Education Opinion

Education That Matches the Rhetoric

By Deborah Meier — January 10, 2013 3 min read
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Dear Pedro,

Yes, we’ve utterly crushed the liberating and empowering spirit of education. The story you related about Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old girl from Pakistan, is an important reminder of what once seemed worth living and dying for.

The roots of the story are complex, and mixed. Formal education as we know it was designed either to teach the religious and lay leaders of the nation/tribe. It was designed precisely—as were specific other symbols (like particular types of clothing, materials, hats, and forms of address, etc.)—to distinguish the “Leaders” from “The Others.” These differences served to mark the former as members of a different and superior species, speaking a different language (or at least dialect) with a different vocabulary and different reference points and serving as experts in the myths and often esoteric understandings that justified their anointment.

So the idea of expanding education has been a long and arduous journey. While an apprentice’s education was honored among craftsmen (and in its own way leaders were apprenticed to other leaders ... princes to kings?), the two paths were long long ago divorced.

The earliest American public schools actually followed in this same dual path. While making it easier for workingmen’s children to learn the ABCs (which for the wealthy was often left to tutors and nannies), that education stopped quite early, however. When it came to “academics,” that was left in private elite hands—private academies for the wealthy, ever-so-gradually expanding to first the upper and then the middle class, and then .... The idea of public K-12 education in the academics for all—white and black, male, and female—doesn’t go back much beyond my birth. If then, for children of color. And college?

But we have also discovered new ways to keep the rank order constant while appearing to make progress. (I’m exaggerating, a bit.) After grade school, in response to growing demand, we invented high schools, although in the process “dumbing down” secondary education and/or making it more useful, while simultaneously making “academics” less useful. Practical Math vs. Pure Math, and so on.

I reject both their houses: the implication that being “useful” and “practical” are irrelevant if you have enough wealth, as well as the assumption that the academy has nothing to teach you if you don’t.

We need to invent a form of education that fits our rhetoric, Pedro: an education for playing the noblest role of all—citizen. That is not the one and only role, but it is (for me) the first and foremost. The trouble is that just borrowing from the old ruling-class curriculum won’t work if “everybody” learns it. The driving force beyond it—the motivation—was precisely that it turned you into a “gentleman,” a first-class citizen, a ruler, a person different from the rest.

It’s not clear what it turns you into now. Instead, we’ve invented the prestigious schools as markers separating the future rulers from the rest of us. The Bronx Sciences, the Harvards, and even Teach for America. Note that completing three out of four years of college is viewed as a complete failure, irrelevant—the three years don’t count at all. Why? Because the only purpose is the degree, the marker.

So how shall we motivate the rest? You mention the hopelessness of depending on fear. True. You can’t motivate by fear from ages 4 to 18, and then add four to six more years before a reward might exist. And only “might.” My son with a B.A. from Hunter in math and an M.A. from New York University and dozens of years of strong working experience with computers was out of work last year! And just yesterday I spoke to a friend whose daughter has a doctorate in bio-chem from Harvard, but has been out of work for a year. There aren’t enough “good” jobs for the children of the current white middle class to securely join the middle class via education, even with “contacts” and “connections.”

I simply do not know how to look young people in the eye and say: “Spend the next 16 years doing well in ‘academia,’ despite mounting debts, because it improves your odds of getting a decently paid job.” Try that out on a 1st grader. We need to design schools that build on the fact that children are ready, willing, and eager from birth to master the world.

Meanwhile, my colleague Matthew Knoester has just written a book about Mission Hill, a school that was designed to “liberate.” It’s just out at bookstores. Democratic Education In Practice, from Teachers College Press. Matthew taught at Mission Hill, and the book is based on his many years there and on his doctoral thesis from the University of Wisconsin.


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.