Let’s ask schools to fix society’s problems

With all due respect to my comrades plthomasEdD and catwho (who also contribute to the Daily KOS “Education Alternatives” group), and the thoughtful pieces they have recently posted on the group’s list, I wish to put forward a very different thought on this issue of what are appropriate and inappropriate venues for trying to fix our society’s problems. In particular, I want to challenge their assumption that we can not “fix” schools until we first address the underlying issues of poverty and inequity that make our society dysfunctional.

Blogger catwho sums up this position I am taking issue with in their piece, “The Myth of Failing Schools”…

You cannot fix the schools until you fix the students. You cannot fix the students until you fix their parents. You cannot fix their parents until you fix society. How do you fix a broken society?

PlthomasEdD said in theirs, “Don’t Ask Schools to Fix Society’s Problems”…

First, we must acknowledge, as Traub did in 2000, “The idea that school, by itself, cannot cure poverty is hardly astonishing, but it is amazing how much of our political discourse is implicitly predicated on the notion that it can”

I think Traub’s quote is a profound insight into our American culture and its focus on a “good” education as a utopian cure-all for what ails our society. The proper preparation or training (some would say indoctrination) of the younger generation is seen as so critical that both progressives and conservatives fight over what will be included in the increasingly standardized curriculum. We know the most dramatic and publicized of these struggles, including evolution vs creationism or intelligent design, multiculturalism and American history beyond the waspy Pilgrims and their progress, and sex education.

The assumption is that what is taught in our public schools is the official version of our culture and that our young people as students are not generally mature enough to apply a critical lens to what they are taught. As a result, an increasingly standardized curriculum becomes homogenized and sanitized in an attempt to displease no significant political constituency. The more pre-digested the curriculum becomes, I would argue, the less interesting and compelling it is for our young people. Certainly the expectation that instructing kids on this sort of curriculum can lead to a transformed society is certainly a misguided and naive one.

On the other hand, a truly compelling curriculum would be to in fact ask kids in schools to diagnose society’s ills and try to fix them, focusing perhaps on their local community. Isn’t this consistent with what “progressive education”, as conceived by people like John Dewey, is all about?

Dewey laid out a concise statement of the philosophy of progressive education on page 19 of his short book, Experience & Education, contrasting point by point with traditional education…

* Expression and cultivation of individuality, rather than imposition from above

* Learning through experiences, rather than through texts and teachers

* Acquisition of skills and techniques as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal, rather than acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill

* Making the most of the opportunities of present life, rather than preparing for a more or less remote future

* Acquaintance with a changing world, rather than static aims and materials

Wouldn’t a “how can we fix society?” curriculum be completely in line with Dewey’s principles?

Now I’m certainly not a proponent of a one-size-fits-all education system, so I would never advocate that all schools should adopt this sort of curriculum and approach to learning. But it would certainly be a compelling alternative if some schools did.

That curriculum and approach to learning exists today and is known as “Critical Pedagogy”. A school frames itself as an organization for community transformation. Rather than studying the standardized curriculum that may have little relevance to say urban at-risk youth and their neighborhoods, the curriculum becomes their struggle to understand the forces that adversely affect their community and how to take action against those forces and to build the positive components of community.

It seems to me if we want our young people to have any chance to be real agents of change in their adulthood, we should give them the opportunity to cut their teeth on those skills in their youth. Not every kid will be called to politics, community organizing, advocacy and activism, but for those that are, what more rich educational venue could their be?

I just today ran across another piece, “What is Critical Pedagogy?” on the site 21st Century Education. Quoted from that piece…

The basic tenet of Critical Pedagogy is that there is an unequal social stratification in our society based upon class, race and gender. McLaren states that Critical Pedagogy: “resonates with the sensibility of the Hebrew symbol of tikkun, which means ‘to heal, repair, and transform the world, all the rest is commentary.’ It provides historical, cultural, political, and ethical direction for those in education who still dare to hope. Irrevocably committed to the side of the oppressed, critical pedagogy is as revolutionary as the earlier view of the authors of the Declaration of Independence: is history is fundamentally open to change, liberation is an authentic goal, and a radically different world can be brought into being.”

Further, the authors site the pedigree of these educational ideas…

Many renowned educators and theorists works contribute to or support this theory; they include Peter McLaren, Douglas Kellner, Ira Shor, Henry Levin, John Goodlad, Theodore Sizer, Jonothan Kozol, the Holmes Group, Michel Foucault, the Critical Theory of Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School, Pierre Bourdieu, Stanley Aronowitz, and Antonio Gramsci.

Here are Ira Shor’s ten goals of Critical Pedagogy:

1. Oppose socialization with desocialization

2. Choose critical consciousness over commercial consciousness

3. Transformation of society over reproduction of inequality

4. Promote democracy by practicing it and by studying authoritarianism

5. Challenge student withdrawal through participatory courses

6. Illuminate the myths supporting the elite hierarchy of society

7. Interfere with the scholastic disabling of students through a critical literacy program

8. Raise awareness about the thought and language expressed in daily life

9. Distribute research skills and censored information useful for investigating power and policy in society

10. Invite students to reflect socially on their conditions, to consider overcoming limits

The author of the piece summarizes…

Critical Pedagogy, then, is defined by what it does – as a pedagogy which embraces a raising of the consciousness, a critique of society, as valuing students’ voices, as honoring students’ needs, values, and individuality, as a hopeful, active pedagogy which enables students to become truly participatory members of a society who not only belong to the society but who can and do create and re-create that society, continually increasing freedom.

Wish I had had the opportunity to be exposed to this sort of approach in school, it would have been much more interesting and memorable than most of the standard classes that I had, which among other things kept me cloistered in the classroom and away from any semblance of the real world.

Actually I had the opportunity to experience this sort of approach to learning, in my young adulthood, when I got involved in the feminist movement as an activist for the Equal Rights Amendment. Oh to have had that same opportunity at a younger age! Again, not for everyone, but would have been great for me!

2 replies on “Let’s ask schools to fix society’s problems”

  1. If you haven’t yet come across Rethinking Schools, check it out: http://rethinkingschools.org/index.shtml

    Alas, the loudest and most influential voices in what passes for “school reform” these days have absolutely no interest in critical pedagogy. The voucher/charter privatization movement is all about conformity, standardized testing (except for voucher and charter schools!), and “basics.” Critical pedagogy is marginalized as leftist propaganda in the classroom.

  2. DairyStateDad… I would not expect those education-industrial complex interests to care about this approach, it in fact could lead to challenging their hegemony. But it doesn’t matter. What I’m talking about is one form of ground-up action, that can be taken by a community, not some new top-down “reform”. Individual schools can choose to adopt this curriculum, where they think there is a need and receptive participants (teachers & students)

    I agree with my friend Lynn Stoddard that the feds and even the state should get out of the business of directing education “reform”, and transition to facilitating community governance of schools and other educational venues.

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