Guest columnist Jim Palermo: Beware the zeitgeist! It’s bad for our kids

The Thinker by sculptor Auguste Rodin.

The Thinker by sculptor Auguste Rodin. WIKIPEDIA

By JIM PALERMO

Published: 04-17-2024 6:01 AM

 

I ran into a friend who asked why I had not for a long while submitted columns to the Daily Hampshire Gazette. I responded that I had not written because I was overwhelmed by the myriad issues that threaten out great country; that gnaw at the very foundations of our democracy; and which pose threats to our well-being.

With subsequent reflection, I came to realize that the issues that bother me the most are not the result of deliberate actions by “ordinary” individuals: They are largely the result of our being forced to be unwittingly complicit in doing harm, under the guise of doing good.

Very few of the tenets by which we live are immutable. For example, I recall seeing a foreign movie many years ago in which Brigitte Bardot was called as a witness in a court case. An attorney asked if it was true that she had had an “illegal operation.” The entire audience gasped aloud. Today, a more enlightened public gasps at the thought that women are being denied control over their reproductive rights. The members of the movie audience were faithful to the dominant intellectual climate — the zeitgeist — of that era, and thereby they were unwittingly complicit in supporting a grave injustice, in my opinion.

I am certain that a bewildering number of such issues could be identified, but none is more concerning to me than what we are doing to our children when we buy into the false accusations that public schools are failing; that the goal of education should be focused on gaining the skills required by business and industry; and that Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) should be emphasized over all other subjects, even at the expense of the liberal arts.

These factors, and other related ones, such as the suppression of pedagogy for the gain of profit, have been identified as leading contributors to the mental health crisis exploding within the ranks of our precious children.

In past columns, I have referred to Diane Ravitch’s support of public education and her exhortations against the privatization of our schools by big money interests that are primarily out to make a profit. (See for example, “Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Schools” (2020). I have also written about “The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?” (2020) by the world-noted philosopher Michale J. Sandel, who laments the unhealthy competition between “winners and losers” that is imposed by a pernicious embrace of meritocracy.

The combined titles of those books highlight some major reasons why we need to be concerned about what is happening to our educational system, and to our children throughout society.

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Two new books have rekindled my feeling that I must speak out to the community in which I live, in order to encourage discussion about whether the children we love so much are being harmed because we have allowed ourselves to become complicit in allowing attitudes and practices that within the current zeitgeist seem beneficial, but which in fact are terribly harmful.

Professor emerita Gayle Greene’s latest book, “Immeasurable Outcomes: Teaching Shakespeare in the Age of The Algorithm” (2023) demonstrates the power of the humanities to nourish self-understanding and empathy in young college students. The benefits of the humanities, we are told, cannot be measured quantitatively, but they are nonetheless real and observable.

Yet, schools at every level are required to measure the “value added” outcomes of instruction — a process that has become an industry in which the rich get richer, and educators get buried in burdensome paperwork to complete reports that purport to measure progress.

Professor Greene states “Bill Gates was keen on the idea of national standards … (and) made Common Core a reality … (and) Common Core locks teachers into standardized modules, no thought, judgment, creativity allowed, no point to the exercise except test prep.”

She also reports that the Bill Gates Foundation has a lobbying group that “has poured half a billion dollars into accountability schemes.”

Well-intentioned parents have bought into the current zeitgeist that our children must be protected from everything that has the potential to inflict physical and psychological boo-boos which somehow people in previous generations endured. (No one wants serious harm, but life’s inherent risks and pain cannot and should not be avoided.)

The reality, according to Professor Jonathan Haidt, is explored in his latest book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness” (2024). Suicide rates, self-harming, and depression among teenagers has been soaring since 2010, when the internet and smartphones became readily available to children. But Haidt also blames the “well-intentioned and disastrous shift toward overprotecting and restricting (the) autonomy (of children) in the real world.”

Obviously, space does not permit a full discussion of the issues highlighted above. But, it is my hope that our community will promote discussion of what lies behind the zeitgeist wizards’ curtains, for the sake of our children.

Jim Palermo lives in Southampton.