This is the first two thousand words from the first draft of my second book Students First: The Teacher and Administrator’s Guide to Self-Directed Education in Public School, Chapter One:
Chapter One: Being Educated
This book is meant to make the case for Self-Directed Education (SDE), but in order to do that, it’s useful to first consider the purpose of education (SDE or otherwise). It may also be useful to consider the purpose of life, or, if that’s too cliché for your tastes, then before attempting to answer what the purpose of education is, consider this: you have a limited time on this earth. If all goes well, and you eat all of your vegetables, then you’ll have a hundred years, tops. Who is the hundred-year-old you? How many times were you reborn in that one lifetime? How many people had you touched? Or hurt? How epic was the quest that the hundred-year-old took? Or does the hundred-year-old you mostly resemble the twenty-year-old you, just with more wrinkles?
Depression and Suicide
The United States of America is arguably the most affluent country that has ever existed. This is not faux-patriotism. If you make $34,000 a year or more, you are part of the richest 1% on earth; half of all of the world’s 1% live in the United States. Generally speaking, we have more comforts and fewer dangers than just about anywhere else, at any other time period, in the world. I’ll acknowledge that the general costs of living, and the cost of goods and services across various sectors, make such claims imperfect. Nevertheless, I maintain that you’d be hard-pressed to argue against the relative affluence of the United States.
At the same time, 11% of Americans take very powerful antidepressant medication. That’s around 35 million people; while a few countries come close to that rate in terms of percentage, the United States has far more people on antidepressants than any other country in the world in terms of sheer numbers. A quarter of those, approximately 9 million people, have been on antidepressants for more than a decade. Not surprising, then, the United States also has a suicide problem. In the year 2014, 42,773 people committed suicide. In the same year, there were 14,249 homicides. Three times as many people kill themselves than are murdered.
In the past eighteen years (from the year 2000 to this writing, April 2018) there have been 163 deaths via school shootings. Even one school shooting is one too many…however, in the year 2014, 150 girls ages 10-14 committed suicide. The number of young girls killing themselves in one year was almost equal to school shooting deaths in eighteen years.
In terms of raw numbers, white people ages 35-64 kill themselves in greater numbers than any other demographic in America (in terms of percentage, whites are second only to American Indians); while suicide may seem like a “white problem,” it’s also true that rates for every demographic in the United States has risen since 1999 – every demographic except black males, where suicide rates have dropped. Nearly every single one of the school shooters alluded to above has been a white male, and every single one of them have either been on antidepressants, or been in the early stages of coming off of them.
In fairness to you, dear reader, I will make my bias clear: while it may seem as though I’m going on an America-is-a-depressing-and-horrible-place rant, I’m actually an idealist when it comes to the principles of freedom on which this country was founded, even while acknowledging the hypocrisy of our slave-owning founding fathers. America is a great place to be. Much of the rest of the world agrees with me: there are almost 47 million people living in the United States who were not born here (one sixth of our population), while only 3 million people who were born in the United States live elsewhere. As someone who works almost exclusively with immigrants and refugees, it is a well-established fact that the wait-time to immigrate to the country legally is measured in years, and that those who choose to enter illegally continue to do so, regardless of a multitude of existential threats to their lives and the lives of their children. People are desperate to come here, and not too eager to leave.
The evidence is clear that America is the place where people want to be – the evidence is equally clear that America is the place where people feel depressed and hopeless in numbers that are incongruent to our affluence. It is also suggestive, if confusing, that the group of people who are most privileged in America would be most likely to be depressed and suicidal.
Race and Privilege
I should also take a moment to spell out what I mean by “privileged.” I may lose some of you in the conversation around race in the United States. People who believe that the country is fundamentally racist to the point where only white people can realistically succeed aren’t going to like what I have to say about the real opportunities all races have in this country, and neither are the ostriches who refuse to acknowledge the impact racism has had on minorities in America, as well as the institutions that continue to mechanically grind away at (specifically) black people and black communities. I think it’s a shame because, generally speaking, those things that are bad for black people can more accurately be described as worse for black people, but bad for everybody. For example, nobody benefits from the militarization of police, the overcrowding of prisons, the war on drugs, the standardization of authoritarian schools, and so on. These are all issues that are bad for everyone, yet disproportionately affect the black community.
The number of black families who homeschool have doubled over the past fifteen years. I believe more and more black families are realizing that there is real opportunity in this country, while at the same time institutions such as schools continue to teach kids that:
“…the ‘peculiar institution,’ as Southerners came to call it, like all human institutions should not be oversimplified. While there were cruel masters who maimed or even killed their slaves (although killing and maiming were against the law in every state), there were also kind and generous owners. The institution was as complex as the people involved. Though most slaves were whipped at some point in their lives, a few never felt the lash. Nor did all slaves work in the fields. Some were house servants or skilled artisans. Many may not have even been terrible unhappy with their lot, as the Nat Turner revolt revealed.”
I don’t want to go too deeply down the rabbit-hole of race in America – not because I don’t think it’s important, but because there is a lot to say, I’m not necessarily the one to say it, and I don’t want to lose my larger point regarding race in America, which is that school as an institution, like many American intuitions, was created and continues to be run in the image of white Europeans, which at a minimum is a “home field advantage” to American-born white people.
That said, why is depression and suicide a disease of white, middle-aged Americans, i.e. the privileged and affluent? I’m not placing blame on schools for the reason that so many people are depressed and suicidal, but I can’t help but to come back around to the question of, What is the purpose of education? What is the purpose of life? How is the 100-year-old you different from the teenage you? Whatever education is, it should include the ability to get through life without addicting yourself to powerful medication, ignoring the root cause of your suffering, or more importantly, your inability to deal with your suffering and, for around forty-two thousand people a year, culminating in suicide.
Our freedoms have given us plenty of choices of how to live, but the principles of freedom are agnostic as to which decisions are the right ones. The amount of fast food, pornography, social media, prescription medication or self-prescribed drugs and alcohol, obesity, and divorce, are all indicative of a people who are desperately clawing at some escape; they are looking for a space to fully be, and when they can’t find it on their own, they chemically alter their consciousness. I’m not convinced that everyone…or even most of the people…that are on antidepressants are depressed due to some irreversible physiological malady. In other words, I’m not convinced that “umbrellas cause the rain.” People are indentured to debt and expectation, and addicted to screen-time and refined sugar, all of which exacerbate the problem of unhappiness; so many people never spent any time at all considering themselves, their place in the world, and the importance of having deep, meaningful relationships with others.
I mentioned the statistics on school shootings above (163 dead in 18 years) just to give some perspective on the urgency of the depression and suicide problem in America, and how, in my estimation, “being educated” should include as a priority the capacity to find within yourself happiness and enthusiasm. However, I don’t want to be misleading – school shootings rightfully get a lot of attention and are closely connected to the larger problem of unhappiness and lack of community.
I think why school shootings have such a profound effect on our collective psyche stems from how irreconcilable and nihilistic they are. As illustrated above, many other killings besides school shootings happen all over the country, and even more suicides. In 2017 the United States dropped a 500-pound bomb on two ISIS snipers in Iraq, killing 141 civilians in the process. While terror and death happen in lots of different ways and in far greater magnitude than school shootings, we can make rational sense of most of them. Consider the following: a jealous husband murders his adulterous wife; a gang gets into a shoot-out with a rival gang; an investment banker has an existential crisis and swallows a hundred pills; ISIS attempts genocide on a group of people slightly different than themselves. We don’t enjoy any of those things, but we can make rational sense of them. How about: an affluent teenager from a rich country walks into an elementary school and shoots a couple dozen six-year-olds, then kills himself. How can you even begin to make sense of that? You can’t, which is why people usually just default to their preexisting political talking points…because there is nothing else to say. A school shooter has rejected all personal meaning, e.g. responsibility and interpersonal relationships. They are monsters; they are the living dead.
How do we do the impossible, and reconcile total monstrous nihilism with the unbelievable, unprecedented comfort and prosperity that we enjoy in America? How do we explain the relative comfort, at least in terms of worldly affluence, of the ones doing the mass shootings? Look at the top twenty deadliest mass shootings in the United States – nearly all of them were committed by middle class or wealthy people, a bit more than half of them white, all of them men, and most of them born in America. It doesn’t get much more comfortable than that.
This planet is safer and more comfortable compared to any other point in history because technology has rendered belonging to a tribe obsolete; that is, we don’t daily face the kind of danger that would require close, personal relationships for survival. We don’t need our children or our elderly around us, and they don’t need us. We think nothing of giving our children up to agents of the state from ages five to eighteen, and if they resist too much, we tell them that they are ill with School Refusal Disorder. Then we think nothing of sequestering our elderly away in geriatric daycare centers, effectively sweeping under the rug our past and our future. We literally could live to a hundred and go our entire life without a meaningful relationship with anyone. Not only is it possible, it’s probable, since we don’t need anyone to get the things we need for comfortable survival or to keep our kids alive, and we are in such a hustle for so many things other than meaningful relationships with ourselves or others, that there is little time or incentive to build these relationships.
A policy of individualism makes the world a safer, more just place; the alternative is a policy that promotes or condemns the individual based on their group identity, which in its extreme manifests in genocide. However, the choice of living only for yourself absolves you of responsibility and gives life little purpose. It leads to anxiety and depression, in many cases leads people to medicate (or self-medicate), and in extreme cases ends in suicide – in ultra-extreme cases ends in total nihilism and carnage.
 “Boorstin & Kelley did not write “their textbook,” as I show in “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” Meanwhile, although the paragraph in question (and many others) do date back to the 1992 edition and even earlier, the prose remains unchanged in the latest edition (2007).” https://twitter.com/JamesWLoewen/status/986331714422231046