12 October 2006

Universal Schooling Fails to Universally Educate

In spite of a nearly universal schooling system our country does not have a universally educated citizenry. Both the general public and those who are intimately involved in the schools agree that there is a crisis and everyone points at someone else to place blame. Howard Gardner pointed out in his book The Unschooled Mind our system consistently produces professionals with advanced graduate degrees who are unable to apply the most basic concepts in their field (i.e. professional physicists who fail to apply basic high school principles of physics in realistic situations.) Based on this and many other critical examinations of the performance of our system since John Dewey’s Democracy and Education from 1916 it is clear that schools succeeds at schooling but fail at educating.

The failures of the system are far more deep seated than merely sparse funding, biased curriculum, overwhelmed teachers, lack of accountability, and/or lazy students, failure stems from the ways we think about ourselves and our concept of education itself. We have been relying on an antiquated set of concepts that have been undermined by new findings in the cognitive sciences. Scientists from a variety of specialized fields have come to agree that some of our long held assumptions about ourselves and how we operate in the world are fundamentally flawed. If we can think about ourselves and education in ways that better reflect how we actually exist in the world, rather than our instinctive a priori assumptions about our existence in the world, then we will discover more effective ways to achieve universal education.

Change requires us to ensure that the components of the system are in appropriate relationship to one another, not necessarily improve the components themselves. As a parallel example what if over half of the population in this country were unable to get to work each day. Naturally you will first assume that there is some defect in one of the general components in the transportation system. Either, there are no transportation options available, people are unable to operate the options that are available, the options do not go where people need them to go, or the mechanisms are broken. Now what if you then learn everyone owns a car, they own fuel for their cars, they are experienced and capable drivers and that the roads are all clear and go directly to every possible workplace? This is the situation in education for most of the United States of America. We have the school facilities, we have reasonably good teachers, we have reasonably good children, we have reasonably good curriculums, and we have reasonably good administrators. Certainly not perfect, by any means, but definitely functional. If all the components are in good working order, then why is there a problem, an alarming crisis, in fact?!

Consider that the components are not aligned properly; the ways they currently relate to each other are dysfunctional. If my car is brand new off the assembly line in Detroit and the gas is still at the refinery in Long Beach, California and I am sitting in Port Townsend, Washington, then it does not matter what condition the components are in, I will still fail to achieve transportation until I do something to bring the components together and align them properly. The same is true in education today. The majority of the components are in good working order, but their relationships are dysfunctional:

• the community is expecting schools to produce good test scores and diplomas instead of moral human beings,

• the schools are delivering information to their students instead of inspiring civic participation and meaningful contribution,

• the teachers are managing behaviors instead of leading the learning process,

• the administrators are fighting ignorance and engineering our society instead of supporting teachers and leading the community,

• the schooling industry (the suppliers of school materials and services) is aggressively seeks profits instead of supporting society to adapt and change in service to the needs of future generations.

The challenge of shifting our relationships under the current circumstances means we have to give up the luxury of pointing at someone else to blame. The fact is that relationships are a collaborative process and we have to take responsibility for our role in the mess, as well as our contribution to the clean up. We have all participated in creating the mess that our schools are in, mainly because some of the key aspects of our long and venerable philosophical traditions have turned out to be wrong, thus we didn’t know any better.

There is no shame in making a mistake. The shame is in neglecting to correct the mistake once the opportunity arises to make good. The opportunity before us is to begin the process of healing by acknowledging our own complicity, learning to accept the evidence that can get us back on course and acting to prevent further dysfunction.