I can hardly imagine a world in which the very value of your innermost being is not weighed by having a degree in a related field and three years of progressively responsible work experience and/or an equivalent combination of education and experience, but I know it's not the kind of world that I want to live in. The highest human achievement is preparing the skilled workers of tomorrow . . . today. The highest human values are innovation and productivity. Any American child's failure to score within the top decile of all other children in all other countries on standardized quantitative aptitude tests is a grievous moral failure of society as a whole. Literally, literally, like, uh, literally, if your kid is bored in math class, then you are a murderer.
This is basically my problem with the whole education debate, with the school choice movement, with standardized tests and all the rest. We constantly fret about how to make our schools better, how to be more competitive, how to ensure that we’re properly measuring the performance of teachers – and somewhere along the way we forget that American schools are pretty good already and if we just keep paying for them they’ll stay pretty good. If we don’t cut the extracurricular stuff, the non-core classes like art and physical education and theater and so forth, we’ll be okay. Really.
There are some very bad schools in this country, but the way to fix those is not through reforming the entire education system. It’s by pulling the communities they serve out of poverty and dilapidation. There’s a whole heap of controversy and debate to be had over how best to do that, but it’s not really a question of sweeping, national education reform.
Perhaps politics is best viewed as the art of the futile – and never is this more true than in the realm of education reform. Indeed, the fact that so much of this debate is pushing us either toward an increasingly regimented, uninteresting public school system, or toward largely white, upper-middle-class public charter schools (my home town has more charter schools than I keep track of – we are a very liberal community that has gone the full monty when it comes to school choice) leaves me very frustrated with the whole business. As far as I can tell, we had perfectly fine schools before the school choice craze.
The problem is that we moved so far toward standardized tests and cut, cut, cut the other stuff. And I can say quite sincerely that without the other stuff, I would have been miserable in high school. Many of the people I knew then may not have made it through high school to begin with if not for their attachment to sports or theater or some other non-essential program. Ironically, it’s the charter schools now which are offering all these things that the public schools have cut in order to be more competitive.
This is something William Brafford touches on over at The League:
If we’re looking for ways for high schools not to be cruel, finding ways for students to do things where they’ll be valued for talents or virtues rather than ability to play the popularity game is a way to start. Actually, I would guess that any non-social-butterflies who remember high school fondly had some such group; for me, it was choir and cross-country, though in the latter pursuit it was my sunny demeanor and perseverance that helped the team rather than my actual running.
That’s the thing about life after high school: you’re either not locked up with people you don’t want to be locked up with, and if you are stuck with people you don’t like at work, at least “how good she is at her job” and “how well he works with other people” are things you judge with reference to an overarching goal. There’s no such recognized purpose in most high schools.
The more we make schools robot factories, churning out the workers of tomorrow, testing them relentlessly to make sure they’re properly competitive with Japan or Finland, the more we kill the creative, purpose-oriented human beings that we’re supposed to be shaping. That’s why theatre was such a huge part of my high school life, and really the only thing I took away from my high school experience other than some basic, rudimentary knowledge of the various subjects we covered and which have since then dissolved in my memory into so many puddles of recollection. Theatre gave me purpose, allowed me to be creative and work toward some larger goal, work with others to shape that goal into a small reality.
If I were a believer in home schooling, I’d probably just do that. I’m downright fascinated by the unschooling movement. But I think school has its merits. Learning to be a social animal, to survive other peoples’ nonsense – these are important things for children, however much I hate the thought of subjecting my children to the same endless torrent of bullshit I had to deal with as a kid. But we all have to deal with it, and however much our instincts tell us to shelter and protect, our good sense suggests otherwise.