One of the things I've been talking about this weekend in my own classes is the question of what makes a community, which is ironic since we've been dealing with trying to knit together our school community after a rough patch for the last month.
One of the things that all humans need is a sense of belonging. We long for some identification, membership in some organism beyond the individual. Many different groups can fulfill this need in people, often beginning with family and/or friends. Faith groups are another important source of community: the church, the synagogue, the mosque, the sangha, the temple-- all provide a sense of mission, discipline, and support.
While there are certainly exclusive communities, such as gated neighborhoods, private clubs, and the like, it is unquestioned that in the public sphere, a significant idea right now is the idea of an inclusive community. Most public groups profess to want to welcome all, no matter their race or age or social background, and this is doubtless a worthy idea... provided that this inclusiveness does not dilute the sense of identity or purpose of the group. It would make no sense for a group of oenophiles to pursue teetotallers as members. Public schools also undeniably must function as communities. The question is: communities for what purpose?
This is the flip side of the concept of community. To be a true community, no matter how welcoming, a community has to have some strictures, some expectations, some sense of mission to which its members adhere, otherwise the edges of the community stretch forever outward until the community itself is thinned like a pie crust rolled too hard. A community has to have some sort of organizing principle or belief, or there is no gravitational pull to attract members to it and hold together the members that are already there. A community must also demand something of its members, whether that something be a belief or a behavior, or it ceases to function as a community. A community only exists as long as there is allegiance to some principle which drives the community. This organizing principle can best be expressed by the word "mission," which has both military and religious connotations. Note that both military and religious organizations can inspire great loyalty, achievement and action. In each context, mission informs and drives the activities of the group.
We certainly see the disastrous effects of a loss of a sense of mission in some churches, which is how this subject same up in the first place for me. However, the institution of public education has also been damaged by this problem. This is one of the current flaws in the thinking of many people who set public educational policy in America, and, I suspect, in many countries around the world. In trying to be all things to all people, schools have lost their way as communities as well as educational organizations. In too many places, schools have become the places to receive social services, or to become "socialized," or to see your social worker or juvenile officer, or to play sports, or to be fed, or to see a nurse, or to join a dance group, or to provide childcare for parents (or even some of our students) or to go on ski trips or learn how to drive a car. This expectation for schools to provide a smorgasbord of experience and services beyond that of academic content is predicated upon the unfortunate belief that modern schools are solely responsible for the transmission of services which previously were assigned to other parts of society. In too many schools, the successful transmission of academic knowledge and skills comes in dead last as a priority.
What is the most basic mission of a school? I am hoping we seriously contemplate this question, and be honest with ourselves about what the answer should be if schools are to endure as a vital component of society.
I would like to suggest that the fundamental or foundational mission of a school is to provide academic content and skills to its members. I base this assumption on the fact that most of the time spent in schools is titularly devoted to academic subjects. Can we at least agree on that? I wonder.
It is one thing to provide lip service to the idea of gaining an education as the primary expectation of members of our community known as a school, just as most of us would expect members of our religious communities to be willing to live their lives by the religious requirements of our faith, or expect citizens of our country to be loyal to the same. Let's face it: we expect members of our softball teams to come to games ready and willing to play. Why do we accept members of our school community who do not exhibit the same dedication to the ideal of gaining and utilizing academic knowledge? The end result of such a strategy, further, is to dilute schools' attractiveness to those members who do exhibit a rudimentary dedication to this goal.
For example, in an effort to prevent drop-outs, we abandon our expectation of educational behavior and lower academic standards until they are functionally meaningless. We divorce the expectation of allegiance to academic achievement and academic behaviors from the expectation for membership in the school community, and therefore undercut the very mission of the school. Although the providing of all of those other services and experiences is no doubt noble, and certainly enjoyable, they also serve as static that destroys the message and mission of the school. Shouldn't the education of our members at least be priority number one in public schools? If not, why not just call schools "community centers" and be done with the hypocrisy?
Current debate (as enshrined in laws such as No Child Left Behind, among others) regarding American public education derives from the nonsensical premise that, as my friend and colleague the Education Wonk consistently reminds us, every young person in a school is indeed primarily in attendance there in the role of a student and that if there are any who fail to learn, the responsibility lies solely with the educators and the schools within which they labor. I am sure that sometimes the failure to produce competent students IS one of an individual educator or of the school structure itself. However, there are too many other factors that influence the successful transmission of the cultural and cognitive knowledge that most would classify as an education.
At the very least, shouldn't we expect some fundamental and functional adherence toward academic achievement on the part of our students? The desire and dedication to learning is a not a passive nor inconsequential part of the process, to put it mildly. There is often a general weakness of familial and societal support for education as a valuable acquisition, which is often undercut by an unspoken yet undeniable sense of suspicion toward and de-emphasis upon intellectual pursuits which is endemic in American culture, among other things. We compulsively fill our hours with meaningless distractions to relieve ourselves of the opportunity (and some would say the obligation) to do the one thing that makes us human, which is to think. Too many of us, adults and children, need the constant static of empty entertainment, and fail to see that the constant blur of activity in our lives makes it impossible to live our lives in any other, more meaningful way. Indeed we are too exhausted to consider that there might even be a more meaningful way to live our all-too-short, all-too-precious lives. But I wonder if part of the lack of the dedication to learning is not also profoundly hampered by the lack of focus schools themselves display toward accomplishing the complex task of education.
At the base of all these considerations is the problem that schools have lost their organizing principles as communities. We have to harmonize the primacy of the mission we claim-- to provide the access to an education-- with the actions of the schools. To do this, we have to require certain behaviors of our educators and our students. Educators must make education the primary purpose of the school. Students and their families must make the acquisition of an education the primary pursuit of their affiliation with the schools. All other services provided at school must be retained only if they do not detract from the accomplishment of our primary mission.
A community attracts members through its mission. Public education in this country suffers from a crippling lack of this kind of primary organizing principle. This organizational drift in individual schools leads to their failures as attractive communities which provide a unique and valued commodity to society. We then seem surprised that so many consider it irrelevant.
Labels: educational philosophy