The Chamber + Schools + Business + Me: A True Story

October 14, 2007

by Tammy Drennan

I’d like to share a personal experience this week.

About ten years ago, I was at my local civic center one day and happened upon a notice about a new group meeting there. The county Chamber of Commerce had gotten the big idea to initiate a cooperative effort between the local schools, local businesses and the community in order to improve education and thus the economic motive for people to locate in our intellectually sluggish community.

For mysterious reasons, the word never got out to the community. I and the two friends I invited were the only representatives of the general population. The committee consisted of all school personnel – about 40 teachers and administrators in all. Business leaders made guest appearances to belabor their complaints about the school system, but they did not participate as regulars.

I attended six or seven sessions before quitting in disgust. Here’s a summary of what went on:

1. Teachers spent most of each session patting one another on the back, telling each other what good jobs they were doing and how stressful their jobs were.

2. Business reps were eyed with suspicion. One rep had essentially this to say, “We only hire high school graduates. We have to remediate them in reading, writing and math. If they’re running a machine and something goes wrong with it, they’re supposed to type a description of the problem into the computer by their machine and send it to a technician. We don’t care about spelling or grammar, as long as we can understand what they’re saying, but we can’t. It’s gibberish – it doesn’t make any sense. They can’t communicate effectively or do basic math.” When he left, no one even bothered to discuss what he’d said.

3. Parents were the constant (and I do mean constant) subject of derision and blame. The members berated parents at every possible opportunity and went so far as to suggest that schools should take over even more of children’s lives.

4. A first grade teacher suggested that all children should be tracked for particular “careers” from kindergarten. I asked how you could tell what a 5-year-old might become. She said you could just tell, and there was no point in teaching Shakespeare to a kid who would grow up to work in a factory.

5. A fifth grade teacher and a librarian both insisted that teaching children to read was no longer that important – the entire world would be pictorial and audio before long, anyway. By way of example, they pointed out the pictures of men and women on rest room doors.

6. When it became clear that these meetings were nothing more than self-congratulatory pep rallies, the Chamber decided to try a new tack. They split the group up into smaller committees and assigned topics. I was split between wanting to sit in on the parental responsibility committee and the curriculum committee. I opted for the latter. The first meeting of the committee came to the conclusion that nothing was wrong with the curriculum – it was the parents.

7. At the aforementioned meeting, I revealed that I was a homeschooler and shared some thoughts in a quiet and respectful way and met with some pretty vehement reaction. I decided I was wasting my time, but before leaving that evening, a third grade teacher took me aside to express her frustration. She was, she said, prevented from teaching by state guidelines and paperwork requirements (a complaint the other teachers did not have) and hated the overall atmosphere of the school. Her own 5-year-old son went to the school where she taught, but she said she would never let a child of hers attend a school she didn’t teach at. At any rate, it wouldn’t be an issue – she’d decided to homeschool.This is the system so many are bent on reforming so they won’t have to create something new. This system does not really believe it needs to be reformed and has no intention of being reformed, all rhetoric and publicity and hope and fervor and tests and laws aside. One important lesson a good artisan learns is when to ditch a project and start over. Sometimes you have to toss out the manuscript, smash the lump of clay, scrap the warped wood, melt down the twisted glass, scrape off the canvas and just start fresh. It’s hard to do – both practically and emotionally.

It’s hard to admit that all the time and effort and money you’ve thrown into a project has amounted to nothing more than a painful lesson about what not to do. But it’s also refreshing and invigorating and hopeful. It’s exciting to think about starting fresh and getting it right, making it beautiful instead of ugly or just utilitarian.

We can do education over starting today. We don’t have to wait for anything. We can sit down and imagine what learning and life could have been for ourselves, then we can work to make it that for our children and then for the children down the street and then for the ones in the next neighborhood.

May I suggest starting your dream by reading the works of two people who have given the meaning and means of education a tremendous amount of observation and thought: John Holt and John Taylor Gatto. You may not see eye-to-eye with them on everything, but don’t dismiss them lightly. They are intellectual and experiential powerhouses on the subject of education as it could be, and what they have to offer can apply no matter what mode of education you pursue.

From there, I invite you read an excerpt from “Education of the Founding Fathers of the Republic” by James J. Walsh. There are great lessons in it, too.

It’s always good to start thinking by listening.