Questioning educational patriotism
I’m a bit late to the great education debate, which is unfortunate because I did have a few thoughts on it. My own take isn’t really connected to the need to create a more purposeful mission for high schoolers or how to battle back against the cruelty of kids, but just the more basic question of the mission and importance of formal education.
It’s becoming something near conventional wisdom that greater educational opportunity is the silver bullet for the future of the country as a whole and each individual who benefits. I have yet to see Waiting for Superman, but the reviews are unified in describing its emotional impact (“heartbreaking,” according to the LA Times). Presumably, the documentary moves viewers because – as its accepted premise – academic achievement of each child is literally the difference between life and death. I’ll get back to this.
Last week, President Obama announced his support for a year-long school calendar, using the argument that our current school calendar puts American kids at a “competitive disadvantage,” and adding, “our children spend over a month less in school than children in South Korea. That is no way to prepare them for a 21st century economy.” There was a similar theme to his address to the nation’s school children in 2009, made infamous for the silly “indoctrination” controversy, but more notable to me at least for the link he established between academic success and patriotism:
What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. The future of America depends on you. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future… if you quit on school — you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.
I’ve always held a bit of skepticism toward formal education, and while I normally frame it in ideological arguments, that skepticism has far deeper roots in my personal experience.
Just to quickly go over the ideological arguments:
1. The emphasis on formal education leads to what Christopher Lasch referred to as an “aristocracy of brains.” It increases social stratification and places a higher priority on raising a nation of experts at the sometime expense of well-rounded individuals.
2. It places an ethic of achievement above an ethic of duty. I’ve written before about my appreciation of Capra movies, and I’m always amazed that the plot of “It’s a Wonderful Life” hinges on the lead character not going to college in order to fulfill a family duty. Guess George Bailey quit on his country.
3. It often results in “creative class” geographic redistribution.
4. Making a college education the baseline for success pretty much waves the white flag in terms of rebuilding any kind of manufacturing base in this country. The fact is, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the political impotence of unions, and the lack of any decent minimum wage has – for all intents and purposes – meant that any job that can be counted on to support a family will have at a minimum a requirement of college degree. By shepherding kids into higher education and grooming the “future leaders” of our country, we pretty much accept that as unalterable fact and put the final nail in the coffin of a functioning working and middle class.
5. It ignores the importance of educational diversity. The last American President to not attend college was Harry Truman. Every President since the first Bush has attended either Harvard or Yale.
But again, I’m not sure that those arguments – all of which I believe – are the real reason for my somewhat tense relationship with formal education. As a child, I hated school, and I mean that in a way that is very easy to distinguish from the normal way children hate school. At home, I was outgoing and happy; in the classroom, shy and miserable. There was no real reason for it. I had friends, wasn’t a victim of bullying or teasing, had support at home, had no disciplinary problems and had caring teachers. But for whatever reason, I never wanted to be there, never did my homework (at the end of the day, I refused to take part in any reminders that I would have to go back), and never studied for tests. My grades throughout school were consequently horrendous, and a week after my 16th birthday, I dropped out.
But here’s where my story differs from many others: I received my GED on schedule with my graduating class, and a few years later, graduated from college. No one since has ever suspected that I have a checkered academic background, and while I have never concealed the fact, very few people even know that about me.
That experience has given me an unusual perspective on how the drive for academic achievement – even at a young age – has led to a kind of bigotry against those who are not as academically inclined. Unlike most other forms of bigotry, this one is taught in schools and packaged as incentive. When my youngest niece was in middle school, she was given an assignment to research a college. Fine. Except that throughout that lesson, she began referring to people who did not attend college as “failures.” I’m certain her teacher had not used that term, but the concept was made clear: if the students stayed on track, they would graduate college. It stands to reason then, that a person who did not graduate college (or, obviously, high school) was a person who had failed to stay on track.
Since graduating college, I’ve been in countless situations in which “high-school drop-out” was used as a shorthand for “stupid” by people who would never have guessed that they were not just referring to me, but also to my mother, my grandmother (who never finished 6th grade) and on up the family tree. I do understand there is a particularly American mythology behind attending college after generations in one’s family have not (not the case with me), but to accept that mythology is, in a way, concluding that those previous generations were somehow deprived and disadvantaged. I don’t think that can be assumed. I also understand that in previous generations, it was possible to live a middle-class life without having a college degree – something that is increasingly rare today. But again, that is a problem that needs attention beyond simply providing escape routes for children.
Yesterday, I was in a conversation with a woman about the British educational system and the student option of pursuing a vocational track (and in particular, testing that is used to steer students toward one of the two tracks). She expressed her concern that it pigeonholed working class and minority students by assuming that they were not college material. I disagree with her opposition, but what I found more telling was the way it was framed: in her mind, “college material” was naturally the more desirable categorization. After all, the separate tracks also keep the college-track students from learning the trades and skills of the non-college track students, but that was of no concern. In such casual ways, the hierarchy is set – going to college is always better than not going. Understandably I suppose, considering a child’s education “will decide nothing less than the future of this country.” Back to Waiting for Superman. The schools deemed successful for the students – according to the New York Times review – were the SEED school, in which 9 out of 10 students go on to college, and the Harlem Children Zone, which “is astoundingly successful at getting children through high school and into college.” There is only one avenue to happiness and success and, accordingly, only one way to measure successful schools.
So I suppose the arguments in favor of year-round school calendars are not particularly persuasive to me. There are plenty of practical reasons to oppose the plan (cost, evidence that most summer learning loss occurs in the first 2 weeks of summer, etc…), but more convincing to me is just the fact that summers are important. In fact, there seems to me to be something almost healthy about the supposed summer learning loss; it’s a 2 and a half month opportunity for kids to become completely immersed in a world beyond school. Long summers might not improve our nation’s competitive edge or test scores, but that’s not the only factor in building a healthy society.