A few weeks ago, the book review editor for the Huffington Post invited me to write something on the origins of Why School? Why did I write the book? Some people told me they couldn’t readily find it, so I reprint it below.
We hear so much about education these days – test scores, reform battles – but little that we hear gets to the heart of why education matters. That’s why I wrote Why School?, to get us to think about why we send kids to school and often return to school ourselves. Along the way, I hope readers reflect on what made a difference in their own education.
Education turned my life around – saved it, really – and I’ve taught for close to forty years, so this issue of the purpose of education is close to me, both professionally and personally. It gets me to the writing desk in the middle of the night and throughout the day colors the way I view the world.
I’ve had the good fortune teach in a wide range of settings: kindergarten, graduate seminars, job-training programs, a program for Vietnam veterans, tutoring centers, an after school literacy club for failing students. I’ve visited good schools and bad, have seen teaching that is mediocre and teaching so skillful and fluid that it makes your jaw drop.
In Why School? I wanted to draw on all that experience to take the reader in close to education when it goes well, and I wanted to provide illustrations from the whole broad sweep of education in the United States: from first-graders caught up in a science lesson, to teenagers solving problems in a woodworking class, to college students becoming more astute writers, to adults coming back to school to jump-start a second chance.
I wanted the reader to sit close by as other human beings struggle with a problem, get that flash of insight, and push toward articulation, alone or with others. I wanted to capture the experience of discovery, of learning to do something you couldn’t do before, and, for some, to begin to think of yourself in a new way.
Sadly, little of this vital detail of teaching and learning has made its way into recent education policy or the political speech we hear about our schools. As a result, our sense of what education is has shrunk. What we hear from across the political spectrum is that the reason we send our children to school is to be ready for the 21st Century economy. And the way we measure our success is through a standardized test that is typically far removed from the cognitive give and take of the classroom.
I come from a working-class family, so I am certainly aware of the link between education and economic mobility. And as a citizen – and someone who has spent a lifetime in schools – I absolutely want to hold our institutions accountable. But I wrote Why School? to get us to consider how this economic focus, blended with the technology of large-scale assessment, can restrict our sense of what school ought to be about: the full sweep of growth and development for both individuals and for a pluralistic democracy. In such a policy environment – one that has been with us for over a generation – school can devolve to procedures, to measures and outputs that constrain what gets taught, how it’s taught, and how we define what it means to be an educated person.
Think of what we don’t read and hear.
There’s not much public discussion of achievement that includes curiosity, reflectiveness, imagination, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Consider how little we hear about intellect, aesthetics, joy, courage, creativity, civility, understanding. For that matter, think of how rarely we hear of commitment to public education as the center of a free society.
If we abstract out of education policy a profile of the American student in our time it would be this: a young person being prepared for the world of work, measured regularly, trained to demonstrate on a particular kind of test a particular kind of knowledge. This is not Jefferson’s citizen-in-the-making. And in my experience most parents of a wide range of backgrounds, though they want their children to develop basic skills and be prepared for work, want much more.
My hope is that Why School? contributes to a more humane and imaginative discussion of schooling in America.