Given the unlikelihood that, anytime soon, public schools will make significant moves away from teaching anything other than conformity and a childish relationship to the state that does not emphasize the power of the individual nor of communities to create change… how, then, to teach civic literacy and motivate the sort of citizen engagement that might truly change things? How to restore to each individual in our society their squelched belief in their dreams and their repressed motivation to act? And, as a parallel consideration, how to remodel the education of our youth?
In “Deschooling Society” (1970), Ivan Illich defined two general types of institutions: the “manipulative” institutions that not only define and control production but also manufacture demand and enforce consent, and “convivial” institutions that foster dreams and ideas, exchange, interconnectedness, and personal growth, or that simply provide services (such as drinking water) that people use “without having to be institutionally convinced that it is to their advantage to do so.”
The degree to which convivial institutions need to be regulated for safety and efficiency or have grown beyond an intimate circle of collaborators and constituents, and the degree to which individuals and groups can pressure manipulative institutions to respect and support our humanity rather than pursue ideology and pure profit, are what determine where each institution sits across a spectrum.
Given its assembly-line standardized “Pre-K through 12” enforced lifespan, its rote curricula and quantitative view of “success,” and its entrenched role as a manufacturer of workers useful to a post-industrial oligarchy (or, as the case may be, its role in assuring an over-supply of such workers so that many remain under- or unemployed, and the rest must work for a shrinking share of the wealth), our system of public education sits very close to the “manipulative” extreme of the institutional spectrum.
So are we to tear down the concept of public education so as to prevent the children from being numbed, dumbed-down, mentally sequestered, and creatively stymied? Perhaps in some future age, society as a whole will be sufficiently deinstitutionalized so that we no longer depend upon state-sposored public education as the primary source of learning literacy, mathematics, history and so on. For now, though, in the current world, under the current economy, and given the day-to-day realities faced by parents of school-age children and by adults wishing to continue their educations, certainly we cannot throw public education out the window.
Furthermore, universal, free public education — in the shape of a system that supports creative and independent thought, encourages interconnectedness, and truly facilitates the progress of each individual to their fullest potential according to their own strengths and passions — remains, to my mind, an ideal worthy of pursuit. But it is corrupt in its present form, and top-down “reforms” fashioned by the same class of bureaucrats that designed the system to begin with will never move this system closer to such an ideal. Meanwhile, we must send our children to school.
Change is in the wind
For decades there have been educational theories put forth (e.g., Waldorf/Steiner and Summerhill), and put into practice in private schools (and thus of very limited benefit to “the rest of us”), that honor the learner, teach critical thinking, are designed to nurture the natural strengths of each student, and in some cases (as with Summerhill) confer on the students democratic decision-making power.
Among public schools, there are also examples of educational organizations (e.g., CCE) and “alternative” schools that offer (to whatever degree possible within the system) relevant, child-centered, parent- and community-inclusive education. Such schools are often founded by visionary principals, teachers and/or parents. In spite of having to contend with Department of Education bureaucracy, state-imposed standards, limitations in funding, and restrictions imposed by teacher unions that have themselves become entrenched, top-down institutions, many of these schools are exceptionally successful. They nurture curiosity, self-esteem and mutual respect, critical thinking, active citizenship. Thus they begin to demonstrate what is possible.
There has also been a movement afoot in recent years among parents and some school administrators to seek exemption from, or even to boycott, the standardized tests by which the educational system measures the quality of the product it rolls off its assembly line.
But further improvement, a broadening of vision, is still necessary. To graduate a self-determined, rather than manufactured, public, schools must also connect learning to current events, to the social-justice, economic, technological and environmental issues of our times. Furthermore, the spirit of competition and the methods of quantitative scoring that currently define student “progress” must be revamped into a model of collective inquiry and collective achievement. We need to replace a system in which each individual sinks or swims with one in which we all help each other stay afloat. (Else what sort of future do we expect?)
The more that educators and parents insist on thus remodeling the whole educational paradigm and re-envisioning the very goal of education, as time goes by the more upwards pressure will be brought to bear on evolving the larger system. Parents, community members and educators must continuously push against the system, and clamor for improved curricula in their children’s schools and in their own universities. Citizen stakeholders must demand a say, demand that schools graduate not just college-ready youth and skilled workers to satisfy the job market and pursue personal gain, but that they graduate flourishing communities who are ready to work in concert, are able to innovate, are aware of and willing to tackle the changes that need to happen, and who understand that they are in this together, and who will exercise their own voice within our democracy.
We can expect change as a result of such an upwards push on the educational system to unfold slowly. The forces of true school reform, compared to the clout and immovability of the monolithic system, are made up of very small, underfunded groups. Schools and educators who mount an alternative approach within the system can only chip away, bit by bit over time, at the current shape of public schooling to bring about their vision of broader change.
But, outside the school system, much can be done right now to build on new ground, to create parallel systems of teaching and learning that are not subject to the forces of suppression, conformity and control. And this sort of movement is already bubbling up in cities and towns and neighborhoods all over the country and around the world.