RETHINKING SCHOOL

14 11 2005

In Nashville news, we now know that Pedro Garcia will be leaving his position as superintendent of schools. The school board has opted not to renew his contract. He came promising great things for Nashville schools, and he will leave without having delivered on those promises. What makes it awkward is that Garcia’s contract doesn’t expire until 2007, making him a bit of a lame duck. Unlike Mr. Bush, there’s a good chance he will quit voluntarily before that time.

I don’t think his failure is Dr. Garcia’s fault, in a way. Educational spending is being powerfully eroded from a number of different directions, just like the rest of mainstream American culture. Financial demands have mounted, while the public’s ability to meet them has lessened. There is increasing confusion about what kind of education is relevant for children in a society that is changing as rapidly as America is at this time. America’s children face a future that seems to hold little promise of security or fulfillment for any but a lucky and largely predetermined few. No wonder so many of them smoke cigarettes—what’s there to live for? No wonder drug dealing is so attractive to some—how else could you live like the people on TV?

When you get down to it, the question of “what are schools for?” starts to look like the question, “what is life for?” as in, “who do we think our children are, and what do we want them to know, how do we want them to be socialized, to create a society in which we can feel safe about growing old and dying .”

The current paradigm, I think, answers those questions the following way: “We think our children are walking embodiments of Murphy’s law, and so they need to be supervised continually so they never do anything that would hinder their willingness and ability to be cogs in the societal machine, which is, by the way, a pump designed to suck wealth up to those at the top of the human socio-economic pyramid, although we’d never tell the childen that. We need to make sure that children understand that if they get out of synch with this vision of society, they may seriously limit the likelihood that they will have the financial security that is the highest of values in this society.”

That’s the ultimate message I think Pedro Garcia was being paid to instill in Nashville’s children , so I’m actually kind of glad he didn’t succeed, especially since the society that wants to have this programming imprinted in all our young people is coming unglued at the seams even as we speak. But hey, it’s easy to be negative about American culture—what would I like to see taught in school? And how would I like to see those schools structured?

I have my ideals about how society oughta be. I also understand that, as they say in Vermont, “you can’t get there from here.” That, to me, is the profound lesson of the Russian Revolution: they tried to restructure society without having an effective way for the members of that society to restructure themselves, with the result that greed, ignorance, and anger took right back over. We have to come up with a step-by-step, self-re-enforcing, self-creating way to restructure the school system—and society as a whole.

There was a lot of experimentation with “free schools” and “open classrooms” back in the seventies. The sabotaging and suppression of that movement was one of the first steps in the conservative counter-revolution that is trying harder and harder to solidify its weakening hold on the reigns of power. Basically, we need to free up the teachers to work with their students in whatever way is appropriate. Bush and Kennedy’s “No Child Left Behind Act” was the most recent and far reaching step in the centralization of decision making and curriculum that has been going on in American schools since those heady days in the seventies. So, decentralization and relocalization of the school system are important steps to take. Parent-teacher organizations shouldn’t be taking care of peripherals—they should be working out school budgets, New England town-meeting style. Schools need to to be small enough units (a few hundred students) for this to be practical.

When you are running schools this way, the question “what should be taught” begs more of an answer than, “what the parents, teachers, and students all agree on.” (Yes, students should have some input into what they are taught—for whatever they can focus their interest and attention on will, ultimately, lead to everything else—so yes, appreciation for interconnectedness should be an educational goal.)

We need a school system that encourages creativity and individuation. Everyone has an enjoyable creative outlet of some kind, and a primary function of the school system should be to help people find their talents and express them. This sounds almost trite, but I think we are on the cusp of a cultural sea change, and that on the other side we will be a lot more dependent on our immediate neighbors not just for food and shelter but for entertainment and mental stimulation. We will be much less in the thrall of an expensive entertainment industry that makes millionaires of the lucky few who get to sing while we slave. I just get bored. I don’t want to work on Maggie’s Farm no more!

But, I digress. Individuation—we need to make sure all children learn practical psychology—we have this idea in our culture that we’re each pretty much stuck with who and what we are, but there are cultures whose psychology was much more interactive and evolutionary, and I think we need to graft that into our culture. It would seriously erode the so-called need for so-called psychiatric medication.

I think the school system needs to think in terms of teaching context. When I was in high school, I was taught chemistry, physics, and biology in a very academic, memorize-this kind of way, and I did poorly and retained very little of it. A few years later, I set myself up with some friends in a situation in which we intended to grow most of our own food. Suddenly, all those scientific subjects that had repulsed me as a teenager were immediately relevant—and thoroughly comprehensible.

My point is not that we should teach every kid how to garden, but the importance of meaningful hands-on subjects for growing minds. Meaningful, hands-on projects are food for the minds not just of young people but all of us, really, and school is where to start teaching kids not just how to figure things out, but how to figure out how to figure things out.

That’s the kind of coping skills I think we need to imbue in the next generation. Computers and their skills are, literally, marvelous, but one of their effects is that they are changing the world faster than our current educational system can keep up with.

We need people in our schools who understand this and are not threatened by it. Will the school board hire someone like that to run Nashville’s schools? I’m not holding my breath.

Comments

I agree with the localization of schools. The suicide epedemic amongst highschoolers in the 80’s and “columbine” style actions of the 90’s are a symoton of the mega schools. However how do you deal with segregation that would certainly follow that would happen in such a situation.
Posted by Grundy Green on 02/13/2006 05:23:52 PM

ah, yes, the old “local culture” vs. “cultural segregation” dilemma…plenty of mixers and high value placed on “different strokes for different folks” and no financial discrimination, for a quick answer… thanks
Posted by brothermartin on 02/13/2006 09:48:23 PM

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