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I am a college professor and the mother of a first-grader.

From my position, I can see the entire educational pipeline in our country, from the young students who enter to the adults who leave. Every day, I scream inside. I scream when I read the notes from my son’s teacher: he isn’t reading fast enough. He can’t solve enough addition problems in under a minute. The national standardized assessments indicate that he is on a trajectory for significant gaps in scholastic achievement (and therefore life) because he is thinking too much and doing too slowly. These reports have an air of panic: there is a problem but no time to diagnose it. Interventions must come immediately, in the form of flash cards and practice tests.

At our parent-teacher conference, I asked his teacher why he is expected to do everything fast. She replied, “He needs to do these things without having to think.”

Well, I think that’s our problem, right there.

Indeed, that is what my college students have been trained to do by this educational system. They read fast, talk fast, write fast, do fast. They write their emails so quickly (often during class … I can see the time/date stamp) that they have no time for a salutation, correct grammar or complete sentences.

“Cant find due date for the paper. When is it?”

I teach environmental science. For 14 short weeks we discuss climate change, energy, agriculture, biodiversity and ecosystems, natural resource and environmental justice. I try to keep it as light as I can, but every day I feel the world crashing down around me as I walk them through the climate data from ice cores in Antarctica, now going back almost one million years. I tell them about M. King Hubbert’s curve and our energy crisis that will overturn their lives if climate change doesn’t do it first. I show them harvesting trends for global fish stocks and pictures of the oceans that have turned into plastic soup. I explain to them why the “Green Revolution” in agriculture is the green-as-in-money kind, not the green-as-in-organic kind. Together we learn how people around the world are having their lives cut short by water scarcity, persistent chemical pollutants and crop failures in soils nuked by pesticides.

I encourage them to take some time to think about the dynamics that drive these problems, and some possible solutions. Then I instruct them to go forward in their lives thoughtfully, with purpose, and help pull us back from the brink.

I wish I could go back to their first grade teachers, drowning in the first wave of No Child Left Behind requirements, and beg them to resist the onslaught of timed assessments. Ignore them, subvert them, transform them, do anything possible to avoid putting these kids on the fast track to my college classroom with their speed-addled minds. But what I do instead is press hard with both feet on the brakes, in my classroom and in my home. I don’t scream, I just repeat calmly, “Slow down, and think.”

— Audrey L. Mayer, Ph.D.

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