Monday, October 08, 2007

The Purpose of School

The book I'm reading now, "Walking on Water: Reading, Writing and Revolution" by Derrick Jensen, a former EWU prof, asserts that American public schools, as originally designed in the late 1800s, were established for a social purpose rather than an educational one. He used the following quotation from the Senate Committee on Education in 1888:
We believe that education is one of the principal causes of discontent of late years manifesting itself among the laboring classes.
He also cites William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education from 1889 to 1906:
Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.
These two statements do not prove anything, per se, but they do point out the fact (the one we all seem to dimly remember and force ourselves to forget) that school was set up as an organ of social control. Look at the way it was set up: first of all, it's compulsory. Second, students rarely get to choose their classes. Third, just look at the dang schedule, and how specific it is--at my school, we have 54 minute classes and six minute passing periods. We dismiss them with bells, for god's sake. It's like a huge psychological experiment. Think about it. How many other things in life are scheduled so closely that their time span is not even rounded off. Not many. So what the U.S. did a hundred plus years ago is set up a system to control the kids.

Fast forward to today. We keep hearing that we have to compete in a competitive world, and that critical thinking, initiative and deep learning will be our tickets to success in the global marketplace. I'm sure that is true--but we still educate kids in a system that was designed to do the opposite. Heck, at my school, the whole school says the pledge of allegiance in unison every day. Critical thinking? Initiative? The structure of the school day, and the philosophy behind it, are still conspiring against meaningful education. As the most influential educational philosopher in American history, John Dewey, said:
Every teacher should realize he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of the proper social order...
But think about this. Haven't the best teachers you ever had been the ones who tried, in their own little way, to move their students beyond the "maintaining the proper social order"--the ones who treated you like an individual rather than a future member of the herd? Maybe, at their core, the ideas of education and school, instead of being synonymous, are oxymorons.


Anonymous said...

Well said, Sir.

I am currently really exploring the reasons that I chose teaching as my course of study... with absolutely NO context of what it means to be a teacher. One of the things that really inspired me is the experienced that I have had with those teachers which you discribed above. The ones that accended that "social control" approach and actually taught me somthing about MYSELF.


Eric said...

We all have to define ourselves and our role within our chosen career. It's hard, though, when the structure of your profession conspires against your chosen path.