The point of this blog is to encourage us to strive for human-shaped practices and institutions. Public education is currently one of the least human-shaped institutions, in America at least. It, like our economy, politics, food production, and communities, has been distorted by the metaphors and systems of the Industrial Revolution. In considering how it can be improved, though, I don’t intend to look backward. The past has some good lessons for us, but they are too limited. Education over the last two centuries has had the unprecedented and noble goal of reaching everyone, of every race, gender, and economic class. That’s a good thing and shouldn’t be lost; but we have to ask ourselves: Is the universal public . . . experience . . . we foist on our children actually education, and is it any good?
Recently a girl I know, in her senior year of a rural high school in the Midwest, was raped by a fellow student. The rape happened at school, during the school day. This was not the boy’s first disciplinary infraction, nor even his first sexual offense. The girl told a friend what happened and then, at the insistence of the friend, reported the crime to the school administration, her parents, and the police. The police put a frankly incredulous male detective on her case; he declined to prosecute, saying she probably wanted it and then had regrets. The school suspended the boy for nine days and then changed his schedule so he and his victim didn’t need to cross paths too frequently; otherwise he continued his schooling – if that was what he was getting there – with impunity. The girl, supported by her parents and professional counseling, made it through high school; because neither the school nor the police did anything substantial about her claims, many of her classmates and teachers must have assumed that she made up her story.
The school campus has become an experiment in dysfunctional social engineering. At the public high school my daughters went to for a while, fights were scheduled in the bathrooms. My daughters witnessed students being pummeled unconscious by classmates both male and female. A few fighters have been expelled from our local school, but others remain on campus after a short suspension or a few days of detention. There have been students at this school who were accompanied everywhere by an adult mentor or a guard. (Interestingly, one of them graduated and enrolled in my English class at community college. My daughters warned me about his reputation and were honestly worried about his being in my class. But once released from the toxic environment of public high school, this student, though he struggled in some ways, passed that class and a more advanced one without needing any special intervention.)
Students who have never been physically assaulted still have to endure the Lord-of-the-Flies atmosphere of the school bus, the meanness and misery of the lunchroom, and the racist, sexist, obscene remarks that are standard fare. Even when students are strong enough or fortunate enough to cope with these threats, they are paired with lab partners who won’t work, placed in classes with teachers who just show videos or talk about themselves, and given endless tests that are supposed to sum up who they are and what they’re worth.
I don’t mean to imply that everyone’s school experience is universally or even mostly negative. I teach a dual-credit course at my daughters’ old high school and really enjoy the students I have and the administration I deal with. There are caring, competent teachers as well as the awful ones. The problem is less with individuals than with the system as a whole — what is taught, how it’s taught, who is or isn’t served, and what power anyone has to change things. Although all of my children completed a high school education, only the third of my four studied all four years at a public high school. The youngest, when she was in ninth grade, begged in tears to be allowed to attend community college classes instead of the public high school because she was afraid she was getting stupider and because, although she was never picked on herself, the injustice and unkindness she was powerless to change upset her so badly. She did take classes at the community college and did well. One of her older sisters did the same for her last year of high school; in her case the precipitating event was her science teacher throwing a rock at her head and then joking about it. We reported what happened and the administration – all lovely people – were appalled and sorry, but the teacher continued to teach. You don’t need to believe my anecdotal evidence alone; there is nationwide research on the anarchy of our schools.
I realize that there are difficult and even wicked people everywhere and do not mean to imply that schools should aim for some kind of perfect society that the rest of the world has failed to achieve. But surely schools should aim to be at least as decent as the rest of society. What would your boss do if there were daily fistfights in the restroom at your office or plant? What would the police or the Equal Opportunity people do if you reported anything comparable to what children experience every day in their so-called educational institutions? I imagine that there are few workplaces that would tolerate the level of violence and hatefulness our schools shrug off.
It isn’t surprising, then, that students’ academic achievement is less than stellar. The goal of education was once mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body; we have ended up with a system that produces stressed and stunted minds in violated bodies. Poorly educated, many of them either out of shape or with multiple injuries from too-competitive sports – is this what we want for our children? What has happened to the whole public school experiment?
Many things contribute to the chaos of our public schools. Perhaps the most fundamental is that they are no longer primarily educational institutions. Schools have been the dumping ground for every social agenda that has emerged in the last century. It is inevitable, and it makes some sense, that schools should be thought of as agents of change; we know that education of all sorts does change people. However, our schools have been asked to change society, not just people, and that is asking too much.
They used to be asked to advance segregation of races and ethnic groups and now are supposed to promote integration. They are charged with eradicating poverty, with developing self-esteem and tolerance. They are supposed to be training the workforce of the twenty-first century as well as providing daycare for working parents. They are asked to prevent drug abuse, teen pregnancy, and the spread of communicable diseases; to house delinquents and to mainstream mentally and socially challenged children. New educational theories, new curriculum, new architecture, new materials, new math, new reading, new technology, and new schedules have all been tested on our hapless students, and the pace of change and testing just keeps picking up as it becomes clearer and clearer that our schools are not working.
Viable societies know what they want their students to learn, and they teach that to them. The Kyrgyz school system, for example, produces almost universal literacy as well as good handwriting and a sense of patriotism. All the parents and the community at large expect the same alphabet program in first grade that they had when they were in school – and they get it. The schools are very successful with what they are asked to teach.
I admit, when I lived in Kyrgyzstan, I only had my children in the local schools for a year or two to learn the language, because the education was painfully limited. I wanted my children to learn fractions, more music than patriotic songs sung in unison, and more history than how Father Lenin gave us electrification. But although the education there was shallow, it did achieve what it set out to do, which was to advance a social consensus of what children needed in order to be educated. In the same way, nomad children learn how to identify plants and hunt animals to survive; I don’t believe that leaders of nomad societies change their teaching content and methods every few years.
Of course, most of us in the West want a more complex education for our children, and that’s a good thing. But we have to agree on what it is, or it will never succeed. What do we think is important in schooling? If aliens came to observe our educational system and looked at what involved the most time, money, and community investment, they might conclude that the physical training of a small minority was its agreed-upon goal. Football, basketball, and other sports are, in many schools, the focus of students’ and teachers’ efforts. There are pep rallies for the sports teams, but I’ve never heard of one for the debating team. When my daughter won several plant identification contests for Future Farmers of America, her achievement was announced during a break in the school’s football game.
Because we can’t have everything. We – our communities and our society at large – need to decide what education is and what’s important to us. Then we need to eliminate ruthlessly everything that diverts time, money, and energy away from that goal.