(This post was adapted from a post in my “Holsinger for House” blog)
music: Chuck Berry, School Days
Educating young people is the most important thing our society, or any society, does, if only for the selfish reason that some day, our generation will be too old to rake care of ourselves, let alone maintain our culture, and so we need to do the best we can to teach the next generation how to take our place.
Public schools are the main vehicle for doing this in our society. At this point in time, I think they are not doing a very good job, despite the good intentions of nearly everyone involved in the process. There are many reasons for this, and there are also concrete steps that could be taken to create a public school system that is responsive to the needs of the 21st century. Our culture is in the midst of many rapid changes, and our school systems need to change to meet new conditions.
First, I would like to discuss several well-intended reforms that have ultimately changed our schools for the worse, through the unintended consequences they engendered.
Brown vs. Board of Education, the court case that resulted in widespread school desegregation, was intended to address the fact that many school systems were not devoting adequate resources to the education of African-American students. This was, and still is, a serious problem. This historic Supreme Court case was intended to right that wrong, but, because its focus was limited to public schools, the Brown case failed to achieve its aim. One unintended consequence of school desegregation was that schools lost their function as community centers, because children were being bussed all over town to go to school. Another unintended consequence was that many European-Americans either put their children in private schools that remained de facto segregated because of the tuition involved, or moved into school districts that were all-white and had no desegregation to do. (That means YOU, Brentwood!) Let me make myself clear: moving to desegregate our schools, and ultimately our society, with the consequent lessening of prejudice, was one of the most important positive steps our nation ever took, even if it hasn’t worked as well as many of its advocates had hoped. I could say a lot more about this subject, especially in relation to its cultural implications, but this will have to do for now.
Another factor in our schools’ current situation is the “No Child Left Behind” act, which was intended to ensure that all students had the same level of proficiency in reading, writing, and mathematics. Its unintended consequences have included the atrophy of art, social studies, and science curricula, and the squashing of teachers’ ability to be creative, encourage their students’ creativity, and plan lessons that respond to local needs.
The “Common Core Curriculum” was an attempt to respond to the failings of No Child Left Behind by undertaking the praiseworthy goal of teaching children to think for themselves, but its national scope makes it a bit too “one size fits all” for a nation as culturally diverse as ours, and its reliance on standard tests to measure how well it is working once again leaves teachers “teaching to the test” instead of responding to their students’ immediate needs. On the other hand, many of those who are attacking “Common Core” don’t like it because it attempts to teach kids to think for themselves, and these people would rather indoctrinate children to unthinkingly copy what the adults are doing, even though we live in a time of sweeping change, when fresh eyes and open minds are more necessary than ever, because conventional thinking is what got us in the mess we are in, and won’t get us out of it. We need to find a balance between “empowering people to make the decisions that affect their lives” and “empowering the proliferation of ignorance,” y’know?
“Charter schools” were intended to allow more creative approaches to education than the bureaucracy of a public school system will allow. Again, this is a praiseworthy goal, but charter schools tend to underpay and disempower their teachers, by taking out the teachers’ ability to have a union that speaks for all of them. Charter schools also eat into already scant education funding. I do not think this is, in the long run, a good approach to take. I think we would be better off by relocalizing our school system and creating more, smaller, neighbourhood schools. Every urban child, and most suburban children, should live within easy walking distance of her or his school, just as there should be a community garden and food co-op offering healthy foods within walking distance of every home. Perhaps the virtue of encouraging coherent neighborhoods outweighs the virtue of children experiencing racial diversity in their classrooms.
One of the difficulties Nashville’s school system faces is new, but old: integrating large numbers of non-English-speaking immigrants into mainstream American culture, which harks back to one of the initial main purposes of public education: to turn a culturally, linguistically diverse population of immigrants into homogeneous, compliant factory workers by conditioning them to start and stop whatever they were doing when a bell rings, to sit quietly and maintain discipline, and not to question the authority/teacher. For better and for worse, there are no longer many factory jobs, or any other kind of meaningful, remunerative employment, awaiting the majority of our high school graduates. I think this has caused a serious loss of morale among our children. The world that awaits them on graduation seems to hold few opportunities–what’s the point of having to be in school? I think this is the real reason that students seem to be learning less, and raising more fuss, these days. Our society’s primary responses to this have been harsh discipline in schools and the widespread drugging of children with so-called psychiatric medications. I think both of these reactions are morally wrong, and very dangerous to our children’s long-term well-being. We need a new take on education, one that children will be able to understand and relate to.
What I would like to see instead of our current dysfunctional system begins, as I mentioned above, with small, well-staffed, neighborhood-based schools, largely based on the Waldorf and Montessori principles of respect for the child and hands-on learning, Every child has a passion for something: it could be sports, history, music, mathematics, computers, writing of some kind, gardening, sewing or woodworking, just to name a few possibilities. The child may or may not be aware of what her/his passion is, and so part of a teacher’s job should be to help the child discover that passion and feed it. That is the key to a child feeling motivated to learn the math, science, history, and literature that connect to her or his favorite subject, and that will turn the child into a well-rounded, well-educated adult.
To accomplish this end, there needs to be a low number of students per teacher, teachers need to be free to invite knowledgeable community members into the school situation to mentor young people, and young people need to be free to use their school time to apprentice with people who have skills they want to learn. Ideally, teachers and other school personnel would live in their school district, adding to the likelihood that they have ongoing relationships with the children they teach–and their families. Schools should also be “democratic,” in the sense that parents, teachers, and students all have a say in how the school in their neighborhood is run.
Another issue that I think is important to address is the question of religion, and morals, in school. I believe this is another case where good intentions have had unintended consequences. Our country’s founders specified that the government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and I do not think it is appropriate for public schools to favor, for example, Christianity–or Judaism, or any other religion. They are worthy subjects for study, but those who wish to preach them to young people should be free to establish their own schools where families who consent to such an arrangement can do so without stepping on anybody’s toes.
This leads us into the realm of fundamentalist religion, which is admittedly difficult territory. How can we have a society in which some of us say, “we’re all in it together,” while others say, “my way or the highway”? I don’t know how to bridge that gap, but I do know that the historical record proves that suppression is not the appropriate way to deal with religious fundamentalism. It just creates jihads, anti-abortion movements, and wars on terrorism, with no end in sight. Our Constitution is pretty specific about this country not having a “state religion,” and I am fine with that, and willing to tolerate those who believe otherwise.
However, in a broader sense, our country does have an established state religion, if you define religion as a value system. That religion is what I call radical fundamental materialism, or the doctrine that the highest use to which anything can be put is the one that makes the most money in the short term, and that it is of vital importance to be as selfish as one can get away with. This religion, too, needs to be recognized and put in its proper place with the other religions as a subject of study, not an article of faith.
And morals? While doctrines and dogmas may differ from one religion to another, morals tend to stay the same, except for radical fundamental materialism’s enshrinement of selfishness and greed. Everybody knows what “fair play” means, and school personnel should teach that by setting an example of respect for their students. One concrete example of this is employing restorative justice, in which healing the wrong that was done takes the place of punishment. This process is already working wonders in some schools, and it is part of re-establishing schools as “democratic” institutions, where children learn that they will be listened to and respected if they have something to say. Autocratic schools, which are the norm in America, are incompatible with a democratic society.
I would be the first to admit that my vision for education is a vision, not a reality, but I think it is an attainable vision, one that could be implemented in an orderly, step-by-step process from where our schools are now. It will take a great many inspired people to accomplish that I hope that, by spelling out this vision, I can encourage others to share and implement it.
Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall“