American society is characterized by pluralities. Whether you consider the U.S. a “melting pot” or a “salad bowl,” our society is a blend from various world cultures, and also the unique local cultures of this country. I find myself often thinking about the socialization processes that create and continue our unique American culture: the optimism we are known for across the globe, and the friendliness we are often recognized by. The pragmatism and perseverance we attribute to our public and our forebears: that “American ‘can-do’ attitude” we call upon when natural disasters strike, economies tumble, or enemies attack us. Our entrepreneurial wont to take risks, and the ways we celebrate when great ventures pay off, lauding those who have “pulled themselves up by the bootstraps.”
Schools are instrumental in telling these stories and celebrating them. Of course, schools are the primary instruments of socialization. We schedule our school days to start early and tell students “the early bird gets the worm” to encourage go-getter enthusiasm and cheerfulness. We tell people to show up on time and punish those who are tardy, because we want them as adults to respect other people’s time and to complete tasks by deadlines. By the same token, we grade on timeliness, telling students their ideas carry less value if they don’t appear by some due date that is often arbitrary in students’ lives. All of our routines, rewards, and traditions build and reinforce “pro-social behaviors” agreed upon by the common law of generations of past practice.
And yet, how many of these practices actually connect with the qualities we all look for in our own generation? We socialize children to move from one class to the next when a bell rings, but in the workplace we ask them to schedule their own time. We socialize them to be quiet and not talk when the teacher is talking, but as adults we expect them to collaborate efficiently. We send kids to the hall when they shout out or challenge the teacher, but we empower adults to choose among candidates and elect leaders. We prescribe step-by-step procedures to students, but we implore our colleagues to “think outside the box” and sigh when our subordinates cannot “figure it out” on their own or “make it work.”
We need to listen to what our society recognizes and celebrates, and then think about how we can help socialize our students to value those things in age-appropriate ways, so their appreciation will grow as will their capacity to recognize authentic examples. We want our students to grow into adults who can respectfully challenge leaders and present logical arguments for innovative ideas. We want adults in our society to question the ideas printed in books and on websites, and to ask the so-called authorities on TV and radio to present their sources and to consider the biases of these sources. We need our grown children to be “nimble” in facing new challenges and “gritty” when their first ideas don’t work out. Classrooms get messy when kids think outside the box, but if we want America to remain the land of optimism and opportunity that it has long been recognized as, we ought to be looking for opportunities to make that mess!