18 March 2008

Who's Failing Whom, Indeed?

I have just recently been subscribed to the Bridging Differences Blog in which Diane Ravtich and Deborah Meier are exchanging a lively correspondence about everything that is going on in Education. Tonight I was intrigued because Deborah brought up John Taylor Gatto's view that school attendance should not be mandatory. They each dismissed the notion, but explored some of the moral questions that arise from it.

In response to Diane's post called Who's Failing Whom? I posted this lengthy comment:

"...it is irresponsible to disparage the necessity of compulsory schooling"

and yet you also state that the compulsion currently results in

"... pack[ing] kids into overcrowded classes, force-feed[ing] them deadly textbooks, inflict[ing] failed methods of teaching on them, test[ing] them with dumbed-down tests, and then fail[ing] them. Most of the time, it seems to me, it is we who have failed them."

On the one hand you say it is irresponsible to disparage the compulsion and on the other you are saying that what they are subjected to (by the compulsion you apparently hold sacred) is a reprehensible failure.

In my mind putting those two together makes it sound like a moral contradiction. It sounds as though a high and mighty authority of wealth and privilege has decreed that the poor under-privileged of our nation shall be compelled to become better than the even poorer wretches of those other nasty places for their own good.

I suspect that I am operating from a fundamentally different moral assumption since the above image is entirely negative in my mind.

You see, when I think of what an education system is supposed to accomplish for a society, and for the individuals who join together to make up that society, I think of how the system is supposed to empower the citizens to lead lives that are fulfilling because empowered citizens living fulfilling lives provide the maximum productive contributions to society. The society has three basic elements that interact; the power structures by which we govern our own and other people's behavior for the common good, the exchange processes by which we trade our financial, material, informational, and attentional resources to meet our needs, and the patterns of consciousness that result from being embedded in the power structures and exchange processes.

In effect, compulsory schooling as you have described it subjects children to the arbitrary dictates of faraway authorities who supposedly know better what is in their best interest than they, or their families, do. This occurs during the formative years of our children’s lives when they are developing their most basic concepts of what social situations are normal and which social skills are necessary. The mainstream classroom power structures are dictatorial and the exchange processes are relatively arbitrary and, in the long, run meaningless for most people. The resulting patterns of consciousness include many apathetic and disinterested citizens with some exceptions.

The government is obviously one of the most important parts of the power structure of our society. When government schools create such disempowering situations for large numbers of people and then assert their authority to compel attendance then the result gives the impression that the wielding of power has become disconnected from the true purpose for which that power was bestowed. To say that the schools fail to educate but that students must be forced to attend them, in spite of that fact, is to say that government must be obeyed even when it is corrupt and incapable of serving the needs of both society and individuals. When an element of the power structure becomes corrupt and destructive of the needs of society then it loses it's authority. It may still exist and naturally will resist it' demise, but either it has to be transformed or replaced.

Compulsory schooling laws that result in such inadequate situations is why both home schooling and charter schools have grown so much. Both of these developments are evidence of the loss of authority of mainstream government schools and the efforts of many to effect transformation and/or replacement.

Perhaps you have a different way of understanding how the power structures and exchange processes of compulsory classroom schooling interacts to create the patterns of consciousness that are lamented throughout the land?

I agree that "we ... have failed them" as you put it. But I believe that questioning "the necessity of compulsory schooling" is a very important part of getting ourselves back on solid moral ground. I do not reject the idea of compulsory education entirely, but I have come to seriously question the idea of compulsory schooling for children.

I would be very interested to know on what grounds you would defend the moral contradiction of teaching children through dictatorial schooling laws and methods to live in a democratic society.


Don Berg

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