Chester E. Finn, Jr., in an article in the most recent issue of National Affairs, no less than the educational reformers of whom he speaks, has it all wrong. It’s not so much that the reforms have been misdirected, gone after the wrong targets, not been basic enough.
It’s rather that the reforms and the reformers, no less than the protectors of the public school status quo, have not, like the blind men, seen the whole of the elephant they would describe.
“Blind monks examining an elephant”, an 1888 ukiyo-e print by Hanabusa Itchō.
The whole elephant, well what is that in the educational context? What is the beast out there that one ought to see in its entirety?
We need first of all to agree on a number of assumptions, not so much concerning educational goals or aims, as the nature of the reality out there, the reality that confronts not only the kids every day of their lives, but us too, especially those of us, probably most of us, who are vitally concerned with the education of kids.
Not so much educational goals because there can be any number of these, as you will readily agree if you’re just a bit familiar with all that’s been written about education during the past several hundred years or more — goals such as making kids into life long learners, imparting to them all the necessary skills and knowledge, turning them into good citizens and good people, good fathers and mothers, and now especially turning them into the skilled workforce that will enable us to better compete in the global economy, and so on.
Rather we need to start, not with these abstract goals that have little to do with the kids, but with the kids themselves, and with the world in which they are living.
In regard to the kids no two of them are alike. They are all different, with different interests, abilities, talents, different backgrounds, family situations. And they live in different ethnic and class communities, experience different walks and rides to school, and so on.
And then in regard to the world out there in which they are living. you’d be hard pressed to find much out there that corresponds or relates in any way to what the kids are doing in school. For example, if you’re an adult living, as I am in Tampa, Florida, how many times during the past year have you encountered out there in the life of the city an algebraic or geometric expression, let alone problem?
And how many times in your everyday lives have you even looked up at the moon and the sun in the sky let alone looked beyond these two objects and with the help of the stupendous findings of the astronomers looked all the way back to the big bang?
How many times have you been taken up with a consideration of your own biological make-up, shared, as we have learned since Charles Darwin (that which you ought to have learned in biology class in school) to a greater or lesser extent by all life on the planet?
In other words what is going on out there in the world where the children, where all of us are living, that at all reflects, or relates to in any way, let alone supports the academic programs of our schools?
I’ve never encountered anyone out there in Tampa either writing an essay, or reading a great book. What is going on in the world, and what the kids are witnessing and being a part of in that world, when they’re not in school, is something else entirely.
Do our professional educators ever ask themselves how many people, let alone kids, outside of the classroom are writing? or even, in the world of the computer and television screen, reading books? Yet reading and writing, we’re told, by these same educators, is what school is or should be mostly all about, two activities that are pretty much absent from people’s daily lives. The kids know this.
This is why, as Finn points out, the achievement levels in our schools have remained flat for a generation. We’re asking of our kids things that are not going on anywhere else. This is why kids never seem to learn a foreign language in a classroom. This is why our reforms have not made a difference. What we have the kids do in our schools is totally out of sync with what is going on out there in the world.
And there is not only the world out there, out of sync with the schools. We are not helping the kids to be in sync with themselves. No two kids, no two of anything alive, are exactly alike.
And when, perhaps because of our concern for providing if not equality, equality of opportunity, we treat the kids as if they were all alike, we naturally fail to reach more than a few of them. And if we do reach that few, it’s only because the few by chance happen to fit the description of the student we have imagined.
As I write I realize I’m not saying anything new. There are those I’m sure who said at the time of Horace Mann’s Common School that school was not the only, or perhaps the best way to prepare kids for life.
And there are those still terrifically alive and interesting, what I would call the “no school” people of the sixties and seventies, the Paul Goodmans, the John Holts, the Ivan Illichs and many more, who valiantly although in vain tried to convince us that school was dead while giving birth to a creation of their own.
If the “no school,” the school is dead people did not succeed it was not because they were wrong. Actually, I think they were right in most of what they said about how kids learn (and for the most part not in school).
It was rather that society, in the form of the educational establishment couldn’t change its spots. Didn’t even try, and instead went on pretending to change by one endless series of reforms after another. Finn does make clear that following all these reforms nothing of real substance did change.
Kids continue to go to school. We continue to pretend to teach them, and they continue to pretend to learn. Not too different from totalitarian states where people pretend to be citizens with rights, where the country’s leaders pretend to recognize those rights, such as the right to vote, but where the real life, the people’s lives, all of that is confined to private spaces, such as about the kitchen table in the former Soviet Union.
What would it take to change things, to do away with the pretense that presently engulfs our public, and probably also, although to a lesser extent, our public charter and private school environments?
It would take two things:
1) A recognition of the world for what it is and of people for what they are, and
2) The abandonment of the principle, now current in our schools, that one size fits all.
And we need to accept and admit that the schools are not going to change the world. They don’t have that power. Virtue can’t be taught. The schools are just not going to shape the kids, let alone the world, in the ways we would like them to.
But somehow kids will become what they are, what they’re suppose to be, at least when they are successful and happy, and they will do this in spite of the obstacles placed in their way by the schools. The best schools, and among the enormous variety of such places in the country there are those that are “best”, will help their kids to become what they are, not place obstacles in their way.
The irony is that we do know much about kids and the world, enough to improve our “schools,” or whatever other means we employ to prepare our kids for adulthood, but we act as if we didn’t have that knowledge. We know, for example, what adults spend their time doing, doing things that have little connection with what these same adults (and now their children) did and do in school.
And we know that kids are different and need quite different paths to follow. The traditional academic and college preparatory path is, at best, only one among many, only appropriate for a minority of kids. That in itself, the fact that only the needs of a minority are being met, ought to make us reconsider what we are doing, or rather not doing, for the majority of them.
Here, taken from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics I list the jobs that the adults in the country are now doing. The total civilian labor force as of December, 2009, was 153 million, 144 million of whom were employed.
Of those employed 22 million were farm or farm related workers, 19 million were in goods producing industries, mostly construction and manufacturing.
The remaining 113 million were in the services, 22 million in government, 19 million in education and health (the fastest growing sectors at the moment), 17 million in professional and business services, 15 million in the retail trades, 13 million in leisure and hospitality, leaving the remaining 27 million jobs in other miscellaneous services.
Now have our politicians and educational establishment figures, who have so much to say about the responsibility of our schools to turn out graduates who are ready and able to compete in the global economy, have they at all considered what our own economy consists of in the way of occupations, have they considered the actual jobs that are being done by our adult population, and what sorts of preparation would be needed to get and hold these jobs?
I don’t think so. For they most of all speak as if we needed to get our kids ready to outperform the hundreds of thousands of Chinese engineers who are graduating from engineering schools in China every year. Where are the jobs to be found in this country that would employ these desired graduates?
No they can’t have thought much about the kinds of jobs adults are doing and the kind schooling, if any, that would be most appropriate to insure that the jobs out there are being filled adequately as they open up and become available. For the kind of educational goals our professional educators like to talk about have little or no relevance to the actual job prospects that the kids will eventually encounter.
Our country’s jobs, by and large, need at the most only basic literacy and numeracy skills. The sorts of things that kids ought to be able to obtain with 8 or fewer years of schooling. Most of the jobs out there are not helped, probably hurt by what we would do in the schools, or at least pretend to do — that is, teach higher forms of literacy, higher mathematics, advanced placement courses etc. Hurt, because of what we might have done instead.
We need most of all in our thinking about schools to stop believing that kids need to be highly skilled and highly knowledgeable to enter the job market. For the vast majority of positions out there they need only two things — the basic 8th. grade or less education I have mentioned, and something I have not mentioned, but that is probably even more important, good work habits.
These would be such things as the ability get up in the mornings after a good night’s sleep, to be on time, have ready for the job whatever one might need, know how to listen and to learn while on the job, and other such things. The acquisition of these kinds of skills and habits could and ought to be stressed in the schools. It’s not, not nearly enough, and here lies perhaps the greatest failure of the schools in respect to what they might have done.
Not that preparation for the job market, which means now preparation for the service industries, should be the primary function of school. It shouldn’t. For as long as school makes up such a huge part of the kids’ growing up it should have as its primary function helping kids to find out about themselves, to discover their own gifts and interests, find out who they are. Know oneself is still relevant.
For many kids, probably the majority of them, a selection from elective subjects and activities such as music, theater, art, athletics, vocational training, including courses in computer hardware and software, public service and work internships, debating etc., and not required academic classes, would be much more appropriate and desirable for their time in school. But more and more we seem afraid to go in this direction. Afraid of the “chaos” it might bring?
It is from these sorts of electives, once having achieved a basic level of literacy and numeracy, that the kids should be allowed to choose. This is the meaning of choice. And these activities would get their attention, and then, if they were ready and interested, they would learn.
In fact, what does one ever learn without being ready and interested? It is here that lies the greatest explanation of the failure of our schools and of the reforms of which Finn speaks
Finally, and in spite of the fact that the ideal for many of us is still an academic education, meaning by that the acquisition the skills and knowledge stemming from the study of history and literature, math and science, foreign languages, et al. these skills and knowledge are not now, and probably never have been within the power and possession of more than a tiny minority of the now 7 billion people on the earth.
Why continue to force kids to believe that an academic education, suitable perhaps for a minority, is what’s most important for all? It’s not.
If the teachers were in fact capable of making kids life long learners and more reliable and responsible citizens of the Republic, those kinds of educational goals that Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann and others assumed were desirable and possible some 200 years ago, then what we are trying to do would make some sense, but they are not.
In fact, we have learned, over and over again, that the acquisition of the habits of good citizenship as well as becoming a life time learner have never had much to do with what goes on in the school and classroom. Once again the most helpful “reform” would be to accept that these sorts of educational goals are simply not within the school’s power to realize.
To accept that and to go on to do what is within our power. That would be reform, probably even for Chester Finn, reform you could believe in.