Friday, January 11, 2013

What should the purpose of public education be?

Of all my old posts, I keep coming back to "What is the purpose of public education?" the most.

I still think this is a major part of our problem as a society in dealing with education. We don't agree on what it's for, and we often say we think it's for one thing while legislating based on some completely antagonistic purpose. We expect miracles from a system that we denigrate while simultaneously hero-worshipping and hating the people who work in it.

I gagged during the Presidential debates last fall at the "I think we all love teachers" comment. I shouted at my television about how they sure have a funny way of showing it. (Side note: I tell my students this all the time. They do something ridiculous, I give them The Look, they say "You know I love you, Mrs ---", and I say "You sure have a strange way of showing it.") We talk about how great teachers are one minute and then complain about how lazy they are the next. We say that school is the best way out of poverty and then refuse to truly desegregate or fairly fund schools and then blame the teachers or the students or the parents or anything but the well-documented effects of poverty for our failures.

I'm tired of the talk about needing to improve our public education system so that our kids can compete in the 21st century world. (Read: We better improve our education system so those scary yellow people won't do better than us. I'm sorry, I can't even hear anything but the racist subtext anymore considering how often people immediately point to "oh no, China's growing" to prove that we aren't competing enough any more.) I'm tired of the talk about how education is the answer to our broken economy. (Really? So why are there so many angry un(der)employed college graduates right now?) I'm tired of all of this because it posits one sole purpose to education: creating compliant hard workers.

What about unlocking creativity? What about educating our citizens to make better choices than their forebearers did? What about creating empathy and an understanding of the strength in diversity embodied in our motto "e pluribus unum"? What about leaving the world a better place than we found it? (I firmly believe that this is golden rule #2: you leave anywhere you go nicer than you found it. Something to do with being a Girl Scout, I guess.)

Look, the reason our economy is in such a bad place is partly that we already live in a post-scarcity society. We don't actually need people to work that much in order to provide for everyone's basic needs. Accepting that won't bring massive profit, though, so we invent new needs and push a ridiculous tech cycle. That way no one is ever satisfied and people still have to work so hard that they don't get enough sleep or time with their families. We live in a world of overabundance, in which productivity continues to increase, and yet we seem to have to work more and more to keep treading water. How does this make sense?

I don't believe in the idea that hard work for work's sake is moral. Rather than worrying about how prepared our children are to do pointless work for the sake of beating another country, let's worry about how prepared they are to work together to make the world a better place.That's a purpose of public education that I can get behind.

How about you?

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