learning and living through community: Models for after school

Western culture is suffering some serious wounds.  In my undergraduate studies, I became much more attuned to the specific nature of our societal dysfunction.  I studied African culture heavily in my anthropology program, and I began to see that on a psychological level the advantages of living in a collective society often outweigh the disadvantages faced by many developing nations.  While those living in the United States have had the benefit of relative stability and material wealth, we also have the detriment of the neglected spirit. 

While our society suggests that we should succeed independently of others, the educational system is designed much like a factory for the mass output of identical, substandard products.  Coupled with this very basic problem is an outpouring of violence both real and simulated. 

We have time for continuous financial and social advancement, but we do not make time for our children and ourselves as individuals, as human beings.  As a result, we have an ever-expanding generation of youth with little respect for themselves or anyone else and futures that are bleak if not damned.  I see the Merge approach as one that seeks to aid in the cure for our cultural cancer.

The Merge approach educates individuals through self-expression.  This model of encouraging individual reflection and relationship in community is much better suited toward individual health and awareness than the abstract, idea-based nature of our post-industrial society.  Not only does one-on-one mentoring allow students to receive attention geared toward their personal talents and interests, active participation by the teacher ensures that the student and mentor experience their art together. 

The difference between “lecturing to” and “doing with” is so vast that it is hard to understand why this approach is not currently the standard for American education.  Not only does this style build a real, lasting relationship between student and teacher, but it also develops a level of confidence that students do not achieve when they are asked to study on their own, perform, and be judged by their superior. 

A strengths-based approach gives students the room they need to grow as well as the emotional support that they may not receive outside the program.

It is my belief that we are most proud of the work we do when we express our humanity.  The process of expression is deeply cathartic, and outside appreciation for our art also serves as an affirmation of our humanness.  Merge seems to be linked intrinsically to the oppression that produced some of our greatest musical tools. 

Merge’s creator, Bill Rossi, has clearly used these parallels to provide a light at the end of the tunnel for the oppressed youth population of today.  The difference is clear not only in Merge's former students’ artistic productions but also the improvements in grades and relationships that programs using Bill's Strengths-Based Mentoring Approach have documented. 

With hope and more programs like this, our society may begin to see that the problem is not with the student.

Christina Lengyel, Writing Coach, Harrisburg, PA