Schools or Students?

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Can schools impart to students an understanding and respect for democracy if they are themselves undemocratic?

There was a riot at Montwood High School in El Paso, Texas, in late January. It’s hard to tell from media accounts whether students rioted, or police rioted, or both. According to the El Paso Times, the students staged a walkout to protest a district fiat that changes Montwood’s schedule to block classes. The riot erupted after a school official called the police, and, according to the newspaper, more than 100 officers, some in full riot gear, used billy clubs and pepper spray to force hundreds of students back into their classrooms. Then, the report said, the 3,000-student campus was "locked down"— terminology usually associated with a prison.

Some say the dispute was as much about management as it was about the change in scheduling. One of dozens of e-mail messages sent to KVIA, a local TV station, put it this way: "When this high school first opened, it was on the principle that administrators, teachers, and students would each have a voice in the happenings on their particular campus. When the school board decided, arbitrarily, to force Montwood High School to follow the other high schools in the Socorro district into block scheduling, it signaled the death of site- based management."

Even more important is the issue of whether students have a right to be consulted about their own education. One might also ask if students have the right to express their opinions, to assemble, and to protest. Many of the e- mail messages KVIA received address those issues, and they are equally divided in their answers.

Some assert that students should be able to speak out and that the authorities overreacted. One writer put it this way: "Why must the students protest in order to be heard? Since when did school systems become a dictatorship? The students of Montwood are being blamed for causing a riot, but it wasn’t the students who showed up . . . with shields, batons, and mace."

Quite a few e-mails, however, countered with messages like this: "I have just three things to say to the youngsters at Montwood: Sit down. Open your books. And SHUT UP!" Or this: "I would like to praise the El Paso Police Dept. in their handling of the Montwood disturbance. . . . Since when do teeny-boppers have any rights? The only right you have as a kid under 18 is to go to school, mind your teachers, and obey your parents." (All of the messages can be found on KVIA’s Web site,

The real significance in this sad event is the ambiguity it reveals about the purpose of public education. On the one hand, the rhetoric of policymakers and educators declares that, because children are our future, we want them to be knowledgeable leaders and problem-solvers who will support the principles of a free, democratic society and stand up for what they believe.

But behavior often trumps rhetoric. The way most schools operate makes clear that they value information over knowledge, conformity over critical thinking, and obedience over leadership. Children are expected to do what they’re told, regardless of whether it seems fair.

These diametrically opposite ideas somehow coexist in the national psyche, even though it defies logic to think we can have it both ways. And they explain why our unceasing efforts to improve schools don’t work—and won’t until we make some crucial choices. Can schools impart to students an understanding and respect for democracy if they are themselves undemocratic? Can they produce critical thinkers if they trivialize knowledge and demand intellectual conformity? Can they breed a passion for fairness if they treat students unfairly?

If we really believe our own rhetoric, then we must have schools that are designed to accomplish the appropriate objectives. That means we have to choose between the promise of the future and the traditions of the past. We have to decide what we care about most: our children, or our schools.

—Ronald A. Wolk

Vol. 14, Issue 6, Page 6

Published in Print: March 1, 2003, as Schools or Students?
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