Several friends of mine who have been reading the blog commented on how comprehensive and thoughtful readers’ posts have been. It’s true. So, then, imagine a conversation about education on a broader level – regional, national – a conversation that takes its time, that involves a range of topics, that collectively gets us to think about the many purposes school can and should have in a complex society like ours.
Consider the topics raised by those who have posted comments in the last ten days.
For Karin, School is a place to form relationships and connect with others in ways that lead to a public self, “how to connect as a citizen.”
Kerri, Mira, and others also mention relationships – these with teachers who mattered in a deeply personal way: “the human face of the educational experience” and being with adults who “see the best” in young people.
For Patty, school provided a place to belong (a miniature society, perhaps?), a sense of being in something “bigger than myself.” And for one anonymous writer, school provided “escape from the reality of my life” – a point I can understand.
For Bronwyn, once it kicked in, education provided “an invitation for me to see my life and its meaning, and the lives of others and their meanings.”
For Meño “we go to encounter and deal with things/people/ideas that we would not, in the course of our humdrum everyday lives, normally or naturally encounter.”
Christopher cites intellectual engagement and pleasure, and celebrates the environment of exploration, of searching that school can provide – and this business of seeking, exploring is mentioned in other posts as well.
As do others, Rachel mentions making connections with teachers, but also discusses the joy of making connections across domains of knowledge, seeing the interrelatedness of things. And through the extracurriculum – in her case, musical theater – school become a site of creativity.
Josh values the potential for self awareness and the sharpened ability make informed decisions.
Artineh also values critical thinking and intellectual engagement, but underscores the way her education provided the prospect of economic self-sufficiency. This drive for economic stability was tied to gender inequality, financial hardship, and immigration, thus bringing to the fore in our discussion (as Meño and the anonymous writer also did) the issue of inequality.
People posed these goals of schooling in rich accounts of their own education, and teaching, and parenting. The accounts have the heft and texture of life to them: yearning, rebellion, joy, comfort, the spark of intellect, the shaping of identity. There is so little of any of this in our talk about school, so little heart and soul, but, as well, so little of the cognitive tug of intellectual engagement.
There is, of course, another dimension to our discussion, mentioned by some of those who posted comments – most recently by K-8 – and that is the fact that school often doesn’t serve young people well.
In Possible Lives, I write that a comprehensive assessment of public education (and private education, for that matter), needs to contain both criticism and images of goodness, of possibility. Otherwise judgment can devolve into dismissiveness and despair or into blithe optimism blind to incompetence and inequality. We need a vision that simultaneously sees both harsh reality and potential.
So let us return to the compelling list generated by the readers – relationship, intellectual engagement, self-reliance, encountering the new, etc. – and ask what it is about formal schooling in the U.S., public or private, that impedes these goals. Some things come quickly to mind: the way schools are structured, school politics, race and class bias, economic inequality.
Let’s think about this question. And let’s push on it. Take the issue of school structure, for example. Fine things happen in traditionally organized classrooms, and awful things in non-traditional ones. What is it exactly about school structure, or bias, or education politics, or whatever that disrupts the kinds of goals readers have listed?
I’ll get the ball rolling by suggesting that one of the awful things about race, class, or gender bias is that it usually brings with it assumptions about limited intellectual ability. Another point: A barrier to more and better interpersonal connection between teachers and students – along, of course, with work load – are professional and subject matter traditions that don’t emphasize the deep connection between cognition and human relation. I know in my case the relationship I developed with my senior high school English teacher was fundamental to my emerging interest in literature and writing. It was a kind of connection that, for me anyway, was rare in my high school.
Please feel free to post your thoughts (from your personal experience as well as from your observations as citizen, parent, or teacher) about the things that limit the realization of the kinds of goals listed above.
This rich blend of the possible and the constraints on the possible would be at the center of a reinvigorated discussion of the purpose of schooling.
Several recent contributors to this blog have fine blogs of their own, and I want to recommend them here: Deborah Meier (with Diane Ravitch) “Bridging Differences” (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences), Karin Chenoweth (http://www.britannica.com/blogs/author/kchenoweth), and Mike Klonksy (http://360.yahoo.com/michaelklonsky). If I’ve missed anyone, let me know.