Education Reform to Create a Nation of Heroes
"Our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by society."
This summer I read Christopher McDougall’s page-turner, Natural Born Heroes. It’s the tale of Cretan resistance to the Nazis and their amazing kidnapping of the occupying Nazi general. As I pored through the fascinating story and history of natural movement, I was overwhelmed by his central theory: heroes are made, not born, meaning that each of us has that potential within. As a strength and conditioning coordinator and educator, the ramifications of this compelling vision set my mind on fire. If we can create heroes, as McDougall argues Cretan culture does, then we should be creating heroes in America and everywhere else.
What higher calling could there be than that of the hero? Whether heroes in the traditional sense of bravery and self-sacrifice, or the more abstract sense where our actions inspire, display bold integrity, create possibility, and uplift the world around us, we should all be heroes.
Creating heroes must begin with education. Schools are the most permeating cultural influence in America. Regardless of race, creed, color, code, or home situation, we all come through the school systems. But what is the culture being created at school? Are there common values and vision being promoted and developed in our youth? If the answer is not a most adamant “Yes!” then we are missing one giant opportunity.
Culture and habits are happening, with or without active direction. They will be developed. If we do not painstakingly and passionately create a vision and national ethos, then we won’t be happy with the cultural patterns that take root. If we dream of a world of passionate, physically and mentally strong, optimistic, values-driven people with the courage to chase their dreams and stand up for their beliefs, we must act to create it.
The Power of a Shared Vision
"If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else."
As our nation has grown more diverse and complex, we have splintered off into many opposing sub-groups who seemingly have little in common. Each decade has seen Americans drift further from the clearly defined value systems religion once offered. The diversity of cultures and beliefs are greater than ever, and while we are certainly stronger for our breadth of experiences and perspectives, we must admit that there is great power in a shared vision and understanding. Groups who are passionate about shared values accomplish great things.
With the shift towards households where both parents work, youth have less opportunity for parental direction. Parents often return home from work weary and uninspired to deal with the work of the home. These shifts in lifestyle trends are not inherently bad, but they do require a new framework for where and how we teach culture.
The seemingly infinite and complex issues facing our nation will only get better if we attack them at the cultural nucleus—schools.
What has happened with the rise of moral relativism and the shift from any common cultural background or religion is a world where television, social media, and Hollywood dictate culture. Today, advertisers and businesses are the only ones actively seeking to program the habits of Americans. Every day we’re given another reason to sit still and consume the insidious saturation of advertiser manipulation.
One of the greatest consequences of these societal shifts is our nation’s health. One out of five kids aged 2 to 19 are obese. Adult obesity ranges from a low of 20.2% of the population in Colorado to a full 36.2% in Louisiana. And the consequences are dire. Diagnoses of diabetes are higher than ever; the CDC predicts 1 in 3 adults will be diabetic by 2050. Cardiovascular disease is persistently the largest killer, not just in the United States, but in the world. Obesity has even been shown to correlate with depression. These trends show a world of people whose habits are killing them and creating a limited, pain-ridden existence.
If we ignore the significance of these trends or make believe that we have no power to change them, we are fooling ourselves. If we do not decide what habits and culture we wish our nation to follow and intentionally develop them, then we will continue to be unhappy with the outcome. Pretending health is not a problem is not the answer.
Most of our issues have come from falling away from natural human movement and experience. [Photo credit: Paolo Bona]
Learning for a Lifetime
"We’re hardwired by nature to find common social ground, to believe that whatever we’re doing today is normal and not much different from the way people have always behaved. We assume human achievement is on an upward slope."
If we were to create a school system that provided the greatest possible benefit to students’ future lives and prepared a nation for future success, what would it look like? If the changes you imagine seem insurmountable, is it okay to do nothing?
Our core curriculum does not reflect the needs of our world. Each year, the global employment market changes, and our educational system has not evolved to keep up with that reality. Too many kids pass through high school science or history without understanding or retaining any concepts for future use. Too many check the required boxes, knowing their futures won’t ever require this math class. If a student is not motivated to see significance and accountability is low, then very little is gained from that class.
Students must know how to learn, how to question, and how to create true understanding. But most important, they must be taught how to create systems and habits that allow them to grow and thrive over a lifetime. By high school, all that is essential to the future of each student is physical, mental, and financial health, along with computer literacy and organizational processes. All other subjects are very track-specific, and not important to a core competency.
Invest in the Body and the Mind
"Lions are lions. They are beautiful strong and graceful because they act like lions."
– Tim Anderson & Geoff Neupert, Original Strength
We learn best by moving. Our bodies and minds are completely interconnected and interdependent. We rely on movement from a young age to provide sensory feedback that informs us about our environment. Movement stimulates the mind to create more nerve connections, promoting more learning potential. As Ewout Van-Manen explains in The Well Balanced Child, “…physical movement is the basis for cognitive, social, and emotional development.”
We are not promoting the best learning environment if our kids are not moving. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that kids between 8 and 18 spend an average of 7.5 hours a day sitting in front of a screen. Add in the sitting done at school, and anywhere from 10-14 hours of their day is spent in sedentary positions. No wonder our kids have trouble focusing in school.
The first body system to develop, the vestibular system, provides balance and sense of the body in space. Every other sensory system is rooted through the vestibular system. The only way to develop it is to move, thus stimulating the brain through the system on which all others are built upon. Consequently, brain deterioration is usually first indicated by balance deterioration. Developmental molecular biologist John Medina calls movement “cognitive candy.”
We cannot afford to separate body from mind and ignore our human nature. Most of our issues have come from falling away from natural human movement and experience. Recess cannot be reduced, and it should exclude cell phones and sitting. Free play should not be overly controlled and movement should be integrated as much as possible throughout class periods. Most importantly, physical education should begin early and be a daily staple. Less than 4% of elementary schools offer daily physical education classes. Elementary schools are the place to create the essential baselines in reading, writing, and arithmetic. However, the foundation for all of these is in movement and play. As Albert Einstein explained, “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.”
What could be more essential to each person than an understanding of their body and mind, how they work optimally, and how to foster each to thrive for a lifetime? Our healthy bodies and minds are the foundation from which all other endeavors spring, yet we have little to no formal understanding of nutrition, or of physical and mental health. When a baby comes into the world, all anyone cares about is that she is born a healthy baby. We all want to age comfortably and maintain as many abilities as possible. Yet we completely dismiss health and vitality through the bulk of our lives. Daily fast food and soda, doughnuts for breakfast, incessant social media distraction, medication for each and every issue, lack of sleep – the list goes on. These are our cultural norms! Imagine any of your own struggles with health, weight, pain, or lack of energy. How might life have been different for you if society provided a strong foundation for strong minds and bodies?
Physical and Mental Health as Cornerstones
"Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"
- TS Elliot
For a more successful generation, values of physical and mental health must be the cornerstone on which schools are built. I will expand on how this looks in future articles, but the beginning is an intentional effort to emphasize specific values and habits. When I think of core subjects, I know nothing will determine an individual’s success in life as much as physical health and vitality, and mental resilience.
A victim mindset is a disease. It drives us to see unfairness at every turn as we insist on our misfortune, all the while losing the creativity to overcome obstacles. It is a certain way to train a negative mindset and miss countless opportunities. We need emotional intelligence and mindfulness. Our top value must be mental fortitude, resilience, and mental training to understand and control our emotions. Training mental and emotional awareness gives a context for people to be able to take steps to improve their mind when adversity inevitably does strike. No one makes it through this life without some mental turmoil and crisis of mind.
Our culture is becoming one of ego and jealousy driven by social media. We all wish to highlight our lives while secretly envying everyone else’s experiences and possessions. This habit is fueled each time our post is liked and our ego jumps for joy. Our minds grow anxious and superficial as they increasingly crave the constant distraction of text dings, like buttons, and mindless games. Try reading an article and not clicking a link before finishing. Try using the bathroom without bringing your smart phone.
There is talk of an epidemic of what is being called distraction sickness. With it comes a host of disorders and depression, most of which are made worse by our first line of defense: medication. One in five kids between 13 and 18 years old lives with a mental health disorder, and 8% of youth have an anxiety disorder. As our culture pushes us further away from the natural inclinations of mind and body, mental health will only worsen. Yet there is a stigma surrounding mental disorders. Most fear talking about mental struggles and keep them personal, creating feelings of deep isolation.
A history of mental training helps ease these times of trial and give context to be able to swiftly and confidently move through them and take the steps to improve. This mental health training should be the context through which each subject is taught. Learning should build on process goals, the ability to plan and focus without distraction, trained incremental willpower, and an understanding that we think better on our feet while moving and interacting with the world. This respect for the body-mind connection should permeate school walls, influencing lesson plans and the structure of school days.
The Basis of Health
"Intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong. In this sense, physical fitness is the basis of all activities of our society."
– John F. Kennedy
For success, this movement cannot have a political affiliation, but it must hold reverence in the hearts of all leaders. Professor Charles Taylor argues in A Secular Age that a sense of angst and uncertainty permeate society as we now live in a world where all ideas are “contested and contestable.” It's time we decide what we are going to be defined by, and let that ethos guide our path. We must look at what is central to all to find the values that will create a heroic nation.
Our rugged individualism and diversity should remain. It makes us stronger. However, there is nearly infinite possibility for what schools can accomplish if we clarify and create a world guided by shared national values and vision. Mental strength and physical health must be prioritized.
Most importantly, respect for the requirements of a thriving human organism must supersede convenience. Switching from seated to standing desks may be an inconvenience at first. Eliminating soda, candy, and cookies from the day-to-day operations of the school might ruffle feathers early on. Convenience has been our cultural guide for far too long. The ability to delay gratification, as the famed Stanford marshmallow experiment showed, is one of the greatest indicators of success.
Do we wish to pamper and do what is easy now and stay on this track, or can we have the discipline to actively create our culture? We cannot be docile or easily manipulated by the politics of appearance, the desired ease of parents, or fixed mindsets unwilling to grow or think creatively. There is no room for negotiation about whether we are committed to creating heroes. The standard must be clear enough to guide the millions of unforeseen steps on this road.
We need to create a generation of protectors.
We All Want to Be Heroes
"(This) spirit would become the foundation of both Greek theology and Western democracy: the notion that ordinary citizens should always be ready for extraordinary action."
– Christopher McDougall
Every child yearns to be a hero. They celebrate the successes of superheroes like Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Batman, and all other flawed humans uniting behind a cause they know is right. How and why we lose this yearning is the true mystery. McDougall explains that the Greeks simply defined a hero as a protector. Central to this definition is the ability to protect. A hero is someone with the ability to take care of themself and somebody else. There is great depth in this simplicity. In our increasingly complex world, one has millions of ways they can protect others, whether it is from physical oppression, financial pain, a toxic negative mindset, or poor health habits that will plague one’s life. Heroism, according to McDougall, requires commitment of the mind, body, and soul, as one must know how to protect, have the physical ability, and, most importantly, the desire!
In this age of the helicopter parent, there is no shortage of parents willing to take on the protector role. The irony is that this is where we must improve. Protection from valuable experiences which lead to growth is not protection; it is deprivation from the stimulus for growth. Challenges must be encouraged by parents who are there to help scaffold their children to heights they didn’t know were possible. Most of history’s great societies have had rites of passage to adulthood. Parents did not protect their children from life, they did whatever possible to ensure their children could eventually thrive without them.
This is not meant to create hard or cold individuals. As McDougall explained, “empathy, the Greeks believed, was a source of strength, not softness; the more you recognized yourself in others and connected with their distress, the more endurance, wisdom, cunning, and determination you could tap into.”
We need to create a generation of protectors. This process will give them a mission, a vision, and the ability to overcome all obstacles. This is empowerment and this is the path to living an inspired, passionate life. One cannot be a hero without attaining the skills to be useful and developing the mental and physical strength necessary. It may sound hokey or peripheral, but it is this focus that will help improve everything from academics to health and happiness.
Imagine a World Without Limits
"They can because they think they can."
– Virgil, The Aeneid
All our changes can be grouped together and passionately delivered through this understanding: that we are intent upon creating a heroic nation. Perhaps I am not the one best suited for this message. I don’t know how I’d respond in war or mortal danger; I’ve never run into a burning building; I’m no neurophysiologist. But I believe this standard will help motivate and guide our youth towards making choices for a strong future. No longer can we allow complete moral relativism. We are either contributing to the strength of our world and creating value and positive, passionate relationships, or we are not.
This does not require preachiness or an overly strict nature. Let’s still have pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, just not pop tarts every morning. Once we empower strength in mind and body, and clarity about the compassion and energy life requires, our youth will be freed up to chase dreams and create new realities. The potential for an overhauled education system to improve nearly every health, strength, and cultural issue is virtually infinite. We must approach schools with a new mind.
What is the purpose of a public education system? What is the opportunity in a public education system? Schools are in place to develop the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and habits in our youth that will translate to success in future vocations and life pursuits, while also instilling the desire to positively contribute to society. If we have the ability to do such life-changing work and we turn away from it, what does that say about us?
This vision would eventually move past school walls. Imagine a world where employers promoted employee games, recess, and physical and mental development. It seems a culture committed to such objectives would be close-knit, inspired, and high achieving.
This article is just the first of a series. I’d love your opinions and thoughts to help inform me and guide the conversation. The devil is in the details and there is far more to clarify. If you support the vision I’m putting forward, offer any ideas in the comments or on Twitter using #beheroes and I’ll be sure to think on them.
More on harnessing the right mentality: