Young student. Via Wikimedia Commons

Defending a True Education

The freedom to educate our children to the meaning of all things is a decisive issue for our society. What we need are teachers who have verified this meaning for themselves. The ultimate solution lies beyond the scope of politics.
Michelle Riconscente

These days, the social, economic, and political landscape of education is rough territory, brimming with factions waving this or that flag, dotted with raging battles between unions and policy-makers, between federal and local governments. Getting a handle on the situation is challenging, at best. Where is a parent to start from? What questions are we to ask? What non-negotiable principles are we to defend?

A starting point 
Fr. Luigi Giussani always insisted, quoting Jungmann, that education is an introduction to total reality. Often we think of education as the process of coming to know about the world. But Giussani is proposing a deeper understanding of knowledge, one that is intimately tied to our nature as human beings in search of fulfillment. Jungmann’s definition struck such a chord in him because the fulfillment each of us seeks is only experienced within our relationship to a Presence that can respond to the needs of our heart. Much more than helping someone learn about reality, education is the process of guiding a person to freely enter into that relationship with the meaning of things. It’s the qualitative difference between knowing about a person  and knowing the person. 
The alternative is the assumption that human beings lack an internal “meter” that would allow us to detect and affirm the connection between our need for meaning and reality. The overwhelming tendency in social and educational theory is to assume that this meter is created by social forces and essentially deposited into the individual through a process of socialization. The consequence of this position is to reduce us to our reactions, and therefore to mental slavery, because reactions, emotions, and feelings are easily manipulated.
In the third part of The Journey to Truth is an Experience (JTE), Giussani highlights the role of school as the place where the student is helped to compare tradition to these needs of the heart. This comparative process is the way tradition moves from being an idea in the student’s mind to a mature knowledge that links him to reality.

Conviction and citizenship
. Paradoxically, a strong commitment to verifying tradition makes an individual capable of true openness and, therefore, of true democracy.  In stark contrast, the assumption embodied in popular educational theory, such as in some forms of constructivism, is that starting from a specific hypothesis of the meaning of life leads to closed-mindedness. And since we too imbibe the assumptions of the culture we live in, this latter mentality surely resides in us. For instance, what reaction does this quotation tend to engender in us: “This is why we insist that Christian education must take priority over every other concern or commitment” (JTE, p. 116)?

Giussani here is not speaking of imposing the Church’s life on others. Quite the opposite! He is highlighting the freedom of the individual to enter into relationship with reality, the place where we can encounter the Meaning of our lives. He is insisting on defending this process that allows the young person to verify the relation between everything he or she encounters, and the meaning that he or she seeks. So we come to our first basic principle: the freedom to educate our children to the meaning of all things.

Communicating a lived experience
. Being introduced to reality requires the presence of a teacher who has verified the meaning, because in order to introduce someone to another person, you need to know that other person. Hence, our second basic principle: the figure of the teacher is first and foremost someone who is the bearer of a proposal that they themselves have verified. This affirmation has implications for how individuals are prepared and licensed to become teachers, and how they are evaluated as professionals.

Schoolyard. Via Wikimedia Commons

A human crisis 
What does all this mean as we enter election season? The first issue, which simply cannot be emphasized enough, is that the crisis in education cannot be solved by the government. What we are facing is a social crisis, a terrible inability to offer certainty to ourselves and the younger generations about the meaning of life. This crisis is crucially linked to the denial of the human heart, to the presence in each person of a given set of needs that we do not define, and whose response we therefore do not define but recognize. The “solution” is thus not to be found per se in strategies, techniques, increased funding, and so forth. All of this can help, but it cannot solve completely. Facing this crisis demands the communication of this lived awareness of the person. Thus, the crisis underscores the need for each of us to rediscover our own nature as need for meaning. 

The federal role in education. 
That said, we also need to know the facts about the role of the federal government, and the president, in determining education policy, funding, programs. In the U.S., states are the primary overseers of public education. In fact, less than 9% of all public elementary and secondary school funding comes from the federal government. Historically, the federal government’s role has been to help states fill gaps. When states or schools choose to receive federal funds, they must comply with the associated requirements for accountability. 

Federal education legislation has been in place only since 1965. Originally called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, this act has been reauthorized every five  years since its inception. The present act, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), is the most recent reauthorization of the original legislation. What distinguishes NCLB most from earlier authorizations is the requirement that students’ test scores increase in order for states to receive federal funds. The legislation mandates assistance as well as consequences for schools in which student test scores do not advance toward “proficient” levels for all students over time. 

What is usually lost in media accounts of NCLB is that each state, not the federal government or the president, selects or even creates its own tests. Moreover, each state sets its own bar for “proficient.” In addition, NCLB includes provisions for waivers if a state presents a coherent alternative approach to demonstrating accountability, an option several states have taken.

Nevertheless, NCLB has indeed boosted the emphasis that schools place on test scores. However, it is important to note that this culture of testing has been in place for decades, for reasons that are highly complex. When we speak of the quality of the education our young receive, the immediate issue arises as to how we’ll measure success. Testing that purports “objectivity” and a neat quantitative response–“Your son is in the 64th percentile for Algebra”–has been adopted by the majority as the way to assess, and therefore guarantee, quality education. 

The problem is that tests are only able to measure some aspects of knowledge. When test scores become the definition of success, a curious thing happens. Pressures from all sides result in schools that focus exclusively on the narrow slice of learning that is visible to tests. This results in a qualitative transformation of the educational endeavor into test preparation, as summed up in phrases like, “Teach to the test,” or, “What you test is what you get.”

Federal legislation is only one of many forces pressuring schools to administer and perform well on large-scale tests. Among these additional forces are university admissions policies based on test scores or state-designed high school diplomas, private school complicity with state policies that pay large sums to administer state tests, and parent mandates to schools to prioritize their children’s “achievement” as measured by tests. Awareness of these forces is crucial to our intelligent participation in discussions and decisions about education policy. At the federal level, Congress, not the president, passes legislation; the role of the president is to make a proposal. Then the configuration of House and Senate works to debate, modify, and turn a bill into a law. 

A simple criterion
. What is the relation between federal education policy and the basic principles we identified? As we said in the beginning, the current crisis in education reflects a much larger social crisis. So our response is ultimately to the latter, and takes the form of being present in society as a constructive force. 
How is that response translated vis-à-vis education and the elections? Above all, if the federal government’s role is to allocate funds to support states’ educational initiatives, the way those funds are allocated should facilitate the efforts of schools and teachers to propose to students a trajectory for entering into relationship with the meaning of reality. This facilitation is impeded when state-level testing is tied to funding decisions, since the content of the tests effectively dictates curriculum to schools, and constrains what teachers can do in the classroom. 

From all these considerations, it follows that the question to ask of would-be policy-makers is: to what extent will you serve the initiatives of parents to determine the content and method of their children’s education? In other words, our criteria are governments that recognize and support educational subsidiarity.