Monday, November 30, 2009

Avert your eyes

The Einstein posts were fun, but ultimately frustrating. Few people would outright disagree with any of Einstein’s comments on education. It’s easy to imagine a school board member, a school principal, or a Congressperson nodding in agreement if they were to read those posts. Yes, yes, coercive and authoritarian approaches to education are bad; we need to engage the child in her own learning; the more autonomy for teachers and children, the better. Then they would return to their project of making the schools more authoritarian and coercive, treating the children like passive subjects to be dictated to, and eliminating autonomy all around.

What accounts for the disconnect between ideals and practice in education? When it comes to school administrators and teachers, it’s easy enough to understand: ideals are nice, but if your job, your raise, or your promotion depends on raising standardized test scores, you’ll do what you have to do. But what about parents? How do they make sense of what now goes on in the name of education?

I think many parents have a kind of cognitive bias in favor of giving the benefit of the doubt to the school. After all, many of us have little choice but to send our kids to school. To be openly critical of a school’s practices, while simultaneously sending one’s child there every day, could obviously be disturbing to the parent and potentially confusing to the child. Moreover, the message we receive in so many ways is that complaints are futile: everything is dictated from above; key decisions are made in Washington; one person can’t change anything. To criticize the school, then, would just make your kids less happy -- or maybe even turn them into alienated malcontents. As one parent said to me, after sympathizing with some of my concerns, “You have to just avert your eyes from a lot of what goes on.”

I know that reality never measures up to ideals. If our schools were engaged in a genuine effort to pursue humane educational practices like those Einstein talked about, it would be wrong to nitpick about imperfections. But what if we’ve averted our eyes to much more than we realize? What if our schools actually operate on an entirely different set of assumptions and values, and on ideals that are diametrically opposed to our own?

I see enough evidence to make me worry about the answer to that question, and I suppose exploring that issue is the mission of this blog. At some point, to avert one’s eyes is to deny reality -- the reality in which our kids spend a big chunk of their lives. Are we really doing our kids a service by making them the only people in this system who can see what's going on in front of them?

..How can I comment?