Post 9: The Big Question

Wednesday, October, 10, 12 § 3 Comments

Among the people following these posts is a childhood friend of mine who is not an educator. He’s a smart, progressive guy and a good critical thinker, and recently we had some time to chat about the point of this blog.

Despite the highfalutin language of our writing (our perhaps because of it) my friend isn’t sold on the need to re-form the way we do public school. Sure, classroom-based learning can be boring at times, but in general he enjoyed his years of public schooling and university, and saw how it gave him and many of his classmates ample opportunity to explore different areas and develop their interests.

As we spoke more, we realized we had different ideas about what school should look like because we had different ideas about what schools should do. Which means it’s time to take a step back and consider the bigger question:

What is school for?

An unwieldy question, I know. But if we’re not on the same page with this question, we’ve got no chance of getting on the same page with the “smaller” questions, like how much time kids need to be in class, or if every 8th grader must know the pythagorean theorem.

One quick way of considering the aim of education is to divide the answer into three camps (thinking about schools in the US):

1) School is a conservative institution that should inculcate children with the values of democracy and capitalism, and give them the skills to succeed in society as it exists.

2) School is a revolutionary institution that should present a critical analysis of the shortcomings of democracy and capitalism, and give children the skills and values to transform societal structures.

3) School is a neutral institution that should impart a wide range of skills and knowledge to children, and give them the critical thinking skills to determine if they will fit into society or change it.

The first position means that schools are like churches, and the teachers’ task is to make sure kids embrace a widely-accepted set of values and skills. (As social critic Ivan Illich summed up this position, somewhat cynically: “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”) We can trace this concept of school back to Plato, who described education as a process of identifying to which societal role (farmer, guardian or philosopher-king) each male citizen was best-suited, and then training the child accordingly. Compulsory schooling was created in Prussia in the early 1800’s, and spread throughout the Western world, as much to instill obedience and maintain social order as to impart academic or vocational skills.

I think this position is the oldest way of looking at the aim of school, and still the most widely held. When Obama and Romney mention education, I hear a lot of talk about creating highly-trained workers who will help our economy, and nothing about critical thinkers who will transform it.

The second position is what I embraced when I decided to become a teacher–as opposed to a lawyer or organizer–in my idealistic twenties. My Che Guevaras were radical educators like Paolo Freire, Myles Horton and George S. Counts, who described education as a path toward empowerment of the oppressed. This position maintains that schools–and teachers–must take a stand, and inculcate children with values (like collaboration and consensus) that run contrary to the values of capitalism and democracy (like competition and majority rule).

The third viewpoint–that schools are neutral–is attractive. I can see why many teachers would be drawn to the idea that they are not offering any political viewpoint, but presenting a sort of “pure” education, like the garden happiness described by Rousseau in his treatise on education in the late 1700’s.

But education cannot be values-free any more than religion can. A science textbook that fails to mention climate change or a history textbook that suggests racism ended with Martin Luther King are obvious examples, but the values embedded in our school system run much more deeply than the curriculum. When we make children sit down while the teacher stands, we are expressing a value that we want order, attention, and some sense of authority. When we assign letter grades, we’re stressing individual achievement over group accomplishment. Even the “free” schools, where kids do what they like all day, express a value that children and adults are equal. Whether we agree with the values embedded in our schools or not, the fact remains our children pick up clear, specific messages about what matters and what does not during their years in school.

I suspect my childhood friend falls more into the first orientation–that schools should prepare kids for success in society–while I still lean more toward the revolutionary camp. My friend and I may agree that our country needs more economic regulation and more sustainable approaches to resource use, but I think I’m more convinced than he that schools have a role to play in making those changes happen.

I’m very convinced that  that schools can change society. I got into teaching because I believed it was an institution well-poised to catalyze far-reaching transformation. But after a decade of working in schools, I understand that the first step to creating schools that can transform society is transforming the schools themselves. Too many harmful values (particularly competition and individual achievement, but also more subtle values like fragmentation of subjects and isolation of learning)  are too deeply embedded in our schools for them to be effective tools of transformation.

Simply put, if society is to be improved, our schools need to be repurposed.

Even if we have to sling some highfalutin language to make it happen.


§ 3 Responses to Post 9: The Big Question

  • Michael Fleetwood says:

    Nice post, Seth. Whoever your friend is should be proud of the shout-out, albeit feeling a bit pigeonholed in his perspective.
    Fodder for future trail discussion: some value structure may have to be part of education, but why does accepting/rebelling-against society have to drive the discussion? All 3 positions would be very attractive without it: school should give them the skills to succeed in society as it exists. School should give children the skills and values to transform societal structures. School should impart a wide range of skills and knowledge to children and give them critical thinking skills.

    • Thanks for chiming in, Fleet. I’m with you in theory, but am not sure that the three aims are compatible in reality, at least until we redefine, as a culture, what it means to “succeed” in society.

      From a purely ecological perspective, if “success” means achieving a lifestyle that creates as large a carbon footprint as most middle class Americans create (and I admit I’m among the “successful” here, having just flown thousands of miles), then giving students the skills and values to succeed in a peak oil society may ultimately be giving them the skills and values to play their role in slowly destroying the planet. We could look at economic success through a similar lens, considering how the consumption of the “successful” leads to the exploitation of others in foreign countries, and creates a dangerous situation of economic and social injustice.

      I believe schools and teachers have a moral and professional imperative to do more than give kids the skills to fit in: they must push society to be more just. This idea of pedagogy for change is not as radical as it seems, and does not have to be viewed as a rebellion so much as a slow awakening, through heightened awareness of self, other and the environment, to a more just way of viewing the way we live.

      I also believe schools can only play one part in this transformation: ethical professionals in every field will have to assume the same imperative if our society is to become more just.

      How’s that for highfalutin language?

  • The following comment on this post came to me by email from an educator I highly respect, Maritza Gonzalez. I will soon be writing about Maritz’a El Nido, a wonderful preschool in Cali, Colombia, inspired by the Reggio Emilia model out of Italy. She mentions a book that I plan on picking up soon!

    Maritza writes:

    I think your Big Question post is very important for the issue of changing paradigms. I have been reading Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Education and Care, by Peter Moss and Gunilla Dahlberg, and the book is giving me a clearer picture of how conditions of modernity have framed the purpose of education into the following:

    1) the concept of competitiveness,

    2) the acquisition of knowledge as a symbol of freedom-only obtainable by very few

    3) the linear process of education

    4) the view of the child as an empty vessel that has to be filled, and

    5) the child or the man at the center of the process.

    The book offers how postmodern theorists could help educators think critically about the meaning of education and the concept of quality in education: the ideas of multiple perspectives, the man or child in relationship to others and the environment, the non linear learning process, documentation, reflective teaching, etc….

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