We know the people: the burnt-out lawyer, the phony politician, the ego-driven banker. They live in movies and walk our streets. They are the pride and pity of the American ethos—accomplished but hollow; driven but soulless. Perhaps you are even one of them. They may have been so possessed by the desire for success that they found themselves at the apex of their career only to ask, “Why was I so motivated to try so hard in the first place?”
If you trace their steps, they may have graduated college and received straight As. They are likely to have been celebrated for their grit and risk-taking by their friends, family, and teachers. Yet, they lack the one thing our education system consistently fails to instill – passion. We are a nation of creativity, boasting the highest number of patents per capita. We are a nation of philanthropy, giving more to charity than any other nation in the world. But we are also a population plagued with depression, anxiety, and midlife crises often conflating person fulfillment with success.
I’m in my fourth year as a teacher in a low-income community. An era of high-stakes testing, charter schools, the Common Core, Teach for America, and a myriad of other initiatives pushes our nation to provide a better education for our children. The spirit of this movement, despite its controversies and headaches, is nothing short of inspiring. Our nation may be divided over what education reform should entail, but we all agree our children deserve nothing but the best.
Yet, I can’t help but feel our trajectory needs a little recalibrating. We must not only make sure our nation’s children thrive in college and the workforce but also find a sense of joy and purpose in the process. We must not forget that the icons of American history, from George Washington to Robin Williams, may have used their wit and grit to find success, but it was their passion that took them there.
As I look over my (mostly scripted) curriculum from the final report period, I make intentional efforts to identify spots to connect the content with my students’ hopes and dreams. I implant additional lessons to help students explore their interests and values. I make up different versions of writing prompts so that the assignment becomes relevant to each student in my room.
I can only hope that as our nation continues to reform our schools that we not only ask, “What must we do so our children can become successful in the American workforce?” But we also ask, “What must we do so our children live happy and passionate lives?”
Goals and dreams are not the same thing. As a nation, we need to make sure our schools are asking for the latter. As a teacher, the two can look indistinguishable, even though they are most certainly not.
Students can parrot back reasons why studying poetry will help them think critically about other texts or how history can provide perspectives on current episodes of political turmoil. Students may even celebrate when they ace a test, especially when they are praised in comparison to the rest of the class. But when these things occur, I can’t help but worry that while I’m helping to instill academic skills and educational values, I’m not necessarily helping cultivate a future business consultant who’d make a much happier and innovative anthropologist. I worry that I, and the rest of my partners in the educational reform efforts of our day, are breeding the next generation of distinguished but bored members of the American workforce.
Financial stability, successfully competing in the global economy, college-readiness: all of these things are invaluable. However, as a nation, we need to be mindful of the faults within our cultural ethos. Any good parent looks at their life and wants better for their children. As a nation, we need to recognize that even when our nation ensures that each child has the academic skills and character traits to become productive members of society, we will have done them a great disservice if they do not envision their future lives full of zest and excitement. Success, perseverance, and drive are empty without passion.
The start of another school year is already underway. For every parent, adult, older brother, younger sister, and person who encounters a child or teenager, ask not only, “What did you learn in school today?” But also, “And why does that excite you?”
-Dan LaSalle is a 9th grade English teacher, who also teaches a mixed grade personal finance class. His favorite teaching moment is "when people (adults and children) find their unique place in this world, they are happier, more confident, and more fulfilled people. Schools can and should do this." You can reach more form Dan on his blog, www.teachtoimpassion.com
 Ravitch, D. (2013). Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privitaization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Borzoi Books: New York, NY