Traces N.9, October 2014

Why School?

With its 180 days of classes—and accompanying sports team practices, games, club meetings, rehearsals, concerts, musicals, and hours of homework—school is certainly an ubiquitous part of American life. This year, 55 million students and 3.6 million teachers (one out of every 5 Americans) will fill the more than 129,000 schools across the United States. Families will organize themselves around the school calendar: vacations, parties, social events, and holiday travel.

As parents become friends with the parents of their children’s friends, the impact of this educational network widens. In some parts of our country, Friday night football empties every other public space attracting young and old alike. Meanwhile, countless flyers for bake-sales, school plays, dances, parent-teacher conferences, and a multitude of other activities will fill the fronts of American refrigerators.

We expect the moon from our schools. Schools have to teach every student a variety of subjects that will accommodate individual curiosity AND prepare them with the 21st century skills they will need to succeed in “the future.” Schools need to entertain, occupy, challenge, and encourage students as they provide them with breakfast, lunch, and snacks. They must find ways of resolving every sociological, psychological, and spiritual need, and in the process, transform our society.

It is a herculean task, and so it is no surprise that we are always dissatisfied with our schools, and therefore we expect regular concerted attempts at improvement. We work to reform them by changing laws, developing standards, crafting new evaluations, and changing schedules. Every initiative is implemented with the hope that the next reform will be “the one” that will make schools what they ought to be. Most often, the onus of success or failure falls upon the teacher.

Since the days of the one-room schoolhouse, teachers have played pivotal roles in shaping the values and worldview of the society around them. Historically, schoolteachers were second only to preachers in authority, and their wisdom was often given the weight of law by parents and students. Few parents have been able to avoid the comparison to their own viewpoints with the dreaded, “but Mrs. Landers says…” that even the Cleavers met with a roll of the eyes.

Because of this impact, teachers and school leaders are an essential component of educational reform. Especially since the early 1980’s with the Reagan administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk, much of the educational reform movement has been aimed at compelling educators into one or another method of teaching, and consequently into a way of being a school. Yet we approach what “good teachers” and “good schools” look like from vastly different positions.

For some, schools are seen as a social institution charged with the training of employable citizens prepared to join the workforce and contribute to the economic well being and academic prowess of our nation. For others, schools are great agents of social change and are responsible for either perpetuating the prevailing social order or transforming it. Still others believe that schools have no role other than that of empowering the individual student as he/she freely develops their intellectual passion, critical thinking skills, and compassion for their fellow man.

We want good schools and an improved curriculum. We want our children to be educated. So, armed with our good intentions, diverse viewpoints, political ideologies, and our lobbyists, we head to the school boards and the statehouses and to Congress to work for what everyone agrees is of primary importance: making our schools better. And very quickly our effort at reform becomes bogged down in political posturing where all of the interested and invested partners end up looking at each other as either radicals or fundamentalists trying to hijack the process of reform.

In all of our frenzied attempts to solve the educational crisis, we never stop to consider first principles: Why do we go to school at all? What is school for?

We take it for granted that we all know and agree how to answer those questions, and so we presume that questioning the purpose or value of schools is either dangerously heretical or at least too philosophical to spend much time thinking about. The result is that we expend our energy trying to force a profoundly human institution to operate like a machine.

We use standardized curriculums, state tests, reading lists, and textbooks to function together in a way that eliminates the risk of education. In trying to control all of the variables, we hope to minimize the volatility that is inherent in teachers and students. And we wallow, as Eliot says in his Choruses from the Rock, “dreaming of systems so perfect no one will need to be good.”

Real educational reform will never be possible without entering into a lively and serious conversation about the foundational premises for schools. To discuss, study, and re-discover these foundational premises, we need to begin by thinking through some fundamental questions.

"What is the fundamental reason for the existence of schools? What do we expect our schools to achieve and be? What kind of person should a student of our schools become?"

Such questions are no small endeavor. They are questions that pinpoint the vision and reasons for the very existence of any worthwhile organization. We do not presume to answer them. We do, however, hope that the authors we bring to you in this series will serve as a launching pad for entering into this foundational dialogue in your own communities and among your friends.