Education Opinion

The Ghost of Schooling Past

By Nancy Flanagan — December 27, 2010 3 min read
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We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. Einstein

The excellent essayist Nancy Gibbs explores the theme of revolution vs. reformation in a recent issue of Time magazine, comparing our national drive to lead global progress (our most important product, as Ronald Reagan would have said ) with our periodic spasms of nostalgia for a better, more satisfying past. Gibbs notes that Sarah Palin, master of the “cross-platform political-celebrity mashup” has exploited this idea, publicly calling for “not transformation, but restoration...we already feel (it) emerging across America.”

Hmmph. Thinking back over the last half-century, wherein I have been a student, teacher and up-close observer of education in American, there isn’t much I would want to “restore.” A lot of our collective rosy memory about schooling in the past--from those happy days at Oak Street Elementary to pulling all-nighters at State U to get research papers done--belongs to a relatively small subset of privileged Americans, anyway. Our impression of how schools used to be--better, right?--doesn’t have much to do with challenging, engaging academic study, strengthening the national economy or democratic equality.

My husband attended a well-regarded Catholic academy in the Detroit suburbs. He and his former schoolmates still share comical (to them) stories of Sister Victorine brutally humiliating fifth graders whose parents she didn’t care for--or reminisce about third grade, 1956, when there were 50 boys in a single classroom, crammed into a windowless, subterranean cement rectangle under the nave, taught by the intrepid Sister Joseph Marion. None of this is worth cherishing--or restoring.

Most of the students at this school went on to professional careers, becoming upstanding citizens and contributors to society. It wasn’t Sister Victorine’s inspired teaching (or ruler on the knuckles) that made them smart and industrious, however; it had more to do with the fact that their mothers were using powdered milk to save money for their tuition. Parents believed that a good education (in public school communities as well as private schools) was an investment that would lead to a better world--not just economic success for their children, but a hope that education might lead to solutions to our most persistent and difficult problems. Progress.

What were our thorniest dilemmas in 1956, the ones that only progress could address? War. Injustice. Poverty and inequity. Disease. Global unrest. Ignorance.

Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. In the most terrifying scene, the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals the children of mankind--Ignorance and Want--hiding under his robes. Of the two, he says, we must be most afraid of Ignorance.

I’m not perceiving a lot of progress here, across decades, or even centuries, around the idea of education or enlightening literature leading us toward that shining ideal of progress, the eradication of ignorance and tackling intractable problems. Especially when “inspirational” media of modern times suggests that the best way to address injustice, inequity, and ignorance is not transformation but restoration: schools with desks in straight rows, plaid jumpers and school ties, textbooks, homework and--God help us--competitive admission via lotteries.

The problem is that we don’t have a new and compelling national vision of Schooling Yet to Come. Other nations have rebuilt--transformed--their education systems to fit ideals of equity and opportunity. The Bolder, Broader task force outlined a potential plan. We don’t need more technology. We need new leadership. And we need to address the festering sore at the center of our inability to fix American schools: education will not substantially improve unless we simultaneously address the dangerous gap between haves and have-nots.

We have not yet bent the legendary American will and can-do spirit around the eradication of ignorance. We’re stuck with longing for the good old days that never were.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.