Education Opinion

‘A Return to the Past...With A Wrinkle’

By Deborah Meier — June 23, 2011 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

Yes, yes to your declaration of “where we stand” on Tuesday. I can quibble with a word here and there—a “can’t” vs. a “shouldn’t,” and an overly enthusiastic endorsement of the schools of yesterday which so appalled me when I started teaching in 1962. It’s wise to remember past achievements, but the pre-war schools of America also played a role in the sorrier part of our national history.

I’m a revolutionary in spirit—this cannot continue! But I’m a “reformist” in practice since it is, in fact, the fastest way to get to where I want to go. And, indeed, there are times, I believe, when it’s best to close a school and rebuild. But when and how is an issue we haven’t discussed. Let’s take that on next year.

But, of late, I have a new worry! The corporations have already launched a new round of attacks on postsecondary education. Hardly their first attempt to muscle in to the money to be made in this field, as well as the opportunity to impose their ideals on the nation. Yes, its not just the dollars they see. I grant the fact that, like me, they have a vision. It’s just not mine.

The argument’s in favor of everyone going to college—regardless of their real interest and preferences—if they have any hopes of a decent future wage is worth examining. First of all, is it even true? Second of all, if it is, who does it benefit? And, finally, when “college for all” fails, what will come next? I think there are signs out there to help us answer all three questions, but the signs point toward an ugly conclusion—a return to the past with a huge wrinkle. Once again, by failing to insist on thinking about purposes, we let others use our schools for other purposes than “ours;" or as they would say, relying on “the market” to solve it for us.

Mike Rose spoke eloquently to this topic in his blog this week and in Education Week‘s Diplomas Count report recently. Also worth reading is Jay Mathews’ response to it on June 16th. And, just a week earlier I was fascinated by Louis Menand’s thoughtful and provocative piece in The New Yorker (June 6th).

It hits close to home these days as some of my grandchildren finish college—B.A.s in hand—while others approach it. Whether the experience was full of joy and happiness or not ... so what? When folks tell me how some students “drop out” after only two or three years, or within a semester of getting a diploma, and then lament “all that wasted time and money,” it makes me wonder. We’re assuming, aren’t we, that the diploma is the whole point of it, rather than rejoicing that they got at least half or 7/8 of the benefits. As we’ve turned away from using the high school diploma as the symbol of our “level playing field” commitment, we’ve now insisted one needs a college B.A. to get, even half seriously, “into the game.” (Meanwhile, income disparities grow and grow.) But I hear more and more college graduates now saying that a B.A. turns out not to be enough so they go to law school to “wait it out” until the job picture improves. (The world of work is not where we now think they’ll sort out their strengths, but in career-choice courses in high school—or maybe kindergarten. We thus postpone once again reaching “adulthood” without having made college much more “adult,” and impoverished their parents in many cases while doing so!

I think back at our efforts to convince Jorge, a student in our first graduating class at Central Park East Secondary School, to apply to college: “You can always go to the Police Academy later,” we cajoled. His own passion to become a cop, fortunately, was stronger than our passion to “look good"—our statistical bragging rights. When he returned to visit us a few years later in his proud uniform and well-settled future, I felt ashamed of myself. Now I brag about him.

Menard concludes with a sad recollection of his impatience with the student who asked “Why do we have to buy this book?” He was, Menard now realizes, actually asking “how the magic worked.”

The stakes are high, but just like high-stakes testing, they are misdirected and, worse, we are not paying close attention to the repercussions. We celebrate the post-World War II entry of the “masses” into higher education—at least I do—but in retrospect realize “we” (the democrats) didn’t struggle over the purpose of it—then or now. So someone else did. It has become a hugely expensive experience of differential value to different 18- or 19-year-olds—and for some no value at all, just lost years and lost money. And, perhaps, lost dreams.

We haven’t a lot of time left before summer to start this discussion, but maybe we can move to it in the fall, while also tackling alternative ways to reform K-12 that No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top not only don’t address, but prevent us from doing.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.