Obama’s Plan for Universal Pre-K: Why Humanists Should Support It

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama called for making “high quality pre-school available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancies, even reducing violent crime.” Citing Georgia as an example, the President said that states that have treated early childhood education as a priority have children who “grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind.”

“Study after study,” he asserted, “shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road…. Tonight I propose working with states to make high-quality pre-school available to every child in America.” Lastly, “Such programs could change the education landscape because it would help reduce the achievement gap.”

President Obama has cast the plan as part of a moral imperative to give every child a chance to succeed. The goal of universal pre-K education assuredly concurs with humanist goals. Perhaps no one stated this more succinctly than past The Humanist magazine editor Fred Edwords in his essay, “The Humanist Philosophy in Perspective,” when he wrote: “As humanists who see potential in people at all levels…. We see every basis for the promotion of equal opportunity in the economy and in universal education.

The President’s support of  high-quality pre-school education  made this humanist want to get up and shout “Amen!” But it also made me think how this could be achieved. What should be the components of a high-quality pre-school education? What about a high-quality any school level education?

The Kochhar Humanist Education Center has recently drafted courses for upper grade elementary school children (“Humanism as the First Step”) and for teenage youth (“Scoring Points for Humanism”). With President Obama’s call for universal pre-K education, I’m excited to explore content recommendations for this age group through the KHEC. The president has called for teaching “learning life skills.” In the KHEC’s view, these include several related and highly important areas: empathy, compassion, respect and responsibility. Much has been written about these topics for teachers at all levels. At the very least, preschool teachers should have these two resources at their fingertips:

(1) Promoting Empathy in Preschool Children by Angela OlsonThis resource outlines the skill of taking the perspective of others and the ability to show awareness of one’s feelings and emotions. Numerous ways are suggested to assist young children in recognizing their own feelings and those of others. The author reaffirms what many writers on this topic say, namely, be a role model for appropriate emotional responses.

(2) Kids Can Share: Creative Lessons for Teaching Compassion, Respect and Responsibility by Rhoda Orszag Vestuto and Doris Larsen. This 64-page book for children in pre-K and Kindergarten include stories, Mother Goose rhymes, crafts, role playing and projects to involve young children in demonstrating positive values in everyday situations at home and in school.

Critical thinking is another life skill which must begin early. Much has been written about teaching this skill to young children. Some of the best resources in this area can be found in The Foundation for Critical Thinking and The Center for Critical Thinking which work together to promote the cultivation of critical thinking for children of all ages. Carol Wintermute, co-dean of The Humanist Institute, wrote, “Critical thinking is needed to keep us afloat in the waves of truth claims coming to our shores.” We believe it is never too late to teach children how to swim – and never too early!

Bob Bhaerman is director of the American Humanist Association’s Kochhar Humanist Education Center.