We can all agree,” wrote a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard not long ago, “that American public schools are a joke.” This way of thinking and talking about our public schools has been with us for some time. It was what led me, in the early and mid-1990s, on a cross-country journey to observe a wide variety of public schools that had been judged by their teachers, students, and parents to be good and decent places of learning. This journey was both geographical—recording actual classrooms and communities across the United States—and philosophical, trying to gain a lived, felt sense of what public education means in a democracy. The result was a book called Possible Lives. Now, a decade after its publication, the same kind of reflective journey is more needed than ever.
In the midst of the culture wars that swirl around schools; the fractious, intractable school politics; the conservative assault on public institutions; and the testing, testing, testing—in the midst of all this, it is easy to lose sight of the broader purpose and grand vision of the common public school. For me, that grand vision came through, fresh and vibrant, in the common, everyday detail of classrooms, the words and gestures of a good teacher, the looks on the faces of students thinking their way through a problem.
We have so little of such detail in our national discussion of teaching, learning, or the very notion of public education itself. It has all become a contentious abstraction. But detail gives us the sense of a place, something that can get lost in policy discussions about our schools—or, for that matter, in so much of our national discussion about ourselves. Too often, we deal in broad brush strokes about regions, about politics and economics, about racial, linguistic, and other social characteristics. Witness the red state-blue state distinction, one that, yes, tells us something quick and consequential about averages, but misses so much about local social and political dynamics, the lived civic variability within.
The details of classroom life convey, in a specific and physical way, the intellectual work being done, day to day, across the nation—the feel and clatter of teaching and learning. I’m thinking right now of a moment from a chemistry class in Pasadena, Calif., that I observed. The students had been conducting experiments to determine the polarity of various materials. Some were washing test tubes, holding them up to the windows for the glint of sunlight, checking for a bad rinse. Some were mixing salt and water to prepare one of their polar materials. Some were cautiously filling droppers with hydrochloric acid or carbon tetrachloride. And some were stirring solutions with glass rods, squinting to see the results. There was lots of chatter and lots of questions of the teacher, who walked from student to student, asking what they were doing and why, and what they were finding out.
The students were learning about the important concept of polarity. They were also learning to be systematic and methodical. And moving through the room was the teacher, asking questions, responding, fostering a scientific cast of mind.
This sort of classroom scene is not rare. And collectively, such moments give a palpable sense of what it means to have, distributed across a nation, available by law to all, a public educational system to provide the opportunity for such intellectual development.
Without a doubt, there is much that is wrong with our schools. Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter. Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its variables and intricacies, its goals and purpose. We should also ask why we’re evaluating. To what end?
Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the continual focus on test scores helps us here. Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us. This way of talking about schools constrains the way we frame problems and blinkers our imagination.
There have been times in our history when the idea of “the public” has been invested with great agency and imagination. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, more so, from a skillful advocacy by conservative policymakers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise.
Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions. But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.
Clearly, there are domains of public life that benefit from market forces, and individual enterprise is a powerful force for both personal advancement and public benefit. Moreover, the very notion of “public” is a fluid one; it changes historically, exists in varied relationships to the private sector, and, on occasion, fuses with that sector in creative ways. And, as I have noted, we must not simply accept our public institutions as they are, but be vigilantly engaged with them.
Our reigning orthodoxy on the public sphere is much less nuanced. Instead, we celebrate the market and private initiative as cure-alls to our social and civic obligations.
This easy dismissiveness of the public sector also has its ugly side, characterizing anything public as inferior … or worse. I remember a Los Angeles talk-show host who called the children enrolled in the Los Angeles school district “garbage.” And, in a comment both telling and sad, the kids I met during my travels said on several occasions that they knew people thought of them as “debris.”
We have to do better than this. We have to develop a revitalized sense of public life and public education.
One tangible resource for such a revitalization became clear to me over the course of my journey through America’s public school classrooms. Out of the thousands of small, daily events of classroom life I witnessed—out of the details of the work done there—I gained a deeper appreciation for what’s possible in America’s public sphere.
This sense of the possible came to me when a child learned to take another child seriously, to think something through with other children, to learn about perspective and the range of human experience and talent. It came when, over time, a child arrived at an understanding of number, or acquired skill in rendering an idea in written language. It came when a group of students crowded around a lab table trying to figure out why a predicted reaction fizzled. When a local event or regional dialect or familiar tall tale became a creative resource for visual art or spoken word. When a developing athlete planted the pole squarely in the box and vaulted skyward. When a student said that his teacher “coaxes our thinking along.” When a teacher, thinking back on it all, mused on the power of “watching your students at such an important time in their lives encounter the world.”
It is in such moments—moments in public school classrooms—that something of immense promise for the nation is being confirmed.
There is, of course, nothing inherently public or private about such activities. They occur daily in private schools, in church organizations, in back yards. But there is something compelling, I think, about raising one’s gaze outward, beyond the immediate window or fence, to the science lesson at the forest’s edge or the novel crammed into the hip pocket on the city bus.
The public school gives rise to these moments in a common space, supports them, commits to them as a public good, affirms the capacity of all of us, contributes to what the post-Revolutionary War writer Samuel Harrison Smith called the “general diffusion of knowledge” across the republic. Such a mass public endeavor creates a citizenry.
As our notion of the public shrinks, the full meaning of public education, the cognitive and social luxuriance of it, fades. Achievement is still possible, but it loses its civic heart.
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A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2006 edition of Education Week as Grand Visions and Possible Lives