I wrote this nearly 20 years ago. Do I still believe it? Do you?

In my journal of 3/9/94 I wrote:

Recently in my capacity as a Foundation trustee I’m been approached with several proposals for new schools under the recent  Massachusetts Education Reform Act of 1993. Two of these proposals contained lists of educational goals, the goals of these new schools for successful high school graduation, goals such as:

— be able to write an essay, speak in defense of an opinion, communicate in a second language, begin to “speak” the language of mathematics, show knowledge of important American documents, be familiar with the content of core history, literature, and geography courses, have a solid foundation in earth, life, and the physical sciences, have acquired performance skills in music, art, and crafts, be knowledgeable about what’s going on in the world, be able to read and summarize articles from such magazines as Atlantic Monthly and Scientific American, have read a lot of good books.

—all of this, along with the more general goals of becoming a life-long learner, a good citizen, of not abusing one’s mind and body, beginning to know oneself, and gaining in self-confidence.

Now aren’t these the goals we, teachers and parents, school administrators and the public, want for all our children, at least to the extent that we are aware ourselves of the good life that these goals represent, for ourselves as well as for our children? How could anyone not want these goals for his children, as well as for himself? How could anyone want anything else?  

Why is it then that these goals are so rarely if ever attained in our schools?  Why are they so rarely attained anywhere? Why is it that the majority of our college, let alone high school graduates, have accomplished but a tiny fraction of the goals that their parents and teachers had for them? 

Over and over again researchers have shown us that the schools are not achieving their stated goals, and so far we are without a clue what to do about it.  

Perhaps it’s only those, such as those who have shown me their proposals for new schools under the new Charter enabling Law, who even bother to articulate such goals. Their peers already well entrenched within other public schools know too well that these goals, admirable as they may be, are not realistic, and are not being achieved, although under normal circumstances they will go along and pretend they are, if not fully realized at least still valid ends to schooling.

Why do the leaders of the new schools coming to us with their well crafted proposals think that their schools will be different from the rest, and that they will have better results with their students? Is it because they have clearly stated their goals? Because they have a longer school day, and school year?  Because they intend to involve the parents? Because they intend to collaborate with individuals, businesses, and other groups and organizations outside the school, bring people outside the school into the classroom, create more opportunities for the kids inside to go out? Is it because being familiar with current educational reform movements, with the research regarding how children learn, they will know how to do things better? Is it because these new school leaders are young and hopeful and confident, determined, and courageous?

Certainly all this and more will help, and for a time they might create a better school, even an exciting one.  But in the long run they’ll be undone, much as those who came before them, undone by much more powerful forces than they can possibly muster in and about the lives of their students.  

For these “undoing” forces are greater and more powerful than anything they might come up with themselves. Just two of them, biology and the environment, nature and nurture, will determine, probably in some unequal combination, in most cases the outcomes.

For example, biology means that young people need to sooner or later experience sex (something probably not even in the curriculum except perhaps brought to the students once a week or so by a visiting nurse or other health professional) and many, to a lesser extent, will feel an urge, if not a need to experience alcohol and drugs.

And the environment, the money culture about them, making them so terribly aware of all the things they want and just have to have in their possession, will mean they’ll have to work to earn some money, and that occupation will subtract a good chunk of their time from school and school things. 

Children, in school or out, are drawn much more to what they think are the “good” or at least the easy and pleasurable things about them, —clothes, electronic gadgets of all kinds, [now smart phones and tablets] music listening devices, cars etc….  Also children even in school need to have time with their peers and friends, time not in the presence of adults, parents or teachers. 

In short, the popular culture environment surrounding them everywhere they go, probably even while in school, will be a much greater draw than the subject matters of the classroom. Pop culture stars, sports heroes, Hollywood icons et al. will be much greater influences on them than parents and teachers. And rather than struggle to learn by themselves (how real learning mostly takes place), they will choose what’s easier, and is certainly more fun, to belong to a group with others, be it a musical or acting group, a sports team, a neighborhood gang.

And finally, and no less important, will be their own independence, being able to move freely about, having unscheduled and unstructured time, being able to lead their own lives.

These all powerful environmental and biological forces in the lives of the young may lead to good things for the country, to entrepreneurship, job creation, and material prosperity for many, but as described here they won’t help to achieve one or more of the educational goals mentioned.

When I think about it I’ve never known a young person to articulate, let alone set for himself, goals similar to those of the school, to be at all interested in the kinds of things the adults in his life want for him. But I have known plenty of young people to go to great lengths to be sure they have plenty of time and opportunity for listening to their favorite music and television programs, to obtain sexual and other bodily satisfactions, to work to earn the funds needed to purchase whatever greatly desired material object they may want to have.

Or, I think now, that this may just be me, then, in March of 1994, and that now the schools, and the kids in the schools, are not like how I have described them, that they do resist both biology and the environment, and are in school themselves to learn. Well I’d like to think that, but so far today I can’t.

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