Sunday, January 02, 2005

Education the Issue?

Here is my second contribution to it out, lots of interesting weirdness there, including my own.

I want to quote the questions our CO, our esteemed and acrobatic convener of bloggedness, posed because I want to be clear about that we’re up to here:

(1) “What in school changes need to be made to our current educational system?” (2) “What is the case for or against charter schools? Are home schools just a way for parents to rubber stamp their children’s education? Are charter schools just a way for parents to practice intolerance in whom their children go to school with? Does either or both actually work?”

To answer these questions, we have to take at least one step back and ask two prior questions. What are the goals of education as such? In view of those goals, what is the best education we can provide to the most people?

And before answering, we should remind ourselves that the educational system as we know it, from kindergarten to college, appeared only about a century ago. Its appearance was yet another symptom--and attempted cure--of the failure of the family at the end of the 19th century. Education as we now know it supplies most of what families did in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly the content of what we still call morality and character. That is why our debates about the obligations and purposes of students and teachers—about public education--always sound like arguments about the functions of families. When we talk about schools, we’re talking about what we can and should do for our children. No wonder it sounds personal. Also political.

Failure is perhaps too strong a word. But right around the 1890s, the family stopped doing everything it was supposed to do, according to the expectations inherited from the 18th and 19th centuries. Let me quote Jessie Taft, whose 1915 dissertation was published by the University of Chicago Press as “The Woman Movement from the Point of View of Social Consciousness,” to illustrate the point:

“Its [the family’s] center of gravity has been shifted to the factory, the brewery, the bakery, the delicatessen shop, the school, the kindergarten, the department store, the municipal department of health and sanitation, the hospital, the library, the social centers and playgrounds, and dozens of similar institutions.”

There weren’t a whole lot of people who denied this basic fact back then. In fact the story of the family’s collapse became a popular genre, in fiction as well as in social science, ca. 1890-1930. But there were a lot of people, then as now, who want(ed) to reinstate the inherited expectations—that is, to treat the family as if it could, as if it can, serve all those purposes, personal and political, listed by Taft in her gravitational peroration.

That is why, once again, the personal is political. That is why we talk about something supposedly private, families, when we talk about something supposedly public--education.

So let’s get serious about it. What are the goals of education? And what’s the best education we can offer our children, and the world?

Historically speaking, the goals of education in this country are to (1) equip everyone with the skills necessary to appropriate the texts once decipherable only to the literate minority; (2) offer everyone the possibility of social mobility by virtue of their access to education [in the 19th century, this meant that “mechanics’ institutes” and apprenticeship programs gave way to public schools]; (3) teach everyone that the only thing we have in common as Americans is our ability to argue about what it means to be American. In our own time, we have also tried to give students “emotional intelligence” as well as test-taking skills. This has taken a lot of time and effort. But then we have the summers off.

If you agree with me on the GOALS of education, you cannot believe that the way to fix public schools is to introduce “market competition” in the form of charter schools. If you want to “privatize” education in view of these goals, you are demented. Because the only way to accomplish all three goals is through public education, top to bottom.

You want to send your kid to private school, OK. I did, too, when he was flunking out of the high-rent public school a mile away, and I paid the rent because I thought it would cure him. But don’t tell me that this alternative is anything more than a stopgap—except for the very wealthy, of course.

The best education we can offer our children, I’m afraid, is the education they, and the rest of the world, now get. That is why higher education in this country is still the most amazing bargain available, and why Europeans and Asians keep sending their kids here (the top ten from their standpoint includes Cal Tech, MIT, and Stanford, and it excludes Yale, but we’re not engineers of computers or, for that matter, bridges).

But you will say, what about secondary education, what about what happens before everybody goes off to the college of their choice, more or less, and stumbles upon those brilliant bastards, those unassuming professors, who have been just standing around, waiting for them?

And I will say, take a look. At the before. I know three people who teach and observe closely at this level—in high schools—and they do things that are unimaginable to me. They spend the kind of time with students which comes with a sense of mission, or with a diagnosis of obsession.

OK, two of the three are my brother and my sister-in-law. The third is an old friend I don’t talk to anymore, but I’ve read his books (it’s true, I don’t like him, but his book entitled The Call to Teach is worth reading by anyone who has taught or who has considered a career in this strange field).

These people are teachers. You won’t find them in a private school because they believe in public education. They believe in diversity—hell, my sister-in-law teaches in the public high school from which I graduated, a place that, back then, was 99% white and all managerial except for those pesky working-class punks who beat the shit out of us, and is now about 35% Asian, still managerial but with a nice postmodern twist—and they believe in their students, and they believe in their capacity to shape the curriculum.

To make such beliefs effective, they have joined and led unions, and they’ve gone on strike, and they’ve lost jobs.

So I would insist that the best education available to American kids is the one made available by teachers who know that they should control the point of production—who have enough confidence, and courage, to say that the interests of teachers and students converge more often than not, to say that tests are necessary but not sufficient to the measurement of effort or achievement, to say, finally, that I am here to show these kids how to think, not what to think.