Education Commentary

Why Good Schools Are Countercultural

By Patrick F. Bassett — February 06, 2002 2 min read
With all the spotlights on educational reform, we might just pause and shine a light on ourselves: In a democratic society, schools reflect the character of the culture.

For anyone in the baby boom generation, the term countercultural inspires reminiscences of our ‘60s and ‘70s pasts, replete with anti-establishmentarian grooming (basically hirsute), dress (heavy on beads and headbands), behavior (sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll), and politics (anti-war). From the vanilla-flavored culture of the ‘50s emerged what our elders regarded as a horrific abomination: a generation that seemed to share none of the values of the prevailing adult culture, and in fact snubbed its collective nose at those values.

The irony of youth, of course, is that its possessors eventually become their parents, as the generations replace one another. Witness, for example, the incarnation for this generation with the resurrection of swing music, the resurgence of attendance at church and synagogues, the re-emergence of children’s museums, and the revival of sanitized family experiences, such as Disney cruises.

What is unusual about our times is that the American culture projected in the popular media and popular imagination has become so distorted and grotesque—so reflective of only the more sordid aspects of our collective values and aspirations—that counterculture is something we long for. Indeed, when it comes to education, the best schools (both public and private) are now, ironically, countercultural.

What the research shows about schools of all types and in all locations is that the best of the lot share two main characteristics: They have exceptional teachers and appropriate moral climates. (The latter, often a product of small schools with communities sharing common values, tends to attract the former, exceptional teachers wishing to teach in such an environment.) What is equally certain is that the school’s internal moral climate runs counter to that of the external culture, at least the prevailing popular culture. Such a paradox is evident in manifest ways:

Values of the Popular Culture Values in Effective Schools

Rationalizing of dishonesty
(deceits of leaders; meretricious advertising)

Expecting honorable behavior
(honor codes constraining lying, cheating, stealing)
Lionizing the individual (star-worship; limitless greed) Proselytizing community
(sacrificing for the team; community service)
Indulging sexual profligacy
(real scandals and fiery fictions)
Expecting abstinence
(limits on “PDA”: public displays of affection)
Excusing violence
(“rights” of gun owners and moviegoers)
Eschewing violence
(conflict-resolution training; media literacy)
Exhibiting vulgarity
(crude language, coarse behaviors, risqué dress)
Insisting on civility
(confronting incivility, setting standards
for demeanor and appearance)
Winning at all costs
(hazing of opponents; cheating for advantage)
Fair play
(sportsmanship credo;
no-cut policies)
Conspicuous consumption
(status markers of clothes and cars)
Environmental stewardship
(modeling good citizenship)
Cultural tribalism
(asserting one’s differences)
School as community
(finding the commonalities)

With all the spotlights on educational reform, we might just pause and shine a light on ourselves: In a democratic society, schools reflect the character of the culture. If we are unhappy with the character of the culture, we may wish to turn to those schools that are countercultural—and allow more such schools to come into existence and flourish. If, in the garden of good and evil, flowers and weeds coexist, perhaps we should allow more flowers to bloom.

Patrick F. Bassett is president of the National Association of Independent Schools.

A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Why Good Schools Are Countercultural