Education Should Not Be A Race

President Obama has framed his education reforms solidly in the mold of conventional educational thought: teach ‘em and test ‘em is the bottom line for this education department (and to the Republican’s vision of education, too), no matter what lip service they pay to life-long learning and personal development. The policies of tweaking existing methods, coming down hard on teachers and students who don’t tow the line that school is the best place for a child to be, and dismissing modes of learning and teaching outside the classroom as impractical for most students, once again show us the stark reality that education today is a race created by policymakers where a few win at the expense of the many.

A stated goal of American education is for us to be the most educated society on earth by having the most college graduates: that many college graduates are working cash registers in retail outlets for minimum wage is a sign of success to educationists; those degrees will pay off eventually, you’ll see, they blandly tell us. It’s the quantity of degrees, not the quality of them nor the quality of the graduate’s lives, that is important to educationists. But I have seen in my own life, and through the work of others, that living and learning are entwined deeply and that by improving one’s living situation (good food, shelter, health, personal safety) one improves learning because learning is state dependent. If a child’s personal state is unsettled—or any adult’s—they will not perform as well nor receive input as well as if they were more secure in their personal states. Nonetheless, how a student feels about their self, their home, friends, teachers, and neighborhood must be left at the school door. These are issues that directly affect learning, but rather than improve those aspects of society we decide to fund more teacher training and school technology instead of providing more services and aid to families as a way to improve education.

Of course, this involves thinking about social programs that create a convivial society and this is anathema to the right wing; the left wing feels the money should be spent directly on schools, to improve teacher training and make the school hold students longer during business hours so their parents can work. Right or left, both parties agree kids should always be in school where they should be obedient students—or else they will be punished, often by placing them in a more controlled school setting. Is this really the direction we want to keep moving, towards womb-to-tomb schooling? Shouldn’t there be more to life than consuming degrees and earning money from them? Schools have commoditized education by presenting teachers and professors to us as experts rather than philosophers, technicians who fix specific learning problems that move us to the next grade, rather than people who view learning as part of a person’s inevitable growth and who want to help people do things better as they age.

Indeed, the whole rally-around-the-school mentality promoted by government and schools for decades is more entrenched than ever in our society, much to the detriment of family life, I think. The situation has clearly gotten worse since John Holt wrote this in 1970 in What Do I Do Monday? (currently out of print), but I can’t think of a better description of the problem.

For years parents have been pumped full of propaganda that parents and school should stand shoulder to shoulder, and work together. “Work together against the children,” it would be more honest to say. James Herndon . . . tells of the lower-income father of a boy who long had trouble in school, saying of the schools in amazement and rage, as many other parents might say if they only thought enough, “For years they’ve been making me hate my kid!” This rule about parents and teachers always working together is a bad and silly one. The only good rule is that people, whether parents or teachers, who trust and respect and value children should support them against other people, whether parents or teachers, who do not. Where, as is still so often and tragically the case, schools are petty, tyrannical, and absurd, parents should back their children against them, help them in every way they can to survive, and even to resist. It works the other way, as well. Teachers in many parts of the country are used to hearing parents say that the only way to deal with their children is to beat them, hard and often. More than once a parent has told me that his child is untrustworthy, no good, and that I had to watch him every second and keep the screws clamped tight. To this I say, “What you think about your child, and how your treat him, is your own business. I happen to think that all children are worthy of and need trust and respect, and that’s the way I’m going to deal with your child.” It took me a long time to get used to the fact that very often, when I told parents that their kids were bright and capable and that I liked them, I would find myself in an argument. No, it is children that are important, not some mythical ideal of cooperation between home and school.

Education is a race—a rat race—that is stressing us all with its conspicuous consumption. Instead, can we, as a society, embrace living and learning as something we can share and enjoy with people throughout our lives?