Students are More Than Numbers on Grave Stones

While driving to a hiking trail, I came across a cemetery for an old residential mental health facility, what they called an “insane asylum” at one point in our history. I am far from an expert on the history of mental health facilities in the United States, but one need not be an expert to know that some of the past practices in these institutions are not our proudest moments.  I do not know how to explain what I felt as I looked at the thousands of numbered and name-less grave stones. At least one source claims that there are over 100,000 such graves throughout the United States.

  • What went into the decisions to strip away any sign of the people’s identities in their graves, leaving only unidentified tombstones?
  • Was it because of a public stigma associated with being mentally ill and family not wanting affiliation with their deceased relatives?
  • Was it a cost-saving decision from a government institution?
  • Does it reflect the institution’s or society’s lack value for people with mental health challenges at certain times in our history?
  • Out of all the options for “cataloging” and identification, why numbers?

People are more than numbers, but what happens when we replace a person’s name with a number? Does it lead us to empathize less? Does it drive us to sterile and less human thoughts about them. Does it give us permission to treat them or think of them differently? Does it dehumanize them?

As one who spends his day grappling with the challenges and opportunities in education, I cannot help but apply this reflection to schools as well. Each person is more than a number. They are not just one of twenty thousand in a University or school district. They are more than their class rank, their scores on tests and standardized tests, and their assigned ID number to which their school records are associated. They are people with unique stories and distinct names. They matter.

The experience that I described above came from a government-run institution, and this is not something from a hundred years ago. This is part of our recent past. If we interviewed people in those institutions, they might explain their decisions in many ways:

A Lack of Funding

It does not take much money to commit oneself to the concept that every human life has value, and every person has inherent rights, is a unique gift to this world, and is capable of being a blessing to others. We can establish policies and practices informed by such convictions.

Protecting the Family

Some argue that part of this came from the social stigma associated with having a family member in need of such care. I do not presume to understand the deep and personal struggles of the people involved, but I find it hard to believe that every single family  who had a relative in that field of nameless graves felt this way. Could it be true that not a single family member wanted a name on the grave? Even if that were the case, were there not more humane and personalizing alternatives? Again, I do not know the details.


Some might argue that this is just policy and standard practice. This is what we were told to do so we did it. This is why I write so critically about policy. Policies are important and have their place, but every policy reflects beliefs and values. We must commit ourselves to polices in education that are truly focused upon the dignity, rights, and value of every single student; not just the students collectively, but each one individually.

When we face policies that clash with this core ideas, we must have the critical mind and courage to do something about them. We might find ourselves in a context where everyone else seems comfortable with the policy and we begin to question why we are the outlier, but ultimately, it is always dangerous to go against conscience. As a poster said in one of high school classrooms, “Stand up for what is right, even if you are standing alone.”

This is not easy, especially today when many people in education are more interested in the promotion of their values and ideas by power instead of a humble and open pursuit of truth, beauty, and goodness. We subtly or directly try to shut down those who have positions that do not align with our own, and we justify it by demonizing the other position. In some ways, that is not unlike assigning a number to people instead of giving them a real name and valuing them enough to hear and interact with them.

We must be candid about our values and be champions for the policies that reflect them. In the United States, we have founding documents that give us a rather solid starting point. Yet, even basic freedoms in our founding documents often do not seem to inform our policies and practices in some cases.

The Questions

  • How can we be champions for schools where no student feels or is treated like a number?
  • How do we make sure that students know that their worth does not depend upon the numbers assigned to them in this age of quantification?
  • How do we celebrate and nurture the lives and stories of learners, not just their ranks and ratings?
  • How can we make sure that our schools are deeply human and humane?
  • As the use of data an analytics becomes an ever-growing part of our lives and schools, how can we insist on practices and uses that amplify our core convictions?