Saturday, November 3, 2012

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic Are Not Enough: Schoolchildren Deserve a Broader Education

I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of and how it is run. I believe in the reality of progress. But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

H. L. MenckenMencken's Creed (Excerpt cited by George Seldes in Great Thoughts.)
REAL wellness is a phrase I devised to describe a lifestyle designed for a high quality existence. I added REAL to the word wellness in response to the manner in which worksite health education programs have interpreted and promoted wellness for at least 30 years. Unfortunately, what companies offer in efforts to moderate employee medical costs (i.e., health insurance rates) are wellness in name only; the educational classes and activities invariably concern strategies to reduce risks, prevent disease and manage medical concerns and problems.
In the wider culture, semantics concerning wellness are even more distorted. Since the earliest books appeared describing the nature of wellness in the late seventies, the term has been twisted and gnarled, distorted and contorted, mangled and misconstrued, perverted and... well, you get the idea. The original, classic meaning of wellness introduced by Dunn and popularized by Travis, Hettler, Allen, myself and many others as a positive approach to advanced states of physical and psychological well-being has not been implemented. Instead, wellness has advanced as an empty buzzword employed for whatever product or service the (mis) user seeks to advance. I've even observed the term used to promote dog food. (Not that I object to healthy dog food.)
Fair enough, I suppose. America is said to be a free country. I can call Republicans rational and fair-minded if I choose - who can forbid such liberties with reality or proper usage? Nobody.
Still, it's not a bad idea, I think, to have words that mean more or less the same thing in a given language. I think the original meaning of the term wellness was much more useful than the way its been advanced. Wellness, I think, is and should remain an idea with specific qualities not otherwise promoted within or beyond the medical system. It's not a food, not a medical treatment, not a weigh-loss regimen and not a bazillion other things. It's a concept - a bit of a philosophy for the pursuit of positive states of being. At least in my opinion. What do you think?
The definitional confusion about wellness is the reason I started adding the modifier REAL to the word wellness. REAL serves as an acronym. In my usage, the letters R-E-A-L stand for reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty. These are the four foundation dimensions that I like to emphasize when promoting this particular lifestyle philosophy or mindset. The acronym embraces critical thinking and respect for science (R - reason), a desire to enjoy life as much as possible (E - exuberance), a vigorous exercise regimen combined with well informed, evidence-based nutritional practices (A - athleticism) and a commitment to personal freedoms (L - liberty). They add up to a REAL wellness lifestyle - and conscious commitment to thinking about choices and ideas in disciplined ways.
Which leads me to the topic of educating our young. Sure, all children need the basics (three or more Rs) but why stop there? Why not encourage and prepare teachers at all levels to stimulate their little charges to ponder, wonder and reflect on largely unanswerable leading questions about large matters? All students, however young, are curious and open to the mysterious, to those things that transcend day-to-day demands. There are questions, existential and otherwise, that all students will have to confront in years and decades to come. Why wait? Get them started early. Raise questions that touch on or lead to wonder about such topics as noted in Mencken's Creed. Just refrain from providing scripted, correct answers. Also, please don't require that teacher reflections on such things be taken as the final word, or accepted on faith because adults know best.
Consider what fun and adventure it might be for little children to brainstorm, in their own fashion, about the extent to which humans can conquer the world - and what could possibly be meant by such a phrase. Or to share ideas about what the world is made of, how it's run and what is progress. (Maybe a few examples of good and not-so-good progress would be fun, too.). How about, Is it better to tell the truth than to lie? Why? Don't overlook, Do you believe it's better to be free than to be a slave? Think of the possibilities. Imagine the places a class might go, with a little facilitating help from a teacher, with that last question. Again, best to go where the kids take themselves without the benefit of correct adult answers or absolute truths. The children will be confronted with plenty of those, soon enough. For now (i.e., during the Wonder Years), a range of free association possibilities, both imaginative and silly, should be quite enough.
The one exception to this suggestion, to the advice to stay with unanswered, open questions rather than preferred answers, concerns the last element in Mencken's Creed. Go ahead and tell the kids that it is better to know than to be ignorant. It's also better to ask questions, to explore wild and childish hypotheses or to just wonder about something huge (or small) than to ignore it or put it out of mind because grownups don't know the answer.
Young children exposed to such an educational environment in their formative, elementary school years will have many advantages over those who only gain exposure to a quality education learning the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. One prediction I'd venture to offer if ever children were so educated is this: they would surely be vastly more likely to find and to embrace a REAL wellness philosophy than they would the ersatz variety.
Be well, look on the bright side and have fun.

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