Reflective Rebels

In a new essay, Alfie Kohn, one of the sharpest and most rational voices in the ed reform discussion, says he wants students to become “reflective rebels”.

His starting point is the “tangle of deeply conservative beliefs” which says that parents are too permissive and as a result, kids are spoiled and narcissistic. Kohn points out that there’s no evidence for this contention and that adults have had a similar view of young people for “approximately forever”.

However, let’s assume the grumblers are correct. What should we do differently so that children are less self-centered and will look beyond themselves?

The answer, I think, is to help them become people who are not only empathic and compassionate but skeptical and courageous. It’s one thing to offer a kind word or a dollar to an individual in distress; it’s something else to address the systemic causes of that distress. The latter requires a willingness to question authority and challenge unjust features of the status quo – to stand up to power. In short, the real alternative to egocentricity is what might be called reflective rebelliousness.

The problem with this approach, of course, is that the same people doing the complaining really don’t like the idea of “rebellious” kids, reflective or otherwise. Society, especially the formal education part of it, is not at all receptive to rebelliousness.

Whether or not it’s stated explicitly, compliance remains the central goal of most classroom management programs, character education initiatives, and parenting resources. Sure, we stress the virtues of independent thinking and assertiveness, but mostly in the context of getting kids to resist peer pressure. If a child has the temerity to resist unreasonable rules and demands imposed by adults, well, then, bring on the “consequences” (read: punishments) to “hold them accountable for their behavior.”

We certainly do talk a lot about wanting our students to learn to be creative, innovative, independent thinkers. But when it comes to their relationship the process of school and the educational system that’s been laid out for them, it’s pretty much all talk. We really don’t know what to do with truly creative kids.

In the end, Kohn says that if we really want kids to develop into “reflective rebels”, to think for themselves, “we ourselves must be rebels” and push back “against the dominant tendency to focus on producing children who do whatever they’re told.”

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