The United Nations and The Public Schools

There is no end to our profound dissatisfaction with the UN and the Public Schools

with both in respect to what they intended to accomplish and the little they have in fact accomplished. Those who founded both the UN and the public schools misunderstood basic principles, the ones of nations and the others of education.

The founders of the UN didn’t understand that nations, at least for the foreseeable future, would never give up their sovereignty to an external power, in this case the United or earlier, the League of, Nations.

Then the founders of our public schools, not the ancients of Greece and Rome, or the churchmen of the Middle Ages, but the moderns, people like Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and Henry Barnard, while they couldn’t say enough about the importance to the future of the country of a knowledgeable and engaged citizenry, didn’t at all understand the dual, both public and private, nature of education.

They didn’t understand that knowledgeable and responsible citizenry could only result from both public and private experiences. And no better did they  understand that most education could never be confined to a single place, such as a classroom, although the so-called one room schools were always more successful than the 100 room or more school buildings that eventually replaced them.

The problems of the UN most of all reflect the fact that nations are first of all true not to an ideal, but to themselves, and in particular to whatever their own interests may be, and where their own advantages lie. The problems (and also the successes) of the public schools reflect much more the income levels of the district populations that send their children to the school than any particular program or curriculum that the schools may have come up with. 

In this regard I know very well that I’m not saying anything original. James Coleman in 1966, in a paper that came to be widely read and known as the “Coleman Report,” looked at the performance of over 150,000 students and found that student background and socioeconomic status were much more important in determining educational outcomes than anything else. He also found (this no surprise of course) that socially disadvantaged black students did better in school when they were in racially mixed classrooms. He might also have said (perhaps he did) that they did better in school when from racially mixed neighborhoods. And now he might have included Latinos with Blacks.

So the founders of both the UN and the public schools didn’t know what they were doing. They entirely missed the enormity of the tasks they had taken upon themselves. Have nations be subservient to an external governing body, wasn’t going to happen. Have kids’ learning be public, some six to eight hours a day, and some forty or more weeks of the year, wasn’t to be. While the kids may have been learning, it was probably not for the most part in often sterile the public spaces they were obliged to frequent.

For kids, no less than adults, no less than people everywhere are mostly private individuals and for the most part do their learning in private, and the public schools do not allow for that. It’s ironic that those who are given an opportunity to learn in private are those who as a punishment for not being attentive  in class are sent off to a room by themselves, if not expelled and sent home.

So where is my reasoning taking us? Well to something that is all too familiar. The greatest tasks that we now confront are pretty much not yet within our power to accomplish. Nations need to not think first of themselves, and no nation I know of is anywhere near doing that. Kids need to be helped to discover themselves, find about themselves, yes, to know themselves. And that isn’t now and won’t be happening in an environment that worships the public environment at the expense of the individual and yes private needs of the children.

We’re probably no closer to having a true United Nations than we were at the time of the founding of the present UN some 70 years ago. Are we any closer today than at the time of the founding of the Common School of Horace Mann to having a real education available to our children? Alas, no. The public schools, created for the purpose of producing a knowledgeable citizenry, have probably been the greatest obstacle to that ever happening. In their glorification of the public they have neglected and even forgotten the private.

The greatest irony of all may very well be that in forgetting about the private nature of learning it is the public, and in particular public life, that has suffered the most. For isn’t it true that the strengths of the individual citizens, developed and grown strong, more in private than in public, that will eventually make for the strength of the public community?

And the greatest tragedy of all may very well be the failure of the nations of the world to form a true community of nations, that failure stemming from the nations, including our own, not having realized, and still not realizing, that their true strength lies not in their own flag, their own history even transformed by myth and legend, but in their becoming a part of something greater, a true union  of nations, that which so far we only talk about.


Post Scriptum:

Public was forced upon us by the government (and it didn’t take of course), and now private is being promoted by the parents who would save their kids, and among thousands of alternative educational environments (not schools necessarily) more and more of them are turning to homeschooling, that which is rapidly growing and prospering, and perhaps best thought of as a kind of citadel of the private.

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