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Peter on Fixing Public Education and the World

I was talking the other day over dinner with friends of mine—some of them teachers and some of them high school dropouts who’ve gone on to become very successful in life—about how to improve public education in this country. Can it be fixed? Should it be fixed? Is public education even a good thing? And it got me thinking about what my assumptions are, not just about education but about human society and human nature in general. And when I look at my assumptions—the ones I’ve never consciously learned or decided on, that seem to live deep down in the brainstem—I’m a little surprised by what I find.

It is possible to get it right, is probably the most powerful of them. Hardwired somewhere deep inside me is a vision of human existence as growth towards perfection. It’s a story that runs something like this: Life came from chaos and dirt, evolved intelligence, developed tribal cultures and then urban cultures and then civilizations, fought wars, wrote treaties and envisioned a goal of lasting peace with universal human rights, prosperity, and personal fulfillment for all.

There are some places where it doesn’t quite work.

“World peace,” for starters, is a concept that seems to arise only in empires that are living comfortably on the wealth they have already stripped from their colonies. Pax Romana is not the kind of peace that George Fox envisioned.

“Individual human rights” is also kind of a dicey concept, as it ignores individuals who find their meaning in cohesive communities. If we eradicate Native American culture, for instance, or Amish culture, but give them all the right to vote and to attend public schools, is that a good thing? How many cultures are we trampling because we don’t even see them? What makes one group of people a "traditional culture" and another just a backward or oppressive system?

Which begs the question: Should we (or anyone) ever have the kind of power that makes that kind of question even come up?

A big, pluralistic society with a rich diversity of cultures sounds like a good, liberal ideal but the only way you get there seems to be through imperialist conquest. America has diversity because Europeans stole land from the Native Americans, imported African slaves and Chinese railway workers, and bought, bartered, or stole conquests from each other. America is diverse the way Iraq is diverse—Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds thrown together by an arbitrary political boundary like hamsters in a cage to kill each other when, in nature, they would rather just live peacefully and separately at opposite ends of a meadow.

But there’s my assumption again—it’s possible to get it right. To get all of it right, in one fell swoop. The world would be just fine if we didn’t have global superpowers carving up the third world like so much meat pie and engulfing more territory than can possibly be governed as one people.

It might even be true. Imagine a world that is an open meadow dotted with independent little city-states, each no bigger than fifth-century B.C.E. Athens, with a loose network of trade and maybe with occasional skirmishes over a particularly good patch of farmland, but largely devoid of wars and the causes of wars. A bit provincial, perhaps, and maybe even a little dull, but also peaceful and idyllic. Can’t you just see it as an R. Crumb poster?

But there is simply no path from here to there.

Here is where we have to act. Here is where we have to do what good we can. And peace, whatever that word means, has to be something we live out here, in a world of six billion people where America has hegemony over the Western hemisphere and where Islamic extremists are gaining increasing sway among young people without hope and where North Korea is developing nuclear missiles.

And here, in the middle of the American empire, funded by the wealth of plunder and pledging allegiance to the flag, I teach public school.


The bottom line, really, is that I find it meaningful because I find my relationships with the kids meaningful. Society may be broken beyond repair, but individual students—almost all of the seventy-five or so of them that I see every day—are (I think) better off and are better people for having known me and learned from me.

I don’t know how to fix public education, or if public education can be fixed at all, or even if it should be. I can think of half a dozen radical solutions that would completely revision what public education is all about (none of which are remotely feasible politically) but at bottom, I don’t know what’s best for society. I do have some sense of what is best, at least today and this week, for most of the kids that come in and sit down in front of me.

Which means, I guess, that I’ve found another of my underlying assumptions: Individual people and individual relationships are what matter most, more than societal or global solutions.
I have to sit with that one a while and see if I really believe it.


Tom Smith said…
One of the ways to "fix" public education is to treat the teaching "profession" as a true profession. Most professionals have clerical assistance to take care of the daily chores and start at the national mean or above salary. Very few of those students who are the "best and brightest" ever even consider teaching as a career, except possibly at the "higher" level.

Another way is to make adaptability and creativity a major focus of education rather than teaching how to take tests. A related improvement would be for every school board member and school administrator be asked to pass the "competency" tests which are required of the "best" high school graduates. Shouldn't we expect the educational leaders to be at least as "smart" as high school graduates.

Just some "random thoughts" from a teacher with a PhD who had to transfer to Friends Schools to be allowed to be a "leader" AND a teacher in daily contact with students.

In Peace and Friendship
Anonymous said…
I'm reminded of a saying given to a fictional doctor: you can't save the world, but you just might save the life of the person in front of you.

I can't influence the world, but I can reveal to "my" students their assumptions, and remind them that it's their choice whether they keep their assumptions or change them as new experiences come along to challenge those assumptions. And as those students go out into the world, they have their effects.... and so it goes.

"Teaching is the greatest act of optimism" -- Colleen Wilcox

Young Teacher said…
I completely agree with Tom Smith. I think that it is possible to implement some beneficial reforms into the system of education, which is just plainly too messed up to be satisfactory. We as a society should demand more, particularly from ourselves.
Steve Hayes said…
A friend of mine, who taught at a teacher training college, was once asked to speak to a group of high school kids about education.

He started by asking them to define intelligence. After they had given their definitions, he gave them his: "Intelligence is what you do when you don't know what to do".

He went on to encourage them to focus on their goals -- what did they want to get out of education? They should not be blind to the flaws in the system, but should concentrate on their goals, and milk the system for all they could get out of it to achieve their goals.

What more can one do?
Peter, I was delighted to see your comment about how “‘individual human rights’ ... ignores individuals who find their meaning in cohesive communities.” That was the consideration that led me to drop my membership in the ACLU back in the mid-1980s: they seemed singularly deaf to the argument that native American tribes should not be broken up out of some passion for the individual liberties of their members.

One of your other arguments doesn’t ring as true to me, though. You write, “The world would be just fine if we didn’t have global superpowers carving up the third world like so much meat pie and engulfing more territory than can possibly be governed as one people.

“It might even be true. Imagine a world that is an open meadow dotted with independent little city-states, each no bigger than fifth-century B.C.E. Athens, with a loose network of trade and maybe with occasional skirmishes over a particularly good patch of farmland, but largely devoid of wars and the causes of wars.

The problem with this scenario, in my own mind, is that the Athens of the fifth century B.C. built itself up from a city-state into a bullying empire, terrorizing and conquering smaller city-states, and ultimately controlling most of the coast on both sides of the Aegean and all of the islands as far out as Rhodes, plus a big chunk of land around Byzantium. In the late fifth century B.C. it, and its allies, became embroiled in a great war, the Peloponnesian War, with the Spartan confederacy. That war was fatally bloody and costly, permanently weakening both sides, and it brought the city-state era of Greek civilization to a close.

Much as the two great wars between the little countries of Europe in the twentieth century led those little countries to turn to greater powers (the U.S. on one side, the Soviet bloc on the other) to keep the peace amongst them, so the Peloponnesian War led the cities of Greece to turn to such larger powers: first to the Greek Leagues, then to Macedon and Hiero, and finally to Rome.

One of the lessons I personally draw from this story is that atomization of power is just not a guarantee of peace.

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