Stop the Conversation: How to Have Real Discussions about Education

Charlie Brown his pitcher's mound.

Charlie Brown stands astride the pitcher’s mound—alone—having concluded yet another engrossing conversation with his teammates, ranging from the meaning of life to the motivation of our Puritan forefathers. Forlorn and bereft, he muses: “We don’t win very many ballgames, but we sure have great discussions.”

Like Charlie Brown, I sit alone in my study, caught up in a cycle of groundhog days.  After a lifetime in education, now age 85, I also find myself forced to endure the same issues again and again, like so many mock-frightful creatures popping out of the darkness while riding through the house of horrors at a county fair.

The Problem with Educational Reform Conversations

The conversation about reform drones on. It is relentless and unending: the racial gap, equality of educational opportunity, charter schools (aka alternative education), preparation of teachers, disciplinary policy, standardized testing.

Stop the conversation please. I want to get off. Does anyone else? Might we call a halt for a moment to this crossfire of oratorical madness and examine for a moment why the same issues continue to bedevil us over and over again, and why it is that we have won so few ballgames over the past 100 years.

Could we perhaps be having the wrong conversation?

…Good Grief! 

Consider the nature of conversation in our culture—how we tend to talk about things.

It’s most always problematic.

We have problems with our health, problems in raising our children, establishing relationships, problems in how to live… and how to die. A good part of traffic on social media is focused on problems…and encapsulated solutions: three steps to sleeping better, five steps to a healthier, sexier you.

On the larger media stage, we have the drug problem, the racial problem, the problem of crime in our streets, and violence in our schools. We move from crisis to crisis, the crisis of our cities to the crises in our classrooms. The problem orientation then segues nicely to that of war., the prevailing metaphor of our culture. We mobilize against racism, sexism, poverty, drugs, and ISIS (That’s ISIS with an “L”).

Take Education…Please…take it!

Education is among the most critical factors influencing the quality of human life and to which the survival of the species is most closely linked.

The primary form which education takes in the industrial world is schooling. Schooling is the largest single corporate enterprise in the world. Its power and influence exceed that of even the military-industrial complex. On any given weekday in the United States, one of every three persons can be found in school.

As befits its magnitude, its problems are super-size.

Its focus, however, is limited to reinforcing and putting a better face on that same superstructure. Its challenge—to do so without ever having to address the bedrock axioms upon which it all rests—long standing assumptions and premises which underlie the existing system and support current educational practices.

As hand-maidens of the larger culture, our schools exist solely to reflect the dominant values of the culture and advance its goals.

Behind the façade of advanced placement courses; student government, and probing literature courses lie its true purposes—a hidden curriculum which dominates and dictates the one it publicly projects: Perpetuation of  the system’s mythology (tales of upward mobility and the like); reinforcement of  the “right” values; i.e. those  which create good and obedient workers (see tardy passes, rules of conduct, suspensions and the like); the sorting  out and cataloguing of  talent, determining who makes it and who doesn’t  (push-outs vs. valedictorians); and putting young people on ice, holding them back from prematurely entering the labor market.

Educational “change” thus can only go so far. Talk about reform is just that – talk.  In truth—at its best—the kind of change being bandied about describes but a vestigial effort—a simple mopping up operation; a matter of a few alterations here and a few there; some fine-tuning and incremental adjustments, not a drastic overhaul or restructuring.

This pseudo change is, in fact, worse than no change at all, because it projects and reinforces the image that the system is truly open and progressive, when nothing could be farther from the truth.

In reality, such efforts serve only to reinforce traditional educational structures and practices. Vested interests and mindsets preclude otherwise. 

Whether undertaken by the Federal government, State Departments of Education, individual school systems, university schools of education, the Gates foundation, or charter schools, these efforts are nothing more than shallow reflections of past failures.

In the words of McLuhan, they are “looking at the future through the rearview mirror of the past.” Girding for the war on ignorance, they employ the same Maginot line mentality which insists on fighting the next war as if it were the one previous—with the same consequences.

What is seldom addressed is the moral content of the educational process.

Rather than start with a series of sub-issues, qua problems, might we instead focus upon the foundation on which everything rests, on the values which inform and shape the entire enterprise?

We are suggesting a different sensibility—a future consciousness—one which entails a vision, drastically different than anything which presently exists—embodying our highest and noblest aspirations, hopes, and ideals.

What better task than to articulate a framework of values based on the view of the future we imagine and which we might help to create? 

Begin with ourselves. Schools “R us,” you see. They reflect on who we are and our values. That is the past. But our children are the future. How we educate them reflects the future we imagine for them—the world that lies ahead.  What kind of world is that?  What do they need to know to build that world? 

That is what we need to ask of our teachers and our schools.

A Vision for Radical Educational Reform

Horace Mann (1796-1859), “The Father of the Common School Movement,” argued that the common school, a free, universal, non-sectarian, and public institution, was the best means of achieving the moral and socioeconomic uplift of all Americans.

John Dewey later expanded on that vision:

“I believe that education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform. I believe it is the business of every one interested in education to insist upon the school as the primary and most effective instrument of social progress and reform in order that society may be awakened to realize what the school stands for, and aroused to the necessity of endowing the educator with sufficient equipment properly to perform his task….”

We have long charged our schools with several overwhelming mandates, including rectification of social and economic equality.

Critics argue that schools alone cannot address those issues—that these problems go far deeper—to the very heart of our culture. Look instead to prevailing patterns in housing, employment, and criminal justice, to political and economic forces  and underlying mindsets of racism and nativism. It is simply too much to expect of Education to solve these issues. Fair or not, whether by intent or default, is irrelevant. The fact is that the onus for solution of many of our social ills and the burden to help set society right has fallen on our schools.

That being the case, there is no separating how we educate our children from the reformulation of the larger culture.

This country finds itself once more at a watershed moment. We need to redefine ourselves in terms by what we are, not what we are not. For too long we have left that to our adversaries.

For decades we were comfortable defining ourselves to the world as Anti-Communist. After the demise of the evil empire, we discovered the Taliban, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. We now face one of the greatest threats ever to our democracy in the person of one, Donald Trump.

And have nowhere to turn, but within.

MLK hoped that the civil rights movement would be the headlights showing the way, not the footlights simply reflecting what lies behind.  Can Education do likewise?

An activist educational movement must also be propelled by a vision—an overarching framework of values, to guide us and inform our actions—to see what lies ahead, and where we are going individually and collectively.

Any future discussion of Education must be joined with a discussion of national purpose.

Only then can we ask which social and moral imperatives should guide the learning process — education for whom; for what; towards what end; for what purpose? 

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Larry Paros has worked in the field of Education and Human services for more than 30 years both as a teacher and administrator. A pioneer in the creation of alternative settings, he is best known for his work with young people from varied ethnic and racial backgrounds in contexts of his own making. His book, Dancing on the Contradictions: Transforming our Schools, our Students, and Ourselves, will be available in September of 2019.