Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why Jason F. Wright could be wrong about public schools

In an article entitled, "Why you could be wrong about public schools," Jason F. Wright concludes that, while there is much useful discussion from all sides of the issue of public schooling in America, he cannot respect "people forming coast-to-coast opinions about public schools and throwing teachers into a single, deep and dysfunctional pool."

Mr. Wright's apologia centers on the many exceptional and successful teachers that exist in the public school system, some of which he extols in his article. I know the kind of public school teacher that Mr. Wright is talking about.

I had a fifth-grade teacher who brought her compassion and humanity to work and wore it on her sleeve. I remember an occasion when Mrs. Ellis read to us a story about a girl who had an eating disorder. We all felt bad as Mrs. Ellis begin to cry at the part of the story where the girl dies. At first, I felt ashamed that a grownup would cry at school, but it made me stop what I was doing and think about it.

I was in her class on the day that the space shuttle Challenger blew up. While other teachers quickly turned off their TVs, Mrs. Ellis rushed in to turn ours on. She thought it might be important for children to learn that tragedy is real, and that disaster can claim even our moments of greatest triumph. We all grew up a little bit that day.

There are only three assignments that I remember from the fifth grade: A book report, a paper on one of the fifty states, and a picture and paragraph about what I thought I might be doing in the year 2010. I don't remember what I envisioned for my future self as a fifth-grader, but in 2010, I attended Mrs. Ellis' funeral. One of her daughters stood up and told us about the last days of her mother's life. She said that her mother had been happy and was not afraid of death because, in a life filled with others, she had forgotten about herself. 

How to love a book, how to feel compassion, how to fool a dental hygienist, how to face death and not be afraid; these are the lessons of a dedicated teacher who has the power to reach beyond days spent sitting in a public school classroom. I had teachers who were active agents against all of John Taylor Gatto's public school pathologies, and I was made better for being in their classrooms.

Jason F. Wright is wrong, though. He supposes that all that matters is that there is hope and goodness in public schools--and the possibility for positive change. He is prepared for the unflattering studies, graphs, frightening anecdotes, and videos of teachers-gone-wild, because he knows that he is grateful for the hours of labor given by honest and loyal teachers to whom he entrusts his own children.

What has not occurred to Mr. Wright is that maybe it does not matter very much whether or not our public school teachers are decent, dedicated and caring people. Maybe what really matters is that, when children are away at school, they are not at home. When children are not at home, there is not a family.

The family is not simply a legal bond, or a useful way to delegate social responsibilities, or a method of fulfilling personal needs, or a convenience for raising children to replace parents in the workplace, or a system to grow the economy. If the first purpose of the family is an economic one, then it is only according to the oikonomia of the Greeks who understood that the word they created for us has nothing at all to do with anything outside of the home.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, Horace Mann, the great champion of public schools, acknowledged the imminent destruction of the American family during a time when industrialization removed fathers from the home. Why do you think we even have compulsory government schools today? They were to be the remedy for the failure of self-sufficient private families upon which all other institutions, including the educational institution, had once been built.

I belong to a religion that believes in the so-called traditional family. We believe in a mother and a father who make solemn vows to each other and who produce children; together we think they ought to comprise the fundamental unit of society. That is our claim. Today we say that families are under attack, and we fear a coming revolution of secularism that will destroy this traditional family.

Eric Hoffer claimed that change actually precedes revolution, and not the other way around. This idea once seemed strange and wrong to me, but now I understand.

Do we wish to defend our families? First we must have them. We fight a verbal war for the family and leave empty homes behind us every day in order to go about our radically individual lives. The only thing we risk losing now is the make-believe facade of a tradition long forsaken by those who leave home for jobs and send their sons and daughters away to school. In the long history of families, this is a new and significant development.

The first step in the battle for the family must be a return to the home, and I am afraid that all attempts of subcultural movements to bring families together, in brief and faint echoes of long-lost participatory unity, will fail to save it.

We must make a new culture of family where the same high expectations and possibilities achieved by my fifth-grade teacher are removed from the non-family, government institution of public schooling and returned to mothers and fathers in the home. While I am grateful for teachers who taught me more than curricula, I still wonder how life would be different for me had I learned those same lessons in humanity from my own parents. If we still think parents are responsible for this sort of teaching, we must stop fooling ourselves that they can accomplish it in a culture where homes have become little more than dormitories. Or do we truly believe that what really matters can still be taught in the off-hours by parents worn out by the demands of everything outside of the home?

Unfortunately, public schools, as they exist today, will not survive the sort of changes that might save the family as a coherent and fundamental unit of society. A lot of things may not survive the changes I think we need, and I doubt that we even have the courage to attempt them in earnest.

Although I have not thrown any teachers into a single dysfunctional pool, I believe I have presented what Jason F. Wright would consider a coast-to-coast opinion of public schools, built from my questioning the fundamental premises of a mode of schooling that has little to do with home or family, and I am sorry that he cannot respect it.


Dave said...

What is the traditional family? What *has* to be present to make up the traditional family?

What is community as family?

What is government as family?

Couldn't we aspire to a more insect-like, hive-mind mentality, where we are sexless drones dependent on the queen to produce the next generation? This sort of thing would expedite best business practices and procedures marvelously and increase productivity. Raise children with the Internet and TV.

Seriously, though, what do you think the responsibilities of the traditional family are for raising children to adulthood. Furthermore, depending on how well or how poorly the traditional family fulfills these responsibilities, where does public school fit in? Is it necessary only in the cases of unwilling or incapable parents?

Peter McCombs said...

It seems that most religiously-minded Christians think of the nuclear family of the past two to three hundred years as the traditional family.

I prefer the high medieval family that might very well include a good deal of extended family and even some outsiders. The word "family" comes from the Latin word for "household," and I believe that the home is a primary ingredient in family life.

A proper family (household) should be self-sufficient in health care, employment, religion, education, and so forth. The wider community and public offerings serve the family interests. A clinic or hospital could provide advanced synthetic medicine where the family herbs fail; a school provides specialized instruction where the generalism of the family leaves off; other families and enterprises provide work opportunities as children--lacking a family trade--desire to make their way in the world. It's the old idea of subsidiarity and of first-things-first.

These days, "public" means "government." Government is often the same as private, only we all pay for it. Schools are big jobs projects, and they bring with them a lot of rules that we must live by. I can't teach my own kids, for instance, without permission. That's sort of putting things upside down, in my view.

The modern nuclear family is only viable as an economic entity, where it is possible for a father to obtain the needs of everyone by hiring himself out for a wage. Here I use "economic" in the modern sense, quite opposite its literal meaning. When families are viewed as having a primarily economic function, rather than as self-contained, self-sufficient communities, one realizes that the pieces are interchangeable. The money economy makes it so (Simmel pretty much put the cap on that one); it doesn't matter so much who the breadwinner is, how many adults participate, etc. Traditional roles are not necessary in a family beholden to the mature money economy that dissolves essential personal relationships.

Even the procreative function of families is transfered simultaneously to the narrowness of the individual and the wideness of the greater community. Sex serves a recreational purpose rather than for family (self) preservation. In the old sense, sex was the most serious oath of fealty to one's spouse.

I'm speaking sociologically. Some religious will still argue in a modern context for this particular medieval structure with its defined roles, but that is terribly un-perceptive. Our view that a semantic redefinition of marriage, for example, threatens the traditional family is pure nonsense. This redefinition actually lags reality (the revolution follows the change). If we want the nuclear family with its wider economic underpinnings; if we favor urban hive-mind mentality and efficiency and certain forms of egalitarianism, then we can't be picky about old family roles. Those roles really did serve a definite social function that had nothing to do with the money economy, equality, individualism, or our other modern social values.