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.