Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. — John F. Kennedy
President Kennedy raised the bar for what it meant to be a citizen in our country. His administration was called the New Frontier and being a citizen was itself a noble adventure, a valued journey for the common good. When he set a goal of reaching the moon, it wasn’t a goal for NASA or the astronauts, WE were all going. It was a shared destiny. When he established the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, it sent a signal for people to get in shape to do the work of making our country a better place. He created the Peace Corps to extend this work beyond our own borders. He realized that people wanted to do something great and feel connected to something beyond their own interests. He energized our country by creating a narrative where active citizens were essential in fulfilling our nation’s mission.
When President Kennedy invited us to ask what we could do to help our country, he affirmed us and created an identity that brought out the best in ourselves. There was no implication that we were lacking or were unmotivated. We didn’t need consequences for failing or incentives for achieving. We were not broken people who needed to be fixed. He assumed that once called, we would want to meet the challenge.
I was eight years old when he became president, and I can trace my desire to be an educator back to the challenge he gave to all of us. I wanted to improve the lives of children and by doing so I would be contributing my part in making the world a better place. At the heart of his message was the deep belief that things not only could get better, they would get better, if we worked together. This moral purpose was really all the motivation I needed to meet the challenges I faced as a teacher and a principal. When I learned more and improved my performance, it was because I wanted to do a better job in serving the students and the staff with whom I worked.
This set a high bar, it raised the standards for what it meant to be a citizen. Our need to meet the standard did not however come from a selfish, individual desire to achieve, it came from believing that everyone wanted what was best for everyone. We were all in it together.
The moral purpose behind words and actions provides the energy needed to meet any standard. It is the will that does find a way!
I recently read an article stating the answer to improving education was to increase the rigor of our curriculum, to have higher standards. Set the standards high, and students will meet them. It is hard to argue with the benefits of expecting more from students. All educators should believe that all students are capable of high levels of achievement. Yet in all of this discussion of raising the bar, something seems to be missing. The energy and excitement that accompanied setting the bar high in the early 60s is not present in today’s discussion of standards.
Why should the bar be raised? Why should the standards expect more from students and teachers? Unfortunately we don’t hear too much about why? Probably the best answer given is that our country needs to compete in the global marketplace. Our students need to fill technical and sophisticated jobs. Those are valid and important reasons but they fail to inject our students and educators with enthusiasm and energy for meeting this challenge. The whole rationale and process for setting the bar high today is lacking a clear and articulated moral purpose. It lacks heart and soul.
The new standards being proposed are basically intended to improve intellectual skills and abilities. Students are being asked to think, speak, read and write more analytically and more critically. We should expect students to meet these standards, but we also must realize that their hearts and souls want and need to know why.
People are more motivated to achieve any standard when it linked to a moral purpose. Unless a standard has a greater meaning and purpose, it stays stuck in a vision of individual achievement: Raise your own test scores, get higher grades, graduate at the top of your class, and go to a good college. These are good things and should not be discounted, but they fail to connect people together, fail to direct work and energy toward the common good, and towards making our country a better place.
Maybe it is because we no longer see the connection between what we do as individuals with our common destiny as a country. Maybe we are too cynical to think that our country can become a better, fairer and more equitable place for all of its citizens. I believe just the opposite. I believe that our students are just waiting to be asked to meet this moral standard of action, waiting to be called to do something beyond their own self- interest, waiting to be invited to make the world a better place.
Teachers want and need to have their work return to the moral purpose behind what made them decide to be a teacher — the desire to help students discover meaning and purpose in their lives. This will provide all the energy and motivation they need to reach any standard set for them or their students.
This moral standard can start in how students are asked to participate in the life of their classes and their school. They should be active participants in discussing and deciding what type of class and school they want to have. They shouldn’t just be asked to comply with rules, but invited to discuss the purpose and values behind those rules and how they help everyone. Democracy can and should start in our schools, so that students can be invited and challenged to become caring and responsible citizens as a central part of their education.
If students are asked to care and to contribute to the greater good of their school, they will be prepared to accept the responsibility to care about what happens to their country and their fellow citizens. This is the moral rigor that President Kennedy challenged the country with; he believed that people had greatness in them and were just waiting to be invited to work together to make our country even greater. Our students need us to believe this about them, so they can believe it about themselves. They need us to put heart and soul back into their education.
Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at www.jim-dillon.com.