. Initially, increasing awareness and obtaining buy-in from local school officials is critical, as is engaging families because a lack of parental involvement can delay or prevent students from receiving services. However, with reports of early success, more Georgia schools are requesting therapists and provider agencies plan to increase the number of participating schools during the 2016-2017 school year.

Developing community partnerships is intrinsic to make sure all children learn and progress, schools must address the developmental and mental health needs of children. This is particularly true for those at high risk, including children living in areas of high poverty or grappling with community violence. This places greater demands on K-12 schools. Therefore, schools weave together a basket of resources from the school district and broader community to ensure students who need additional supports receive these services.

However, mental health concerns are often overlooked and under-resourced. In some communities, this is simply because of the lack of available resources. However, other barriers exist for families seeking mental health supports including shortages of mental health providers, financial challenges, transportation, scheduling and stigma-related concerns. Providing mental health services within the school setting can help to address some of these challenges in mind, body and spirit.

Pointing out that spiritual traditions have all too often been hijacked for obstructing rather than encouraging inquiry, Palmer argues for a spirituality of “sources” in education rather than one of “ends”:

A spirituality of ends wants to dictate the desirable outcomes of education in the life of the student. It uses the spiritual tradition as a template against which the ideas, beliefs, and behaviors of the student are to be measured. The goal is to shape the student to the template by the time his or her formal education concludes. But that sort of education never gets started; it is no education at all. Authentic spirituality wants to open us to truth — whatever truth may be, wherever truth may take us. Such a spirituality does not dictate where we must go, but trusts that any path walked with integrity will take us to a place of knowledge. Such a spirituality encourages us to welcome diversity and conflict, to tolerate ambiguity, and to embrace paradox. By this understanding, the spirituality of education is not about dictating ends. It is about examining and clarifying the inner sources of teaching and learning, ridding us of the toxins that poison our hearts and minds… An authentic spirituality of education will address the fear that so often permeates and destroys teaching and learning. It will understand that fear, not ignorance, is the enemy of learning, and that fear is what gives ignorance its power.


Looking at teaching; to teach is to create a space in which obedience to truth is practiced. In the remainder of To Know as We Are Known, tremendously timely three decades later, Palmer goes on to explore how to cultivate that space, why civic community is integral to it, and where the experience of education fits with the broader question of how we come to know reality. Complement it with John Dewey on the true purpose of education, Aldous Huxley on how to get out of your own light, and Victoria Safford on what it really means to “live our mission,” then revisit Palmer on the art of letting your soul speak.

Colleges can only highly serve us, when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretension avail nothing. Gowns, and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. And yet the true scholar, Emerson argues, is the person able to bridge ideas with actions: Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth. Whilst the world hangs before the eye as a cloud of beauty, we cannot even see its beauty. Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind. The preamble of thought, the transition through which it passes from the unconscious to the conscious, is action… Instantly we know whose words are loaded with life, and whose not.

In a sentiment that resonates with poet Sylvia Plath’s formative experience as a farm worker and philosopher Simone Weil’s decision to labor incognito at a car factory before entrusting her writings to a farmer, Emerson argues for “the dignity and necessity of labor to every citizen” and insists that the true scholar must acquire learning not only by reading but by living fully: If it were only for a vocabulary, the scholar would be covetous of action. Life is our dictionary. Years are well spent in country labors; in town, — in the insight into trades and manufactures; in frank discourse with many men and women; in science; in art; to the one end of mastering in all their facts a language by which to illustrate and embody our perceptions. I learn immediately from any speaker how much he has already lived, through the poverty or the splendor of his speech. Life lies behind us as the quarry from whence we get tiles and copestones for the masonry of to-day. Character is higher than intellect. Thinking is the function. Living is the functionary. The stream retreats to its source. A great soul will be strong to live, as well as strong to think. Does he lack organ or medium to impart his truths? He can still fall back on this elemental force of living them. This is a total act. Thinking is a partial act… The scholar loses no hour which the man lives.

With this, he turns to the role of the scholar in society — a role he sees much as William Faulkner saw the role of the writer and Joseph Conrad saw that of the artist. Emerson writes: The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide men by showing them facts amidst appearances. But doing that, he points out, is an act of creative rebellion — one not for the faint of heart or timid of conviction, for those who insist on maintaining appearances will always push back against the tellers of truth. Asserting that the scholar must “defer never to the popular cry” — a piercing and timely incantation in our era of catering to the lowest common denominator of culture, where entire industries are built upon indulging the popular cry — Emerson urges: In the long period of his preparation, [the true scholar] must betray often an ignorance and shiftlessness in popular arts, incurring the disdain of the able who shoulder him aside. Long he must stammer in his speech; often forego the living for the dead. Worse yet, he must accept, how often, poverty and solitude. For the ease and pleasure of treading the old road, accepting the fashions, the education, the religion of society, he takes the cross of making his own, and, of course, the self-accusation, the faint heart, the frequent uncertainty and loss of time, which are the nettles and tangling vines in the way of the self-relying and self-directed; and the state of virtual hostility in which he seems to stand to society.

For all this loss and scorn, what offset? He is to find consolation in exercising the highest functions of human nature. He is one, who raises himself from private considerations, and breathes and lives on public and illustrious thoughts. He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart. He is to resist the vulgar prosperity that retrogrades ever to barbarism, by preserving and communicating heroic sentiments, noble biographies, melodious verse, and the conclusions of history. Whatsoever oracles the human heart, in all emergencies, in all solemn hours, has uttered as its commentary on the world of actions, — these he shall receive and impart. Alluding to Emerson “Free should the scholar be, — free and brave… Brave; for fear is a thing, which a scholar by his very function puts behind him. Fear always springs from ignorance… The world is his, who can see through its pretension.”


When do we recognize pretense in education? While some children spend the school holidays studying in tutoring centres, enrolled in sports camps or other structured activities, others are left to do their own thing. So why is it that parents take such different approaches to education and how their children spend their time? Families in New South Wales, for example, are increasingly paying for supplementary education such as private tutors. Commercial tutoring centres in particular are popular among parents hoping to get their children into the state’s competitive Opportunity Classes – an accelerated learning program in Years 5 and 6 in some primary schools – and selective high schools. This means that more children are spending time outside of school in formal learning environments, though this is still an under-researched area. The “helicopter parent” and “tiger mum” stereotypes conjure images of over-scheduled and closely-monitored children. Such terms are always value-laden and are highly classed, racialised and gendered. For example, negative media coverage of “tiger parents” has scrutinised the educational achievements of Asian-Australian students and the practices of their parents (usually women). As academics have argued, this feeds into a politics of racial hostility against migrants. It also approves certain skills and experiences among Anglo-Australian parents, but does not value different pedagogical practices. In reality, parents’ different experiences and backgrounds, including a combination of class, ethnicity, gender, history and place, will all play a role in how they approach their children’s education – as well as how they view an appropriate use of time. So will their social and cultural construction of childhood. What we need is a greater understanding of the social, economic and global conditions shaping parents’ different approaches to their kids’ education. Education outcomes are less secure. Over the last four decades we have seen decreased funding for public education relative to private schooling; an increased focus on academic results rather than equity and equality; and the rise of “school choice” which benefits families with higher levels of education and income.

At the centre of these changes has been a growth of school examinations, standardised measurement, and the rise of private tutoring. We have also seen a dramatic divergence in the funding outcomes between schools. Some schools are well equipped and attended by students from predominately affluent backgrounds. Others lack the resources needed to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds. There has been a decline in jobs available for youth and a rise in employment insecurity, as well as uncertainty about what the future of work will look like. Australia is also host to new middle classes, including those from Asian migrant backgrounds, in search of economic and educational mobility. All of this impacts on the decisions that parents make about their children’s education and time use, and the future they envisage for them.

In research with inner-Sydney, public primary schools, it was found that while some parents are investing in tutoring and preparing for examinations from an early age, others are strongly rejecting this approach. These parents, whom we call “community-minded”, were typically white and employed in the public sector or creative industries, defined them as part of an older middle class who wanted to distinguish themselves from the new middle classes in their approach to schooling. Community-minded parents rejected what they saw to be “over-schooling” during primary school. They opted not to compete for places in selective schools and classes, or not to prepare for the exams. Instead, they valued an education experience that provided what they called “real world” exposure that nurtured the “whole child”.


This included, among other things, developing students’ social and civic skills, attending a school composed of “cultural diversity”, and “empowering the children to make up their own minds”. As one parent explained: I want a school where my child is going to be happy and thrive, not one where they’re going to be in a sort of academic hothouse. They also spoke of schools as communities to develop their children’s sense of social responsibility. Another parent we interviewed appreciated her school’s commitment to community justice and to “alerting kids to when something’s not right, and [saying] ‘this is our collective responsibility’.”

These parents did not seek social mobility through schooling in ways often pursued by migrants and others who may not have high levels of social and cultural capital. Some also expected academic success to come naturally to their children without pursuing these strategies. This meant they had a level of familiarity with, and trust in, the academic system – an idea that is more common among established middle-class families in Australian schooling. Their comments showed how “intelligence” is a socially constructed term, as tutoring and “cramming” were criticised for producing educational success in “the wrong way”.

Taking a moral stance against tutoring and examination preparation is not new. Certainly not all our community-minded parents expressed disapproval of the approaches of other middle-class families. But research shows that with Australia’s education system becoming ever more competitive, the conflicting values in this area are a growing source of tension within some school communities. How to reconcile this tension is a quest for parents and students alike. A quest indeed, what would the Barbican do?

Now to quote John Donne “And makes me end where I begun”;

It’s insane

It’s absolutely insane,
The fact that I was taught equations
Over basic First Aid.
Negative a+7-b2 and of course,
Mitochondria is the power house of the

I was never told about my human rights,
But I know the wavelengths
of different hues of light.

We were never told how to get a job
But we remember dissecting frogs.

I wasn’t ever taught how to vote.
They used that time defining isotopes.

And they chose the solar over political
systems, and now like any typical
citizen, I don’t know what I’m voting for.

Not even how to recognize mental
disorders or diseases with avertible causes.
‘Cos of course, mental math is deemed more important.

But it’s fine. At least I can tell
you the number of unnecessary deaths wasn’t prime!

Never taught how to handle bullying,
but I know tons about Shakespearean writing.

You consider me an idiot for not knowing
two languages? What about not knowing how to pay taxes?

Because apparently we get educated?
But really our childhood is wasted.
School is just a place to be tested.

Brianna Childs
Chingford Foundation School

Elaine O Neill BCL worked with humanitarian efforts in Africa in the field of Human Rights and saw first hand the positive impact of Volunteers and Not-For-Profit organizations.