A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Mission: Impossible?

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.



At 5/19/07, 9:41 PM, Blogger malpas said...

Do you actually beieve all this this verbiage?
Schools serve to provide students with a way to get a job - so they can eat and pay taxes..
Well they should but seem besotted with regulatory PC flim flam Plus enforcing the latest government diktat - from diversity to sex preoccupation.

At 5/19/07, 10:27 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Really? Then why not just institute a European system which basically shunts most students off into trade schools?

And do you think schools really help students get jobs? Where's your evidence? Or your spelling ability?

At 5/19/07, 11:22 PM, Blogger Diana Senechal said...

You point out a key paradox in the school system: that an all-inclusive "community" stops being a community. One can only be part of something that has a purpose, and purpose is inherently exclusive to some degree.

Therefore a school with a strong academic mission could meet the students' social as well as intellectual needs.

Thanks for your post!

At 5/20/07, 8:22 AM, Blogger Amerloc said...

As incredulous as you are at his comment, Ms. C, I don't think we can ignore the point of view s/he expresses. I think it's a down-the-nose view of education, but I fear too many espouse it to leave it out of the discussion. Then again, his final sentence reinforces your point about lack of clear purpose, so clearly, even there, common ground can be found.

As far as the "going to school to get jobs to eat and pay taxes" argument goes, all one needs to do is look a little further down one's nose at the bottom of the employment spectrum. I remember Social Security withheld from my pay when I was 12 or 13, and what little education I had at that age had nothing to do with my employability. The entire argument is an elitist smokescreen unless we can agree that a "job" should be more than manual labor.

Before this turns into something longer than any post I've written recently, let me say that you've helped me flesh out some of my own thinking about "community." I agree that it's missing from education, even from larger segments of society, and its lack contributes significantly to our problems as educators, as consumers and taxpayers, and as a nation.

There. I've bitten off more than I can chew :)

At 5/20/07, 9:04 AM, Blogger graycie said...

If schools are held responsible for preparing students for jobs/college/careers/, creating lifelong learners, instilling a love of literature/history/mathematics/science/the arts/name your poison, providing adequate nutrition/meals, socializing kids, counseling, teaching character & community values, providing extra-curricular opportunities in athletics/drama/music/Youth Court/Key Club/yearbook & newspaper publishing/extra tutoring/foreign language clubs/drivers' ed (I could go on for hours) . . . let us have the kids 24/7 and provide us with the necessary resources (including teacher/student ratios that are reasonable and workable for the job) and give us the authority to back up the standards (academic as well as social.

At 5/20/07, 3:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A change has occured over the past 20 years or so... secondary schools, like the junior high I worked at, used to put on a reasonable number of special events... athletics, dances, club activities, grade level trips, etc. to keep the kids motivated and build "school spirit". Elementary schools at the time did very little of this.

Now elementary schools have more special events... even though we don't have elementary school athletics... than we used to have at the junior high level.

There is an enormous burden placed on the staff related to planning and implementing these activities.

I think instead of motivating kids, the purpose is now keeping the parent buy-in. With the relentless assault by political leaders... from both parties, even though the GOP is more persistent... on those who work in schools, the "special events" blitz is a defensive mechanism.

Have faith that the tide will turn... it appears to be turning as we speak in Florida. Teachers and administrators need to be more politically active... but not in the traditional way. Instead of blindly supporting union machine candidates, we need to constantly look for reasonable people with common sense to run for school board seats and state legislative seats... and support those statewide and national leaders who seem to avoid extreme left or right wing views on education.

At 5/24/07, 12:36 PM, Blogger LSquared32 said...

Once upon a time, I lived in a medium-large city, and my son went to a magnet school that was trying to attract non-hispanic students who wouldn't move away half-way through the year (they had, I kid you not, a 50% turn over rate in their student body every year). They also had a fantastic principal who kept it really focused on academics (and worked hard to get the parents involved with the academic goals). Lots of reading, writing, math, science, history. Awards ceremonies were monthly, and almost all awards were for academics. I think each grade did a presentation yearly--the second graders did song and dance from mexico and the fourth graders performed MacBeth. I was seriously spoiled. I'm sure there was less of some things (I'm pretty sure the regular teacher did PE, rather than it being a pull out, for example), but I loved it.

Now I live in a smaller, richer town, with more involved parents and my daughter goes to a middle school that has reward days (rewards for following the rules) in which students play games and do not much. There's still academic homework; there are also lots of assignments that involve coloring and cutting and gluing (with rubber cement: not white glue!--OK, there was only one that specified the kind of glue), and now at the end of the year, we have at least two planned days when students are basically doing not much academic that I can tell. I am most disappointed (sigh). My kids aren't impressed, either. There's real excitement and community in a school with an academic vision, and the other stuff just seems like fluff in comparison.

At 5/24/07, 3:57 PM, Blogger hema said...

a thought provoking post, which has made me think about my views on schools, and communities in gerneral.
whilst i don't deny that schools shouldn't replace social services, i do feel it is important that we take an interest in a child's welfare, as often this can make the difference to academic achievement.
although, the main focus should of course be on academic knoweldge and skills.

you state that you first thought about this issue due to a lack of sense of mission in Churches. could you please elaborate, just out of curiosity?

At 5/24/07, 6:17 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Hema, we were talking about churches that have made networking the god they worship, or socializing, or gaining members even at the cost of doctrine, or building a ginormous choir instead of focusing on the Word.

At 5/30/07, 2:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said!

One thing that I think critical, though, is that for a sense of community, it helps a *LOT* if the members join by choice, and if the existing community can reject new members.

So ... I'm not required to join the "nutwing political organization" and the "nutwing political organization" can keep me out if I sound too sane.

*Neither* of these conditions really apply to most public schools. They *have* to take all the age-eligible local kids, even those who don't want to be there (more a problem in high school and junior high, I suspect) and the kids *have* to attend.

Hard (not impossible, but hard) to get a mission out of this mix...

This might explain a lot of what makes private schools work differently than public schools. They don't have to take you, and you don't have to go ...

-Mark Roulo


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