I was fourteen when I was first labeled as too dangerous to attend school. My act of rebellion? I had tried to kill myself. The sad thing is, it wasn’t the first time this had happened, nor was it the last time I would try to end my life. Even today, as I suffer from the effects of crying myself to sleep far too late at night, I wonder if my secondary school had failed me when it came to my Mental Health. Sure, my teachers probably tried their best, but I wonder if they were trained enough to tackle such a complex issue, particularly as I look at many of my friends who didn’t or couldn’t go on to tertiary education because of their own battles with Mental Health. What is it about the New Zealand current system that is so apathetic?
I’m not the only one who’s struggled with mental health at high school or university. Just ask the 124 youth who committed suicide in 2011 in New Zealand. Or rather more aptly, ask the parents, siblings, bar buddies, project partners and mentors who are probably still wondering why they hadn’t noticed the signs earlier. Many scientists guess that over 1 in 5 of us will experience problems with our own mental health sometime in our life. That’s enough to make a netball team out of a classroom, a van full of teachers out of a staffroom, and that’s enough University of Auckland STATS101 students to fill the flagship Fisher and Paykel Auditorium.
Schooling, especially compulsory schooling, is designed to teach social skills as much as it does reading, writing and arithmetic. Students are taught to co-operate with other children of different backgrounds and different strengths, and to follow societal norms. The historical state of Prussia was one of the first nations to implement a system of compulsory schooling under the reign of Frederick the Great. Until then, schooling and education was the province of the elite, and the only way to get an education if one was not of the aristocracy was to join the clergy. Frederick’s system was not for the upper classes, but for the children of merchants, soldiers and serfs- the aim being to create a class of obedient merchants, soldiers and serfs, who would not try to revolt against the social order.
Compulsory schooling has come a long way since then, especially in the mobilized United States, whereby (or at least supposedly) everyone is equal and anyone can attain the American Dream provided they are successful enough. But can all of us attain this capitalist dream? Especially in America, with a move towards Common Core standards and standardized testing, educators tend to teach towards either the lowest common denominator or the average student, both of which have detrimental effects on those on the ends of the bell curve. What happens to the 124 youth whose home lives and school lives give them so much pain that they won’t get the chance to apply for Harvard or Yale? Or the 1 in 68 children who are autistic, and therefore are ostracized for their difficulty in learning norms and social cues? Changes in brain networking don’t necessarily mean that people like me can’t learn calculus or essay writing. But it does make it hard for us to learn how to fit in society, and therefore fit in with our math class.
Isocrates, an Athenian orator, talks to us about Paideia, the ideal education for a young Athenian youth, only emphasizing the very best. Athenian youth were to be the best at everything: at literature, rhetoric, morality, sport, in science, and in their own beauty. It was not only the inner mind that was to be educated, but the external figure too. In this globalized society, perhaps the key to educating for social norms is to teach tolerance and acceptance of difference, and to cooperate with people of different perspectives, especially when they are working with someone with a developmental or psychiatric disability. As the Macedonian Aristotle might have posed to the educators of today, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is not education at all”. We may be educating the minds of our youth, but are we educating their hearts and teaching them human compassion?