Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Radical me

At our meeting with the school superintendent about the shortened lunch periods, one parent self-deprecatingly identified herself a “left-winger,” and the superintendent got a laugh by responding, “You’re not going to throw a bomb, are you?” I saw it a harmless joke, but the woman was annoyed by it. The superintendent, after all, was the one ultimately responsible for the fact that the kids were getting only fifteen minutes for lunch, and here she was, just trying to see that her kids get reasonably humane treatment in the place they’re confined to for over six hours a day -- but she’s the one who might be a bomb-thrower.

When Indie asked about my opinion on Sudbury schools, I certainly wasn’t annoyed -- in fact, it prompted me to write a lengthy post. But at the same time, my real first reaction to a question like that one is a kind of frustration. All I want is for the schools to treat the kids humanely. I want them not to treat the kids like conscripted soldiers in a global economic war, or like animals in some behaviorist’s laboratory. I want them to respect the kids as people, to engage their minds and not just elicit unthinking responses, and to coerce them only to the degree that it is demonstrably in their interest. I want them to be conscious of the values that they are conveying by the way they treat the kids. Yet when I make those arguments, the response is often along the lines of: “Have you considered homeschooling?” or “What are your thoughts about Sudbury schools?” -- which are both good questions, but are also a nice way of saying, “You are a fringe radical, and you are crazy to think that a public school will ever reflect those qualities.”

It’s as if I suggested that a progressive income tax is a fair way to raise revenue, and everyone responded, “Have you read Karl Marx?” (Actually, that does seem to describe a lot of today’s political “debate.”)

But apparently if I support teaching methods like this, or this, or this, or this, or this, or this -- then I’m squarely in the mainstream.



Seth Coster said...

They might be right about the homeschooling. The public education system isn't specifically designed to educate; it's designed to (1) get every child a high school diploma (2) around the age of 18. I'm actually seriously planning on homeschooling when I start having kids, because I'm not sure I like the idea of sending them to a standardized diploma factory.

Chris said...

Yes -- I certainly don't blame anyone for choosing to homeschool, and I agree that I could save my kids from some of the absurdities of the school system by just taking them out of it. Still, it galls me to think that, if I said I wanted to train my kids to be quiet and obedient little worker bees who wouldn't ask questions or rock the boat, nobody would say, "Have you considered homeschooling?" Instead, they'd say, "Boy, do we have the public schools for you!"

I like to think I'd still speak up about how the schools treat kids even if my own kids were being homeschooled. I wouldn't even have to be particularly altruistic to do that -- we all have to live in a world populated by graduates (survivors?) of the school system, so it's in everyone's interest to be concerned about what goes on there. (See, for example, this post.)

Seth Coster said...

That's a fair point, but I'm not sure any amount of input from parents or even administrators can do much to fix the system. Our educational system was never designed; it has simply evolved over centuries, borrowing ideas from the popular trends of the day. As a result, it's a dysfunctional system where each dysfunctional part both depends on and supports each other dysfunctional part. Modifying one part, or even half or most of the parts, ignores the fact that the entire system is just that -- a system.

The only realistic approach, in my mind, is to scrap the whole thing and rebuild from the ground up. But that doesn't work from a policy point of view, so the only way to deal with it on my end is to just go the homeschool route. My two brothers are also considering doing the same thing for similar reasons.

Unknown said...

It's a shame, isn't it?

Unfortunately, I do think you are crazy to think that public schools will reflect those basic human qualities, but that's not a comment on you. Rather, it's a comment on the schools.

In fact, that's why I've chosen to teach in independent schools. Teachers aren't exempt from the degrading, dehumanizing, anti-democratic policies that affect students, you know. I sometimes think of teaching in public schools, but I know I would burn out in a year.

Honestly, though, my question wasn't intended to label you as a radical. I simply wanted to know if you were familiar with Sudbury schools, figuring that if you were, I would get an honest and thoughtful response. Exactly what I got.

Chris said...

No offense, Indie. The question was a perfectly good and interesting one.

I don't think I'd last long teaching in a public school either. (A K-12 school, that is; I actually do teach at a public university.) I think about that every time I hear people proposing so-called "market-based" education reforms. They never seem to recognize that there's a teaching market. When we abolish teachers' job security and reduce their jobs to a form of script-reading, what do these "reformers" think will happen to the supply of talented people willing to become teachers?

Chris said...

Stoz wrote, "I'm not sure any amount of input from parents or even administrators can do much to fix the system."

Believe me, I have thought that many, many times. I just assume that, for all my cantankerous blogging, my kids will graduate, thirteen years later, from an utterly unchanged system (or possibly changed for the worse). A big part of me would prefer just to withdraw from the world, rather than engage with it. That feeling explains many of the days when I don't post here. But somehow the blog always sucks me back in . . .