Monday, March 28, 2011


It is the hallmark of a totalitarian never to abandon his ideals. But we do not elect gods or kings for our leaders, though the price of their office is a godly vision.


Faction allows for no redemption; it cares nothing even for its own principles, only that its enemies are hypocrites. The greatest threat to faction is that old adversaries should become friends, and thus we see an increased disdain for outsiders whenever their opinions begin to look agreeable.

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.