by Tammy Drennan
Washington, D.C. has awful public schools, as everyone knows by now. They’ve tried endless fixes, all to little avail.
Among recent experiments has been a new chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who has a reputation for shaking things up. I hope she’s able to make a bad situation more tolerable for the many children who languish and suffer in our capital’s schools.
While reading about Rhee’s efforts, I got to thinking about just how far public schools could be improved. I have no doubt that, given the right people, teaching methods and materials, schools could offer students superior instruction in many subjects, especially math and science. They could make sure students knew the major events of history, read the influential tomes of literature, wrote grammatically correct sentences, and spoke foreign languages. It could, conceivably, happen, if the planets lined up just right.
But it would still be all wrong — because state schools will never be able to educate. They will only be able to school.
Education involves entwining wisdom and discernment with knowledge. It means making judgments about knowledge. Education requires learners to ask why, not just what and how. And when they answer the question why, it requires them to ask, “In light of why, what now?”
Education involves time to ponder. It involves searching and wandering (and wondering) — and conversation, too – with wiser individuals than ourselves. It involves relationships – with real people, the real world, real books, and above all, with oneself. It involves imagination and creativity, both cooperative and lone.
Education is the development of human beings who will impact the lives of hundreds, thousands, millions of other human beings. Schooling is entirely inadequate to the task. The state is entirely inadequate.
No amount of accumulated knowledge will prevent a child from growing up to become a Hitler or a Stalin or a Mao or a Castro. No amount of accumulated knowledge will cause a child to grow up to be an Albert Schweitzer or a Mother Teresa.
Only education – that process that explores the meaning and application of knowledge, that discipline that yearns to understand and not just to know, that practice that looks for the wisest and best from human history and seeks to apply their judgment – only education will equip children to become whole and healthy adults.
To expect education from the state is to ask for the impossible. Whose agenda would win the day? Whose definitions would rule the curriculum? Whose judgment would inform the outcomes? Who would cede power and who would gain?
We are common in our humanity but not in our ideas. In educating ourselves and our children we work out how we will live together, where we will compromise, where we will not. We do not pretend that all men can be forced to think alike, to hold the same beliefs or values. We face reality and we apply ourselves to dealing with it. Rather than use the power of the state to bend others to our will, we listen and we talk, we try to persuade and we make concessions.
This imperfect, unavoidable, and ultimately wiser system is incompatible with the aims and possibilities of state schooling – in any country and at any time in history. Education by the state requires uniformity, measurability, controllability and absolute submission. Everyone must read the same books, learn the same things, draw essentially the same conclusions. How can wisdom grow in a population of people who all share a limited amount of identical, easily tested knowledge?
True education is not a straight path. It is a crooked and delightful and frustrating and fruitful trail where the learner must sometimes stop to observe and must sometimes run to catch up. Sometimes he must concede to the better judgment of a fellow traveler and sometimes he must strain to convince a companion of error. He must make mistakes and learn from the mistakes of others, but he must be free to judge a thought or action right or wrong. Sometimes he must grunt and groan up long mountains and take whatever time it takes to reach the top, even as others pass him. Sometimes he must cling to another hiker and sometimes lend a hand. And sometimes, the learners on education’s path must part ways or give one another wide berth.
There are those who long for a world of tin soldiers – all alike, all orderly and easily manageable, all standing at attention and ready to be moved at the will of the ruling classes. For these people, state schooling will always be the ultimate temptation – the way to force conformity and submission.
But for those of us who long for education, for knowledge that leads to a deeper understanding of ourselves and our neighbors and the meaning of life, to greater possibilities for peace and harmony, for liberty for the oppressed and hope for the downtrodden, state schooling will never do.
We must choose – schooling by the state or education without it. Will we embrace our own minds, our own children, our own future? Or will we continue to feed the machine of state schooling and hope for minimal damage to our children and society?
It is not a mass choice but an individual one. Each of us must decide and act.