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Published in Print: May 30, 2001, as School Peril

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School Peril

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The real dangers on 'democracy's playing field' don't make the evening news.

Somewhere in my mind, I carry my father's admonition to always undertake research in which life-and-death matters live at the heart of the inquiry. Even though his role as a physician clearly dictated this sort of philosophy, there is something compelling about my father's charge that has stayed with me. I know that research on education meets his standard, because there is no doubt that school can destroy people, adults and children alike, just as surely as it can redeem them, breathe life into their lives as no other institution can.

Too often, the nation's attention is seized, as it was again this year, by senseless acts of violence committed on school grounds. But the fact is that life-and-death matters play out every day in our schools, unremarked. The powerful writings of Jonathan Kozol, William Ayers, Robert Coles, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, Neil Postman, Herbert Kohl, Alfie Kohn, George Dennison, and others document this over and over again.

On an individual-student level, it is common practice today to turn to schools to pick up the pieces of irresponsible or inadequate parenting, or, more generally, to protect the lives of imperiled children. In fact, this has become an automatic, if not reflexive, action. Newspapers are filled with accounts of schools offering programs (which many contend should be taught at home) on such subjects as sexuality, substance abuse, the effects of divorce on families, violence prevention, gender issues, racism, birth control, and other health concerns. As I write, there is even a strong movement afoot for schools to offer courses on parenting. All this, and driver's education, too.

Arguments are advanced for abolishing schools of education because of their failure to produce people of sufficiently high academic quality and their focus on the tools of the trade rather than intellectual substance. Yet, in a parallel development, the list of teacher requirements grows almost exponentially each year. Apart from competence in an academic discipline, teachers now have to be experts on a variety of psychological, social, medical, and legal matters. In some schools, their commitment to mathematics, history, or languages seems almost incidental, given the amount of hours they are expected to spend on these life-or-death extracurricular matters.

If individual lives are damaged or resurrected in schools, so, too, are ideals, policies, and entire social movements. Almost every major social transformation is played out (or fought out) in our classrooms. Desegregation put schools at center stage in the struggle for racial equality. And while affirmative action affects the labor market, its focus has always been schools. So, too, have the battles for Title IX protections for women and federal safeguards protecting the rights of people with disabilities. Again and again, the movement for social inclusion has been centered in the public school.


A movement is now under way for more and better standardized testing, with its resultant ranking of students, teachers, and entire school systems, because, as the argument goes, children also are imperiled when they don't receive the very best of educations. Only naturally, there has been an attack against this position by those who suggest that no test can accurately measure what the proponents of standardized testing seek to know. Teachers want accountability, but complain that teaching to tests makes their jobs almost impossible. Or, if possible, limiting and uncreative.

But consider the personal aspect of standardized testing: the child, for example, who knows he is stupid because the tests say so, even as the educational community debates the value and quality of intelligence tests, along with fundamental definitions of intelligence.

Schools can destroy people, adults and children alike, just as surely as it can redeem them, breathe life into their lives as no other institution can.

While some cling to the notion that intelligence can properly be defined by literacy and mathematical skills, coupled perhaps with some common sense and practical wisdom, others rejoiced at the birth of Howard Gardner's notion of multiple intelligences. Suddenly, the athlete, the dancer, and the painter could be as appreciated as the scientist or literary critic. And when the special education community introduced the concept of "learning disabilities," a whole other population of students and their families were somehow ennobled. The child wasn't lazy or purposely inattentive; he had a lazy cortex caused in part by the shortage of a natural substance called dopamine.

For years in this country, the fundamental purpose of schools was socialization. The single most important goal of the school was to turn children into civilized, productive citizens. At one level, this meant that getting them to stop chewing gum and running in the halls carried as much weight as their competence in math. This was surely the case for girls, for whom manners were considered ultimately more valuable than arithmetic. At another level, however, socialization can be viewed as character development, which is essential to a country's survival as a civil democracy. In other words, there appears to be a tension, as Amy Gutmann has written, between "living a good life according to one's own best lights and being educated as a democratic citizen with civic responsibilities such that everyone is able to live a good life."

The problem, in these early days, was that too many people were left out of the mix. Or, if they attended school, as the law required, they were too easily neglected, ignored, or outright dismissed. It was this population of students (called interestingly enough, "young Arabs") who ran about the streets of developing urban areas, committing what we would now call minor property offenses, that encouraged the authorities in Chicago to launch a juvenile- justice system a little more than a century ago.

Now, in an era of inclusion, student rights, and standardized testing, another problem emerges which only a few, like David Steiner, attempt to address. If all people are required to attend schools, if all people are truly considered part of the commonweal, and in strict moral terms it is deemed imperative that all receive the finest education, who will perform the society's menial jobs? Said differently, what is the basis of teaching to the needs of the job market, and how is it that following this inclusive ideology we continue to sustain, as the Harvard sociologist Katherine Newman documents, vast populations of people, some of them young, continuing to constitute the working poor of America?

The school will continue to be the playing field, level or not, of our democracy.

The school will continue to be the playing field, level or not, of our democracy. Teachers and administrators know this fact well, and students learn it at surprisingly young ages. If, in fact, the school is properly designated as the centerpiece of the commonweal, however, one has to wonder about the country's priorities. Apart from the literal and symbolic meanings of teachers' salaries, consider that one professional basketball player will this year receive almost $14 million in compensation. In the city where this man performs, a summer tutoring program required for thousands of children to be promoted to the next grade is in jeopardy because the city cannot come up with its budget of $7 million.

Facetiously, one may hope that all those city youngsters "got game," in the lingo of basketball. But little documents better than this disparity in financial priorities the notion of what I call "the ecology of peril." What goes on in the greater society and in the general culture directly affects the sacred acts of teaching and learning. And perhaps this is what my father had in mind, what determines whether students, and teachers, will flourish or perish.


Thomas J. Cottle is a professor of education at Boston University. His books include Barred From School, Children in Jail, The Voices of School, and Mind Fields: Adolescent Consciousness in a Culture of Distraction, released this spring by Peter Lang.

Vol. 20, Issue 38, Page 34

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