Who tells the emperor he has no clothes?

Sometimes it feels like we have gotten stuck in too many broken systems, failing institutions, and flawed structures that are not serving the purpose for which they were designed. We know things are broken – we can see it plain as day – and yet we feel like those villagers who were too fearful or complacent to tell the emperor he has no clothes.

I am teaching a public relations course in a brand new building that was completed the month before my class started. It was touted to be an innovative, interesting building. “How exciting to teach in a space that’s been created with innovative learning in mind!” I thought, naively.

I can only say this – it is a remarkable disappointment. The first thing you notice is the institutional look of it. Bare concrete floors, stark white classroom walls, and nothing that looks warm and inviting – anywhere. The next thing you notice is the noise level. I’m not sure what the walls are made of, but when a siren goes by (which it does, often, as we’re on one of the busiest corners in the city), I have to wait for it to pass before I can speak again. Don’t even get me started about the jack-hammering on my first day.

As you look a little deeper, you notice the more subtle things. The lack of coat racks or lockers, for example – students (and teachers) have to lug heavy backpacks and winter clothes with them everywhere they go. And then there’s the lack of common spaces, lobbies, or even a cafeteria. Neither students nor faculty can gather in common spaces in comfortable chairs. It feels remarkably like they don’t want people to be communicating with each other. (After all, isn’t that how revolts form?)

As a teacher, my greatest issue is with the lack of flexibility in the classroom. I am a creative person teaching a writing class – I need a creative space. And yet there are essentially no options for innovative use of space whatsoever. I can’t even fall back on the oldest method in the books – gathering in a circle – because the desks are too rigid to permit it. And forget trying to put anything colourful on the walls to try to foster creativity – it’s against the rules.

I could go on and on (and sometimes I do), and you might think I’m just a complainer looking for a sympathetic ear. (After all, haven’t teachers been teaching in much worse conditions than these for years?)  But I believe this goes deeper than simple complaints – I believe this is a symptom of an illness that we’ve allowed to run too rampant in our culture. I believe that we are failing our students by letting them know that this is the best they can expect in life. I believe we are stifling their imagination, and the work force that they will soon be part of will suffer for it.

“Look at these stark white boxes, students,” we’re telling them.  “This is your future. Fit into the boxes as best you can and don’t dare leave your mark on the wall.”

Here’s the thing – institutions should not mold US to serve THEM. WE should create institutions that serve US. And when an institution ceases to serve us, we should abolish it, or at least do some serious reconfiguring.

This building is only one of the flawed institutions I’ve witnessed lately. One of my daughters is gifted academically, and yet she is completely bored at school, falling through the cracks in an education system that is teaching to mediocrity. And when it comes to health care, I could write a volume on the many ways that our health care system has failed various members of my family, mostly because there are lots of disillusioned people “just doing their jobs” in a broken system.

The question is, who tells the emperor he has no clothes? As a contract teacher, do I risk being seen as the “complainer”, or even worse, the “trouble-maker” because I believe we are doing a disservice to the students by not offering them more? As a parent, do I work my way up the school division hierarchy to find someone who will pay attention to the fact that the education system is doing our gifted students a disservice by boring them to tears? As a caregiver and family member of people suffering at the hands of the health care system, do I march into the halls of power and say “This is NOT GOOD ENOUGH!”

It’s easier just to pretend the emperor has on a beautiful handwoven coat.

And yet there’s a tiny voice inside me saying “SPEAK UP! Somebody HAS to!”

And so, this week, I’m letting that voice speak. It’s time to write some letters, speak some truths, and run the risk of offending the emperor.

I think Sir Ken Robinson would approve.

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