Schools should specialize in students


A higher education scholar recently recommended that schools at every level specialize in students. Good advice! A South African university president coined the phrase “compassionate pedagogy” and set out to make that the mark of his university. Compassionate pedagogy focused on the student might work.

My experience in graduate school was very different. It was a long, hard test of endurance, and the devil took the hindmost. Many fell by the wayside, including some of the brightest. The diploma at the end was grasped with relief. Compassionate pedagogy was not common, but one compassionate professor made all the difference.

Education has been at various times focused on the subject (what is taught) through examinations based on textbooks, the teacher (the authority) based on lectures by a “sage on the stage,” and the student (the background, needs, and goals) in seminars and tutorials. No one can deny each of these can be very important in any education. Nevertheless, the goal of education is student learning. That should be the focus of compassionate pedagogy.

“Know your students!” is rule number one for schoolteachers, parents, and all who exercise influence on our youth. Stereotyping students renders good teaching impossible. Compassionate pedagogy does not mean pampering students or allowing them to run wild. Indeed, it sometime requires hardnosed love that demands work and progress. The goal of teaching is to enhance each student’s learning, resulting in good preparation for positive and successful lives.

Recent studies indicate that the strength of an individual’s social network and community is one determinant of positive outcomes in education and other endeavors. If that is correct, networks and social capital are powerful resources in helping people realize the American dream.

Economic connectedness is one of the networks. Children and youth who have more rich friends progress easier and faster. Parents have long intuited that truth, which is one reason rich families gather in prosperous neighborhoods where the best schools are located. Research also shows that in cases where poor people have richer friends, outcomes are positive. In fact, researchers at Harvard, NYU and Stanford say positive social connectedness is a better predictor of a community’s upward mobility than any other characteristic studied yet.

The benefits exist across identity and ethnic groups. Interactions with youth across diverse groups result in upward mobility, including Hispanic, African American, Asian, or previously disfranchised students. Such friendships are important, especially now that our community, state, and nation are becoming much more diverse. Such successful friendships can occur in schools, clubs, sports, arts, and churches, especially where stable, encouraging mentorship and good role models are available. It is a specific application of the truth, “You choose your gods when you choose your playmates!” Increasingly that means, “You choose your future when you choose your friends.”

It takes an entire village to educate and raise a young person to be successful and to flourish. It is essential to understand that truth early in a child’s development and to implement it into adulthood. That might contribute more to our welfare in Crawfordsville and Montgomery County than any other factor.


Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.