I want to offer a response to the comments as of 3/5/08. I’m struck by their thoughtfulness and passion, and I’m grateful for them. I hope the future of this blog lives up to them.
Some of the comments express a tension familiar to many of us concerned about education: a desire to defend schools and teachers, yet anger over how awful some teaching and schools can be. One post even raises the legitimate question: with such a history of not doing right by so many kids, why defend public schools at all?
I’ll be discussing the importance of public education in a democracy – and the very notion of “the public” – in future blogs, but here let me say quickly that, as flawed as it has been and is, public education has also produced remarkable results, not infrequently at the hands of teachers and administrators who are committed to their students, who make schools decent places, who, through their wisdom and labor, daily invent and reinvent public education. I suppose I hold onto the belief, the hope in the idea of public education, in a public commitment to an educated citizenry. And I think that commitment is all the more necessary in our time when there is such a strong and successful push on the part of the political right to discredit anything public and to substitute private, market-driven solutions to everything from education to emergency services.
My intention in “The Purpose of Public Schools is Lost in a Language of Failure and Money” was to counter the dominate national vocabulary we’ve heard for the last twenty years or so. For many younger people, it’s hard to imagine another language. The language of failure and money has been the educational policy soundtrack of their lives. And, unfortunately, they’re not hearing much different from the presidential candidates – when they talk about education, which is infrequent.
Let me close with a passage from the introduction to Possible Lives that is pertinent to the discussion we’re having:
I am not trying to ignore the obvious misery in our schools nor the limitations of too many of those who teach in and manage them. Nor have I disregarded the complaints of those whose schools are failing them; they have a strong voice in this book. This is not a call to abandon the critical perspective a citizenry should have when it surveys its institutions. What I am suggesting is that we lack a public critical language adequate to the task. We need a different kind of critique, one that does not minimize the inadequacies of curriculum and instruction, the rigidity of school structure, or the “savage inequalities” of funding, but that simultaneously opens discursive space for inspired teaching, for courage, for achievement against odds, for successful struggle, for the insight and connection that occur continually in public school classrooms around the country. Without a multiplicity of such moments, criticism becomes one-dimensional, misses too much, is harsh, brittle, the humanity drained from it.
Public education demands a capacious critique, one that encourages both dissent and invention, fury and hope. Public education is bountiful, crowded, messy, contradictory, exuberant, tragic, frustrating, and remarkable. We need an expanded vocabulary, adequate to both the daily joy and daily sorrow of our public schools. And we are in desperate need of rich, detailed images of possibility.