School: Why Bother Anyway?

LearnAnyway often speaks about school and what is great about it or not. So it makes sense to look at why we bother at all. I mean, there is a great deal of time when we could have these would-be students, these little people out being productive, selling newspapers or working the looms or something. Well, I suppose that we all agree that this is a bad thing. Well a bad thing except for those in middle school. We know that child-labor is bad on a scale that makes the Watergate break ins, and Enron and Martha Stewart innocent by contrast. With this said, it is important to acknowledge that we have know this as a culture for a very short period of time. We have not been at this large-scale public education stuff very long at all. More on a quick history in another chapter. Here I want to ask, not why is education better than forced labor, or better, perhaps than having kids all hanging out in pool halls till they are old enough to drive and collect unemployment? What I am asking about is why do we bother doing this thing the way we do and what do we hope to get out of it? The short answer is, “a degree.”

But a high school diploma is, as they say, just a piece of paper. It may well indicate that you can sit up and take fluids, and it might indicate that you showed up for school on a semi-regular basis over the course of seventeen or eighteen years, but beyond that I believe that even the most sincere and the most cynical agree that it holds little promise and implies precious little about the bearer. One could give all these examples about individuals who graduated who could not read, or write or do division, or become governor of states like Minnesota or California, but we all know that this is so. The point is not that there should be a more rigorous struggle to get this document. It is just that it should be understood that dressing up in a weird, polyester, rental robe and getting this piece of paper is all well and good but this is not what all the fuss was about. These rites of passage are important markers for kids and also set up a nice indicator of when parents should start charging rent, but they are clearly not what school is about.

Well the average person has a whole unstated subset of opinions on this from: what they were told while in school themselves; to what they learned by seeing Welcome Back Kotter on TV, to their own skewed memories of what kind of experience they had while there. Each of these assumptions carries a set of expectations like,

  1. School is a drag
  2. School prepares people to make money
  3. School rewards the industrious little nerdy kids
  4. School is the path to intelligence
  5. School is about socialization and that is good/bad
  6. School is a necessary evil
  7. School is an equalizer
  8. School is a pretty good baby sitter

Most schools of education tend to use text books that speak well of the process. Further they tend to propagate a bit of an incestuous line of reasoning that is also found among people at an Amway rally. “What we do is good, do you agree?”

A rousing, “Yes!” is shouted by the faithful.

“We are helping others have better lives!”


“We need to continue this good work!”

“Yes!” and so on. Now the goods that these fine sales people are foisting on their unsuspecting friends and family may well be the finest soaps and dry goods for the price anywhere around, but anyone who is benefiting by a system is not exactly who you want to have giving you objective information about its merit. Now I am not saying that teachers are trying secretly to sell household products to teens. Rather, I just point out that most books about teaching and learning tend to be written by the converted. i.e. “I liked school, why don’t you?” People who hated school and were desperate to get out of that system and experience the real-world (whose existence is still inconclusive to me) seldome make careers writing about how much they hated it.Instead we hear stories from the those who droped out about how they rue the day that they made that rash decision, and they wish that they could have stuck it out and become doctors and lawyers, and people who make barges full of money. But, you know, there are also lots of folks who hated school, endured it, got out and have ever since shuddered when thinking of it. But the folks who write the books are like the victors in any war, they tend to tell their side.

Every time I do this thing where I ask “what is this really all about?” people run from the room like I just pulled out a slide projector and wanted to share my trip to Iowa with them. So knowing that this is irritating, I ask it anyway: If you did not know anything at all about this education deal and were being asked to send your kids away for hours upon hours a day for a real big general reason would you still do it? A parent is giving away part ownership of these gadgets that they are fully dedicated to and most times are wildly in love with. These are little genetic extensions of themselves with the same name, the same skin color, and often they have similar attitudes and similar flaws, and they even know all of the family secrets. Do you really want them gone all day?

For most of us there is a resounding, YES. We did all we could just to keep track of their wayward and often argumentative cutenesses for the first five years and we are ready and willing to let somebody else pitch in. Further, they need to learn to count and stuff, I mean everyone does, so school is seen as a good thing. The 80’s movie, Say Anything, with John Cusack as Lloyd Dobler has his character speaking to a prospective father-in-law about his goals and he says

I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought or processed. Or repair anything sold, bought or processed. You know, as a career I don’t want to do that.”

At this point in human history most of us find ourselves preoccupied with making, selling, and purchasing regardless of whether that is what we want to do or not.

Since there is that whole childcare-cost thing that we have to deal with for the first twelve or thirteen years of life, school is a no-brainer for most of us regardless of all the fancy reason-for-being crap. Now I say this with all due respect for the stay-at-home parents (wish I were one) and for those whose Montessori ideals are all about nurturing and guiding not just unloading the kids. Later in the book I will talk about some cool ways to think about elementary school, but it is important to acknowledge that there is a vocational-element in the preparation for life (if that is what these school things are doing) and there is a real-world need for government-subsidized help since we are out there working our butts off and paying big taxes for this government-sponsored service.

Speaking of being Americans, there is also the need to keep kids off of the streets. Just as an aside I mention that the whole concept of truant officers, and I am not sure that they ever existed, seemed to be to stop little James Cagneys from nipping apples off the shop carts. Now I was not raised in a big city, but in my collection of expectations I sense that big cities were full of black and white street corners and apples carts and kids nipping apples off of them and there you have another reason for education.

OK back to the “vocational education” reason. Education for us serves our needs as professionals so that we are not toying with keeping our kids home all day thinking that we could somehow out-teach the teacher there in the public schools. I will speak of the cool idea, and the lousy reality home-school is later, but for now, let it suffice to say that vocational motivations for public ed are from both sides: The parent needing to work and the kid needing to learn to work. In this model it seems like there is a small difference between this and Fagan out there teaching the orphans to pick a pocket or two. I just think that this sounds so mercenary and so cold. If education is about training the haves and the have-nots to all be haves then it seems rather shallow. Maybe it’s the Lloyd Dobler in me, but it begs the question, “Is that all there is?”

Certainly, giving humans a method for supporting themselves is important. I imagine some few years ago when there was a thought that the most you could do for the blind was teach them how to make brooms to sell. Or I think about somebody going into the trades as a young apprentice to be a printer because that was what dad was, and so forth. There is an aspect of education that says, the more information you get, the more can do. The more you can do, the more you can make. More skills equal more possibilities. Surviving is no small task. Being able to eat is pretty important, so maybe that is the goal?

Then there is the thought that school is that “other road,” not the commoner’s path. This is sort of elitist so brace yourself for some condescension. Our SAT scores as a nation are going down. Students often leave school without a rudimentary knowledge of the Bill of Rights, they can’t tell the difference between Shaka Kahn and Genghis Khan, as neither of them has yet been on the “Expensive Celebrity House Make-over Show.” They rant that there is now grade inflation, and kids do not know their periodic table, nor their multiplication tables; teachers are lax and good old-fashioned discipline is needed, not molly-coddling the little ingrates. In short, schools, and what’s worse academics are going to hell in a waste paper basket, and there is nothing to be done about it. Whew.

Here the point of schooling is to make every kid a little scholar, complete with academic gown and tassel aside the little mortar board on his head. “If I could be this smart why can’t he. Back in my day we were all way smarter, and dammit kids were respectful to their parents too.”

It is clear that it is hard to arrive at distinctions between , “What is school about?” and “Why isn’t it about what it used to be about?” whatever that was. Generally, the camp that says that school really is about academia are enlisting a mythology about school being a place where everyone was served and everyone was smarter. Rather, what we find is that the more diverse and the more inclusive the school the diverse and the more varied the interests and the scores. But more on testing and scores later.

For now, let me give you an important although boring distinction. There are two separate groups that people break down into: those who think that there are two groups and those who do not. Oops, that is not my point. Let me restate then. There are two groups that I will pretend exist to make my point. Historians call them reformists and revolutionaries. First of all we can see that they are similar because they both end the suffix “aries,” which is totally irrelevant. Secondly, and more importantly they have a different take on “how to fix what is.” A revolutionary says that the old model was broke and we need something better. Like Marx saying that he hated being all poor while the rich got richer. Which didn’t pay off very well for him because his family hated him as they stayed very, very poor, and he did not bathe or cut his beard, all because he forgot to franchise Communism. We also see the American Revolution, (if we remember that unit in social studies our freshman-year of high school, or if we saw the movie) and recall that this too was about saying, “If you don’t like it, you should start up a new country that helps rich, white, land-owners make more money.” This too sort of misses the point, but the idea is that these guys wanted something new.

Meanwhile, other than revolution there is also reformation. Reformation states that things used to be just fine but now they suck, and we ought to stop moving away from what worked so well before. Imagine, if you will, the kind of things that Marie Antoinette might have said about eating cake, or what the hard-headed folks who fought the advent of technologies like, the combustion engine, chloral fluoral carbons and the eight-track tape player. The folks who fought against these were


. “Why is this important?” you may ask. Well aside from the fact that it allowed me to introduce the eight-track tape player, these distinctions are critical because they will allow me to use these words through the rest of the text. Oh, and they also are two ways of looking at this complex issue.

It is not the correct way and certainly we all have both reformative and revolutionary tendencies. Neither side is saying what my teenager says about most everything, “It’s all good.” Both sides agree that it is not all good, and “what is” could and should be better. So when you talk about what schools are, and what should, and could be, it is a nice starting place to say that 1.) they used to be better and we need to go back to fix them. Sort of like noticing that your hub cap fell off a few miles back and turning around is the reasonable thing to do. Or 2.) it has never been right and we need to find a new way of doing business. The analogy here is not that you need to go back to fix your car, but that while you were fiddling with hand crank on the engine a hover craft went by.

Ahem, now back to the academic-fix perspective. This is reactionary. I will cover how the past model of education was by-and-large a product designed by those who did not have to work for a living milking cows, and could ponder Plato in their free time in a later chapter, but for now let me point out that this perspective is forwarded strongly by the same folks who always are reactionary, the winners. If you are a writer of staid academia and are published in the realm of higher education, and then you are allowed to write text books on education. You are not only allowed, but in order to remain tenure-track at your university, you are required to publish a certain amount, While you yourself may or may not have attended a public school (because, face it, if you are that academically gifted, then your parents probably were as well) and you certainly are unlikely to set foot in one, a public school I mean, as that is now beneath you as a professor of education at “We Condescend to Write About It” College of Ed., this does not prevent you from being the leader in the field.

Will the winners in the academic path of being the smartest-kid-in-the-class then write that school is in need of true change, or will they write about how it is just not rigorous enough? If more people only knew their periodic tables then it, America, would be a better place. Yes this is one-sided, and oversimplified, but I still feel strongly that much educational literature and theory comes out of a culture that is self-serving and has no interest in serving paths that are “not like their own.” It’s like asking government to pass meaningful fund-raising legislation. It’s not as though they can’t be trusted… OK well it’s exactly like they can’t be trusted. They cannot see beyond where they sit.

When kids ask, “If I will never actually use this information, why should I learn it?” The smart educators all roll their eyes, and smile knowingly at one another. But what if that really were a fair question and, less the eye rolling and knowing smiles, teachers had to answer it? That is at the heart of the first questions in the chapter, “Why do we do things the way that we do, and what do we hope to get out of it?”

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