Other than paying taxes and attending school when you are young, a human being pretty much decides for themselves how they are going to make a living and lead their life. I understand the taxes part, that’s the “ante” we pay to participate in a larger community that is not just about us but about the common welfare. But why is it so sacrosanct that kids must go to and be in school all day under penalty of law?
So in trying to resolve these sorts of questions I tend to look back at U.S. history to try and start to divine some answers. Compulsory schooling was a new idea in the 1830s when Horace Mann and his fellow Massachusetts educational reformers set up the first compulsory state “common” schools in Massachusetts. From what I’ve read, Mann and his comrades were inspired by the universal compulsory education that had recently been set up in the European state of Prussia. Throughout the 19th century, Prussia was on the leading edge of state-directed K-12 education along with developing the modern state university system that was later mimicked in the U.S. and the rest of Europe.
I think it is important here to come to grips with the reality that huge endeavors like implementing universal mandatory public education for all young people are motivated and justified by the logic of building the state. Helping individual young people with their development is really not part of that calculus. Prussia in the early 19th century was a totalitarian militaristic state rather than a democratic republic. The goal of the elite that controlled the Prussian state was to leverage state directed educational and industrial development to build the country into an unrivaled military-industrial power. A power that would be ready to fight and win the next war, and never lose another war like they did to Napoleon’s French army in 1806. Giving every young person in the country a state-directed “free” education was all about that goal.
Horace Mann and the other educational reformers in the U.S. in the 1830s who were inspired by the innovative Prussian model were also motivated by the goal of building a stronger country. The U.S. at the time was at a very challenging developmental crossroads. It was transitioning from being an agrarian society of small towns with mostly citizen farmers who were of Northern European ancestry with fairly consistent Protestant beliefs in the ethics or hard work and self-regulated morality. It was becoming an industrial society of big cites and massive immigration of people from all over Europe who were not necessarily Protestant, but Catholic or even Jewish.
Though the U.S. was not a totalitarian state like Prussia, I see Mann and his fellow reformers representing a progressive intellectual elite who were uncomfortable with change and felt that they knew best about the appropriate direction for the country going forward. Whether they were just protecting their own privilege or they had more noble motives, one way or another they envisioned public schools as the “melting pot” that would transform the children of these immigrants into American citizens who accepted that path forward around secularized Protestant values. As far as I can tell, it was an idea that was not about a humanistic attempt to facilitate individual young people’s fullest development. It was all about a vision for building the state, the United States of America.
It was an idea that had “legs” and spread across the country so that by the beginning of the 20th century there was compulsory school in every state. (It has become so ingrained in life that I wonder if most people today even think about compulsory school as a deliberate social policy choice and not just the only natural place for people to spend their youth.) But for much of that century schools were still financed mainly by local taxes and run by local school district boards. So poorer communities tended to have poorer schools, and the inherent biases of economic, racial and gender privilege were reflected in how schools “tracked” their students into academic, vocational or other educational paths.
But as our society evolved in the 20th century, including launching a “war on poverty” and movements for racial and gender equality, the role of education as a means to those ends evolved as well. Public schools became the main tool to address and redress economic, racial and gender inequality. Even if other efforts fell short, universal public education could give every child in this country – whether poor, female, or of color – the opportunity to “rise above” their unprivileged circumstances and be given the educational keys to success. Increasingly, that effort to ensure fairness and equal educational opportunity fell to states rather than individual communities. (And in the most extreme cases where the states resisted this effort the federal government stepped in.)
It is the nature of management by remote bureaucracies (in this case state and federal educational policymakers) that the management tools tend to be sledge hammers rather than scalpels. American psychologist Abraham Maslow famously said…
If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail.
I guess he’d get a second on that from Peter, Paul and Mary…
If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land
When it comes to federal and state educrats “all over this land”, I think they still feel that the only bureaucratic tool they have to ensure educational equality is the “hammer” of compulsion. If you are given the responsibility of managing an education system remotely from capital cities around the country, and you will never interact with over 99.9% of the 50+ million students and several million teachers that actually engage in that educational process, then I can see how “command and control” seems like the only way to make this superhuman feat anywhere near doable.
So you require communities to open taxpayer funded schools to every kid. You require schools to teach a standardized curriculum. You require kids to go to school, be instructed in that curriculum, and take standardized tests to prove that that instruction took. You may not require them to wear uniforms, but uniformity is what the process is all about. Anything less than that is a recipe for inequality and disaster.
Not very interesting or innovative, but bureaucratically speaking, what can be fairer than that? The rest is just funding and administration.
If you live in a society that was designed to be governed by the democratic process, but that society is still wedded to various forms of economic, racial, gender, sexual orientation and age privilege; it is hard to trust people with that privilege not to manipulate the system to protect it. If the college-prep curriculum is optional, can you trust the local school districts to offer it in all schools, even in the most underprivileged neighborhoods? And even if you make it available to all students, can you trust school counselors not to routinely council underprivileged kids to take the vocational track instead?
But in the 21st century is this sort of standardized compulsory one-size-fits -all schooling really an appropriate developmental path for fifty-two million American kids with a range of life goals and learning styles?
John Taylor Gatto, a thirty-year veteran of New York City public schools (three-times NYC Teacher of the Year) turned radical education critic is quoted to have said…
Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges; it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.
But lacking that learner-driven educational empowerment, Gatto laments that…
A handful of social engineers – backed by the industries that profit from compulsory schooling: teacher colleges, textbook publishers, materials suppliers, et al. – has ensured that most of our children will not have an education, even though they may be thoroughly schooled.
Gatto’s thinking is echoed by Jack Hassard, a former high school science teacher and Professor Emeritus of Science Education at Georgia State University. Hassard was involved in the development of several science teacher education programs, including the design and implementation of a clinically based masters program for mathematics, science, and engineering majors. He was director of the Global Thinking Project, an Internet-based environmental program linking schools in the U.S. with countries around the world. He also conducted seminars around the country on science teaching, inquiry and technology for the Bureau of Education and Research and for school districts’ staff development programs.
In his May 6 blog piece on the “Art of Teaching Science” website, “Are the Common Standards & Assessments the Antithesis of Progressive Values?” , Hassard writes…
We think that Common Standards and Assessments are the antithesis of the progressive values upon which this nation was founded. The idea of having a single set of standards and associated assessments appears to remove individuality, creativity and innovation from American classrooms.
Common standards and assessments were conceived and developed in an undemocratic and authoritarian manner, and have minimized our freedom to have an education system that empowers its citizens to a life that is rooted in progressive ideals. Instead we have enabled conservative thinking and conservative think tanks, acting in their own self interests, and those of their corporate partners, especially publishers and testing companies, to take over pubic education and open it to for-profit corporations and privatization.
It’s not the 20th century anymore. Maybe conservative corporate interests took over the management and direction of the U.S. public education system in the early 20th century (see my piece on that subject) and continued to hold sway throughout the century through A Nation at Risk in the 1980s and No Child Left Behind at the century’s conclusion. But now in the 21st century we can take a fresh look at whether compulsory school serves any sort of truly egalitarian societal purpose or just perpetuates an outmoded system of top-down control of human development.
After that fresh look in this new century, maybe there is no longer that same need, at least not in every community, for compulsory schools to ensure a bureaucratic equality. Maybe we have evolved enough as human beings to have developed the sophistication to treat individuals differently but still fairly. Maybe we are ready to change the public education paradigm from “you must” to “you may”, and make schools community centers where young people can come when they want to learn a particular body of knowledge that they are not able to learn on their own. Maybe we are ready to have gatherings of youth and adults in those educational venues where everybody is there because they want to be, rather than have to be, and the zeitgeist will truly be about the joy of learning and not compliance with far-away bureaucratic rules.
And then again, maybe we are not ready. Maybe there is still too much inequality within our communities to trust people to treat each other fairly in a more evolved way, without the heavy hammer of the state hanging above them.
But if we are not yet ready, maybe we should at least be starting to imagine the day when we will!