I want to continue and broaden the discussion of what school is for. We have been focusing on public education, but let’s open the lens and ask the basic question: Why do we educate – through public or private institutions? Why do we yearly go through the hugely expensive and culturally monumental ritual of sending young people to school?
This is the question we need to "address on a national scale because, as many of us have been saying, for close to thirty years our national discourse about schooling has been so narrow. Teachers and parents younger than thirty or thirty-five have heard little else, at least at the level of public policy.
This week I suggest we try to answer the question about why we educate by going to our own experience of schooling.
All of us certainly have bad memories from school. And those of us who educate can add to the list horror stories of bad teaching, bad curriculum, bad policy. From these negative examples, we can generate counter-examples of how schools can be and why we send children to them.
But let’s also consider the positive things we have received from our educations. And let’s use these examples as well to create a richer list of what schools are for. This tactic can provide us with another way – a concrete and personal way – to start a conversation from the ground up.
What follows is taken from an opinion piece I wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last fall. See if it sparks your own memories about your education and/or your beliefs about the purpose of schooling. Please feel free to post your thoughts.
During most of my time in school, my father was seriously ill and my mother worked two shifts to keep us afloat. I was a disconnected and dreamy child, vaguely fearful of our circumstances, full of longing but without much direction. There's a lot of kids out there like me. And they need all that school can provide.
We should talk more about school as a place where young people form connections beyond the family with adults who can guide and mentor them. This was hugely important for me. These relationships often develop around a shared interest, around biology or mechanics, basketball or theater, thus putting a human face on knowledge and discipline.
We need to talk about school not only as a place where young people acquire knowledge, but where they learn how to use it, how to make an argument employing historical events, how to think with numbers. We need to talk about self-reflection, becoming systematic and methodical, examining one's own work. And we need to talk about motives and the consequences of choosing one path over another -- whether in a science experiment or in the schoolyard.
School is a place where young people learn how to think with each other, how to jointly puzzle over a problem, how to make sense of discordant views, how to arrive at consensus. School is a place where the world can open up -- mine certainly did -- through learning history, geography, and literature, but also through the people you meet and a growing sense of where you fit in the scheme of things.
All of the above help young people develop a sense of themselves as knowledgeable and capable of acting in and on the world. This, finally, was what education gave me, a pathway from hazy disaffection to competence, to a dawning awareness that I could figure things out and do something with what I learned. This was the best training I could have gotten for a vocation and citizenship."