John Hooker, kindergarten teacher, came to class in a pink shirt one day. In kindergarten, there had been a few occasions of students remarking that a certain toy or activity was “just for boys” or “just for girls.” He and Jen Weiss, his partner, were coming in prepared to do some lessons on gender equity. When the students entered class, one of the boys asked with hesitation, “Is that a pink shirt?”
“Yes, why?” John responded.
“Really?” he started to smirk and cringe his face.
Just before the giggling could ensue, another kindergartner spoke up, “Only a real man can wear pink.” This, of course, is exactly what the teachers were hoping for and exactly what they needed to start the class off on a day of discussions about biases, stereotypes, and justice.
In the musical comedy, South Pacific, Lieutenant Cable expresses his rage at racism in a sarcastic song, “You’ve Got to be Taught”:
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught
Before it’s too late
Before you are six
Or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
We can relate to the sentiment, but my years in education have taught me that Hammerstein got it backwards. Kids do not have to be carefully taught in order for them to pick up the prejudices of their relatives—that happens naturally. On the contrary, they have to be carefully taught to break down the generalizations they inherit from their culture. They have to be carefully liberated into rigorous and creative thinking.
The old textbooks tell us that Christopher Columbus was a great man because he discovered America and made our country possible. The new, practically universal curriculum teaches that Columbus was bad because he enslaved or exterminated the peace-loving Native Americans who had discovered America long before he got here. The truth is more complex than either version of the story. I want students to challenge both textbooks with interesting questions.
All kindergartners can observe in their environment that it is the female who usually wears pink and the boys tend to be the ones shooting baskets. The idea of a “real man” is more complex than the color of one’s shirt. Today, gender complexity is becoming more obvious to us, broadening our notions of what constitutes a real man or woman. A student who can see a pink shirt on a man and turn an old aphorism on its head is a student who will be a good problem solver in an increasingly complex world.
Teaching about gender equity or social justice is much more than teaching good values like respect and kindness. If our business is to graduate critical thinkers and creative problem solvers, we need to create an environment where it is not only safe to have your own gender preference, but also safe to have new and unusual ideas.
When interviewing teachers, I always ask what they are looking for in a school. In the hundreds of teacher interviews I have had in the thirty some years, most (but not all) candidates are looking for a school where intellectual challenge is an integral part of academic achievement. They are looking for a school where teaching is a creative activity. These teachers often report that in so many classrooms (private as well as public), teaching is focusing the students on getting the right answers rather than thinking. Thinking is usually guessing what is in the teacher’s head.
Recently one teacher reported on a school where, by fourth grade, students were afraid to think creatively about how to solve a problem because the price of getting the wrong answer is too high. By the time he gets them in eighth grade algebra, they are no good at creative problem solving. In his school, moreover, cheating is the smart way to be successful, because it is the surest way of getting a good grade. Creative thinking is too risky.
Not only will this approach produce a weak workforce, but it will also produce graduates who are headed for failure of one sort or another because their brains are not prepared for the kind of critical and creative thinking a diverse and changing world requires. A long and happy life requires that a person discover his unique being and his unique calling. For this, we need to create the conditions in which each of us can transcend the generalizations we have a tendency to make about ourselves. For this, we need to keep popping each other’s stereotypes the way the kindergartners pop soap bubbles on the playground.
There are those who think that social justice should be a part of a school’s curriculum, and there are those who think schools should stick to academic topics. When John wore a pink shirt, he embodied both sides of the dispute, integrating social justice and discussions of gender into the day’s academic focus.
Education is leading a person out. Out of what? Out of narrow-mindedness and into open fields of possibility. Out of banal (and cruel, and false, and stupid) generalities and into an infinite world of unique people and unique events. Out of group-think and into thinking critically for oneself. Education should give us the disciplines—the habits of mind—to make each decision in the moment as it comes on its own merits. “Hey, Mr. John, I like that pink shirt on you.”
Of course, it is mean to mock someone for the shirt they wear or to make any kind of gender-related slur. For this purpose, most kindergartners just need to be reminded about kindness. However, for school to be an education, we must create an environment in which these young humans can create something beautiful, something brilliant, some new line of poetry like, “Only a real man can wear pink.”
From the Principal’s Office: Lessons on Learning, Life, and Parenting is published bi-monthly. Each column is written by Rick Ackerly , a distinguished educator with thirty years experience in middle and elementary school education, who is currently the Head of the Children’s Day School in San Francisco.
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