"From sermon delivered on 10/20/2019 by Cammie Justus-Smith for First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church Fort Worth, Texas."
I have spent a lot of time in traditional schooling. I went to pre-school, attended a public K-12 school, and eventually worked my way toward a graduate degree at a large state university. I have recorded thousands of hours in hard plastic chairs. Positioned there, I encountered a lot of well-intentioned adults; caring, kind, and intelligent, but with one vision of what they believed success to be. Their focus was limited to the next test, passing grades, standardized test scores, graduation rates, and college acceptance rates. These adults liked the nature of school and excelled within its framework. Due to my own privilege, I was also well-positioned to carry on that tradition. Not to disappoint, I followed a fairly predictable path along my way. I pleased the right teachers, rebelled against the ones who liked challenges, and in general excelled at the game of school. I met their pre-formed visions of ‘success’. At least, I did so on paper. But, the reality is, I actually hated school. Despite craving the structures of a school day, I really suffered during my time as a K-12 student. I really lacked any sense of identity outside of this school world. In school, I learned to place more value on the tangible products of my labor - test scores, grades, resume builders - than the process of learning. I prioritized a paper version of myself that seemed to justify the cost. The fact that I was miserable, even with the achievements filling in the blanks on paper, led me to believe that this must be some sort of expectation. The adults in my life continually modeled a singular value system: “success” trumps fulfilling learning experiences and the happiness found in finding your own path.
I don’t think that my experiences in traditional schooling are very different from those our current students face. Spending ten years teaching in public middle and high schools leads me to believe that the pressures on our students are even greater than they were in the late 90’s and early 2000’s when I graduated. Mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, self-harm, and suicide are pervasive and rising.. And while caring adults are doing their absolute best to provide care and help children manage these symptoms, the actual systems that may be creating these symptoms remain largely unchallenged. I found the inability to examine ourselves as contributors to the problem, unacceptable. Our kids are not doing anything wrong in this scenario. They are participating in the world in the only way they are allowed, and they are suffering. Research and evidence suggests that the pressures at school are the primary culprit of much anxiety and depression in our kids. At EC Stanton, we take the ironically radical approach that a child’s happiness should be the absolute, number one priority of a school. And I am not talking about the ‘I just got a new toy’ kind of happiness or any other superficial feeling that comes with consumption or risky activity. But we are talking about the kind of happiness that someone experiences when they know they are safe, when they know they are loved, and when they know that anything they want to do in their life is absolutely possible and 100% their responsibility.
Another radical approach we have to education, is that we are absolutely certain that no one person or committee reserves the right to tell students what is the most important pieces of information to know. On some level, all of us know this. There is this vast, limitless world of information at our fingertips now. Adults use the internet to answer questions, solve problems, and train themselves in new skills. Antithetical to the information era in which we live, specific state and national curriculums are designed to teach every student what they need to know. One inherent issue with this approach, is that pedagogical lies and lies of omission are pervasive throughout national curriculums, as is evidenced easily in places like social studies with how we teach students about slavery, focus on european and american histories, and where we tend to repress minority voices. With the advent of the internet, students can access people, places, and realities that were once unknown. There is zero need to rely on an authority to decide what to know, but instead an immense need for teaching students how to separate fact from fiction and how to make sense of this knowledge within the context of their own life. The vast web of knowledge should be treated with awe and reverence and a critical eye. Instead, states and agencies have taken it upon themselves to piece out a core set of knowledge that everyone should ‘know’. I don’t think this is with malicious intent, but it comes from a place of absolute arrogance. Why do we teach a white, anglo version of world history? Why do we call art, music, and home ec optional while algebra is not? Someone decided what and when we would teach a very small fraction of our universal knowledge and insisted that their own valuation of the world was right and just and the best for students. We want to turn that on its head. The things that bring us joy in life should not be electives. The curriculum that feeds the heart and soul of our students is what we value, not a biased version of this reality. One of the jobs of adults at our school is to help students make sense of this rather than determine what is worth knowing.
The last thing that democratic and Sudbury schools do that is radical is the absolute trust that young people can and should be given the autonomy to manage themselves. The adults at our school are not in the driver’s seat, and don’t want to be. Children are amazing, limitless beings full of creativity, persistence, and grace. They believe the best about our world and want everyone to be treated fairly. They can stare at the limitless web of knowledge in our world, and be in awe. They can find their personal existence within the lyrics of a song and address world leaders to condemn their slow actions on climate change. They are these absolutely mysterious and fascinating beings that are biologically designed to challenge norms and push our human evolution forward. At EC Stanton, we don’t want to stamp any of that down or hold it back. We radically encourage students to do what brings them joy or gets them where they want to go. Nothing more. Nothing less. Adults do not issue rules or demands, they use their experience to make suggests that are evaluated by the whole community, dominated by children. Children are more than capable of this kind of freedom and responsibility, if only we will hand it to them.
I became a teacher to help kids. And not in that way of thinking that I could save all of the unfortunate, underprivileged communities. But instead, in that way that I thought I could help children just learn how to survive it. I knew I had specific skills and a specific personality that could show students there are many ways to be a functional and happy human on our planet and that after school “it gets better”. Over the past decade, this has drastically changed for me. I am no longer just trying to help children. Providing safe spaces for students has become a social justice priority for me. Schools have to make radical changes in order to prepare our children for the exponentially changing world within which we live. Whether public schools can do that as they are, I don’t really know. And I am not in the habit of bashing the systems that are providing the life support for the individuals in our communities most at risk. However, I don’t think life support should be enough. At EC Stanton, we are taking a non-traditional stand to show the world that children should not be pathologized, that the world is too complex for an old white man or woman to determine what is worth knowing or what is not, and that trusting students is the only way for them to develop the autonomy and responsibility necessary for this crazy world. It is totally radical, but yet I don’t find it any different than the values professed at this very UU church.
At EC Stanton Community School, we believe that each student that enrolls in our school is a gift, worthy of dignity and respect. We actively practice and preach restorative justice, equality, and compassion within our community. We believe that every student is on their own path, at their own pace, and that we can best grow our understandings of this world through our interactions together. We believe that each child should be on a quest for their own understandings and their own meanings. We believe in and use the democratic process to make every decision for our school. We believe that peace, liberty, and justice are the cornerstones of a fully functional community and world. We see the interconnected world we live in and stare at it in awe and know that our own mission in this life is to figure out where we fit within it. These are radical premises.
EC Stanton Community School has a radical approach to education. But Unitarian Universalists have also always had a radical approach to seeing the world. They are the first to recognize injustice and try to rectify it. They have been active in the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the social justice movement, and the feminist movement. They start to examine hard issues, sometimes before the general public is starting to be aware of them, and work hard to figure out how to fit these beliefs into their existing frameworks. UU’s don’t apologize for trying to understand this world and do the best they can within it. Nor did Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Nor does EC Stanton Community School. Our school is so grateful for this partnership, because we know that sometimes hard change takes radical work and radical partnerships of diverse and independent thinkers. We also know that the active practice of trying to better the world, is always worth it. Even when it is messy, or loud, or chaotic, much as our school itself can appear to be on the outside. My hope is that together we can continue to bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice in our own ways and raise each organization up in the process.
I am going to end on this Elizabeth Cady Stanton quote, shortened from the original text. Her feminist, abolistionist, radical-self encouraged me when starting this project. I hope that some of her words can do the same for you:
“The new religion will teach the dignity of human nature and its infinite possibilities for development. It will teach the solidarity of the race -- that all must rise and fall as one. Its creed will be justice, liberty, equality for all the children of earth…This radical work cannot be done by what is called charity, but by teaching sound principles… Those who train the religious conscience of the people must teach the lesson that all these artificial distinctions in society must be obliterated by securing equal conditions for all: this cannot be done in a day: but this is the goal for which we must strive. The first step to this end is to educate the people into the idea that such a moral revolution is possible.”