Schools are a place for students to grow morally and emotionally — let's encourage them

Schools are a place for students to grow morally and emotionally — let's encourage them
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As students around the country prepare to join the National School Walkout to protest political inaction around gun violence, many schools are still debating whether or not to punish students for missing class.

Although legal rights organizations such as the ACLU have tweeted that schools cannot punish students more harshly for protesting than for any other unexcused absence, some schools have made it clear they intend to teach students a lesson.

One school superintendent in Texas, for example, promised a three-day suspension for any student who engaged in any mass-shooting related protest or walkout during school hours. “A school is a place to learn and grow educationally, emotionally and morally,” he wrote. “A disruption of the school will not be tolerated.”


Students, he decreed, have to learn that life is about choices and choices have consequences. Schools are for education, not political protests.

However, if schools were truly a place for students to grow “emotionally and morally,” wouldn’t engaging in a demonstration of solidarity to protest the all too recurrent slaughter of concertgoers, church assemblies, and schoolchildren be one of the most emotionally engaging and morally relevant activities they could undertake?

And if life is all about choices and consequences, wouldn’t the choice to allow students to engage in one of the most cherished traditions of our democracy — namely, political dissent — potentially result in a profound and historically significant educational experience?

The fact is that our educational institutions are often not places that foster emotional and moral growth within students. Why? Part of the reason is because while our schools are pretty good at teaching students how to do things, they fail at teaching why things matter.

School officials tend to assume that if you simply teach students how things work, the “why it’s important” will naturally follow. But this is precisely the opposite of how we learn and grow in the world. People need reasons, stories, and context to direct their skills.

We need the why to give us a context to understand and use the how. We need the why to give us good reasons to learn the how. The why makes the how relevant. The why makes the how endurable. The why makes the how possible.

This is what Nietzsche meant when he wrote, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

No one attempting to gain admission to medical school, for example, will say they are applying because they really want to become proficient at reading histology slides. No, they come because they are driven by something deeper and more profound, something that addresses the question, why?

We must also remember that our students learn as much from what we don’t teach as what we actually teach. These anti-teaching moments are what scholars call the “hidden curriculum.”

So, when a university refuses to make a statement in response to the racial violence in Charlottesville, it tacitly teaches students that confronting racism is not an educational priority.

And when a high school suspends students for demonstrating against mass shootings, it teaches that political deliberation has no place within formal education.

You can teach students the concept of democracy, but if you suspend them for engaging in the democratic process, you are teaching a much more potent and memorable lesson.

And herein lies the danger. Without articulating a why to animate learners, without the courage and fortitude to take a stand on the moral and political issues that matter to our students and by teaching by not teaching, schools not only squander precious teachable moments, they abdicate their role as a moral compass for students.

Fortunately students are taking charge and leading themselves. For example: The One Mind Youth Movement, which has been instrumental in the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline; the youths who were on the front lines of the Ferguson protests; the University of Missouri student protests against campus racism that culminated in the resignation of the school’s president and chancellor; the National WhiteCoats4BlackLives Movement that made up of over 50 medical schools and  the recent Never Again Movement to address school shootings — students are filling the leadership vacuum by courageously taking righteous political stands.

The last few weeks over 260 colleges, including my own, have demonstrated leadership by committing to defend the #NeverAgain Movement by not allowing disciplinary action due to political protest to affect admissions decisions.

But our schools can and must do more.

They must teach not only with words, but more crucially, through example. They must listen and be responsive to the political and social issues that invigorate their students. They must truly heed the lofty mission statements that every institution has buried on a webpage somewhere, but few actually live up to.

And they must make righteous political stands, giving students a why to guide them in the midst of too much how.

William H. Eidtson, Ed.D. is the director of academic skills and accessibility services and an instructor of medical education at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.