I believe that each culture has figured out something special about human potential. Visit a home or a school in another country, and chances are you'll see something presented as "common sense" which is anything but common where you come from. I can't resist the opportunity to travel and look for these surprises, each of which is a little clue to what's possible for kids.
There are caveats, of course - practices can't be separated from their cultural context, and as a casual visitor I'm biased in all kinds of ways. Yet, when I have the chance to see schools outside the US, I come home with a bigger sense of what human potential is, and having been freed from one or two of my assumptions about "how kids are." I'll take that opportunity any day.
Recently I spent five days in Japan, visiting a range of schools from traditional to more modern, and meeting educators of every stripe. Some things felt very familiar, like the agonizing choices parents face between progressive education or the comfortably traditional system that we each somehow survived. But some things felt very different.
Take one snippet: at a fascinating boarding school called Jiyu Gakuen ("Freedom Academy"), the culture has created such a high level of student community and ownership that, in at least some of the dorms, there are no adults. An entire dormitory full of middle school boys functions without an adult in the building! The students rise at 5:30, cook meals (in some cases with vegetables and meats they've raised themselves), clean their space, and get to a full day of classes on time.
At this same school, when lunchtime came, I sat down and together with more than 100 students was served by one "family" group of 8 middle-school kids who had prepared the lunch. After serving a delicious made-from-scratch meal that included freshly baked bread, the students proceeded to give a detailed presentation on the health and calorie facts of the meal (total calories, amount of protein, fat, etc) and then an equally detailed accounting of how they were managing their food budget. I had to smile when they solemnly informed us that their meal, for such a large group, had come in a total of $1.50 over budget. They had a whiteboard showing the over/under budget figures for each meal they had made, all calculated by students. Outside this building were signs identifying the trees and explaining the compost system, created by a special group of high school students charged with maintaining the campus's 4,000 trees. The list of student responsibilities goes on.
Jiyu Gakuen calls itself the "do it yourself" school, but this is not just marketing - the school is 96 years old, and by all indications has been functioning like this for a long time. While Jiyu's culture is unique, it seems to point to something broadly true about Japan. My observation was that the communitarian spirit - a deeply engrained consideration of others' needs and an expectation of being helpful to the community - is deeper there than in any other country I've visited. As another school I visited put it, one of their core values is "autonomous harmony," which I read as the ability to manage oneself while supporting the larger whole. For example, it's normal in Japanese schools for students to be responsible for janitorial duties, keeping their classrooms clean and organized (far more than the often token "pick up your stuff" version of this in the US).
Like any cultural element this one contains strengths and challenges. Together with a deep community spirit there can be homogeneity and pressure to conform. Some of the Japanese educators I visited described schools placing too much focus on 'school spirit,' and implicitly not enough on individual initiative and creativity. There is a risk that students are pushed to be the same, with few taking the risk of standing out.
Yet conformity is not, I hope, a required element of strong communities. It may appear at the same time, but we can take the power of community as a separate lesson. Among other insights from this trip, what's clear is that "average" teens can feel a deeper sense of belonging and responsibility than I had realized. The image of the purely self-centered teen who never stops to think about the larger community is not a guaranteed state caused by biology; it's at least in part cultural. And it's clear that kids are not only capable of feeling a desire to support a community; they also are capable of acting on it, managing themselves to a degree that seems astonishing (a student-run middle school dorm?).
I'm left wondering how to support this idea of 'autonomous harmony' in American kids. How could we create, in schools or at home, a deeper sense of shared responsibility without pressuring them to conform? Food for further thought.
Special thanks to Emi Takemura and Tomoe Hashimoto for creating an incredibly rich week of visits and events in Japan.