Based on all my life’s experience, all the principles I hold dear, and all my study of human history and development, I am fundamentally opposed to having a standardized education imposed on young people by the government. It is the most effective tool of the totalitarian state, and all the more pernicious when wielded by the highest levels of government in a democratic society. I fear that it will continue to erode the underpinnings of the democratic principles the United States was founded on, continuing to teach each successive generation that the powers that be know best and you better get used to that if you want to succeed in life.
Looking back at my own youth, school was the one public institution I was forced to participate in, and like most of my fellow “inmates”, I internalized the diminution of my own unique self in favor of a passive-aggressive acceptance of arbitrary authority. This got so bad that by my teenage years I had become expert at staying under the radar and exhibiting as few signs of my own imagination and intelligence as possible, for fear of eliciting the wrath of my equally subdued school peers. (It took me at least a decade after graduation to recover my sense of self-worth and self-direction.) Later as a parent when I saw the same thing happening to my own kids I was distraught, until my partner Sally and I figured out that we had the power to say no to this coercive institution, and set our kids free to develop by their own initiative.
An institution that mandates what, where, when, how, why and from whom you must learn runs diametrically counter to the values that I believe this country was founded on, and that I have adopted to guide my own life. Those values revolve around a human community as a circle of equals (rather than a hierarchy of control) based on the inherent uniqueness, worth and dignity of every individual person. The constant evaluation, judgment, grading and ranking endemic in school was antithetical to all that I held dear.
My extensive study of human history highlights our species’ developmental narrative moving from hierarchies of domination and control towards more egalitarian circles of equals. The great empires that emerged in antiquity were massive exercises by elites to control the majority of people by diminishing them to the roles of subjects, slaves or serfs. It has taken millennia to try and repudiate and overcome those constricting and exploitive structures. We need all our institutions today, particularly those that involve the development of our youth, to celebrate the continuing liberation of the human spirit rather than embody to old order of domination and control by arbitrary authority.
I do accept that the American public education system was launched in the early 19th century with the stated goal to be the key developmental engine for a vibrant democratic society. To do so by giving our young people, including the children of immigrants and the unprivileged, a “common core” of American values. And I do acknowledge that our public education system has given millions of our kids an opportunity to learn the basic skills to give them a path out of poverty.
But by creating a universal, mandatory school system with a standardized curriculum controlled by the state government, we created a powerful social-engineering tool to be wielded by the politically empowered (and hopefully enlightened) elite. Horace Mann and the rest of the intellectual and academic elite that championed this sort of education system were arguably enlightened (though also arguably xenophobic about non-Protestant Catholic and Jewish immigrants bringing divisive revolutionary ideologies to their America). And the business elite that took over the public education system in the early 20th century, replacing purely academic goals with “business efficiency”, did so with general public acceptance. They changed the governance paradigm of schools from a hierarchy of teachers to the management/labor paradigm of industry, which I believe led to the emergence of teacher labor unions rather than professional organizations in mid century.
But in either case a small privileged elite was entrusted with an institution with the mandate and the mechanisms to control everyone else’s development. I strongly urge you to ponder this point. I believe we are naïve if we think our public school system is simply “the people’s schools”. It is instead the “the people’s schools… brought to you by your friendly and enlightened elite”. The same elite among us that arguably brought us the Great Recession.
The elite that continues to set the policy for our public education system (certainly with continuing support from the overwhelming majority of the citizenry it would seem) has created a system that, unsurprisingly I would think, celebrates respect for and compliance with designated authority figures. It also celebrates acceptance of a world view where human development is a judged competition for the acquisition of approved knowledge where those dubbed “well educated” are the appropriate “winners” and the rest the inevitable “losers”.
Unlike the more libertarian types among conservatives who oppose the existence of any sort of a public school system (favoring universal private or home education), I am a progressive that believes that venues for learning need to be part of the “commons” available to everyone and financed by our taxes. Like other progressives I believe that even kids lacking economic privilege should have access to educational resources comparable to the more privileged among us. But unlike most progressives I believe that those public educational resources should be offered without a strict state-mandated agenda for what, where, when, how, why and from whom you must learn.
What I find most frustrating is that the position challenging the fundamental ethics and effectiveness of a standardized mandatory education system does not even appear on the radar of public discussion in the media. Surveys of public opinion on education don’t even ask the questions that would register even a small percentage of support for this position. There is a small nationwide network of supporters of “education alternatives” beyond standardized schooling that I’m connected to, but rarely do any of our voices break through into the larger education discussion. (The couple people that I notice breaking through occasionally are Sir Ken Robinson and Alfie Kohn). Don’t know if we are an insignificant fraction of the population or represent a position so counter to consensus reality that it exists in a different sort of space-time continuum.
And when it comes to education policy in the political process I have no candidate I can support. Both Obama and Romney appear to believe in teach-to-the-test standardized public education, with Obama perhaps more inclined to improve educational access for the poor and Romney more inclined to support educational options. As a progressive I’m supporting Obama, but definitely for reasons other than his education position.
So am I a crazy marginalized extremist or part of a small but significant minority of opinion, still mostly invisible?