Let a thousand flowers bloom
In my lifetime, meaning the 77 years that I have lived, what has changed the most, and what the least? Clearly what has changed the most are the new skills that I have needed to acquire, from one year to the next, if not from one day to another, in order to fully benefit from the constant stream of technological marvels that man’s scientific and inventive genius has placed at my and everyone’s disposal, the world wide web or internet being the latest and perhaps greatest of these.
What has changed the least is everything else, including religion, human relations, relations between countries, between citizens of one country, relations between husband and wife, brother and sister, and in regard to the future and therefore perhaps most important of all, how we educate the young. For in our thinking about, and in particular our practice of education, we have made little or no progress since the time of the Greeks. Indeed, one might say that for the most part we are simply failing to educate our young people.
That is if education is more than acquiring specialized knowledge and particular skills. For in regard to these we are probably doing well enough. Enough young people, probably only a minority since college graduates make up just a quarter of our country’s adult population, are graduating from our schools with the knowledge and skills necessary to keep the economy and the country running well enough.
But our schools have never been even close to becoming what they were intended to be, incubators of well read, sensitive, and thoughtful young people who would go on to become good citizens and life long learners themselves, insuring in their turn not just the survival but the flourishing of their land and people.
Virtue, in other words, has found little or no place in our children’s school curricula. Furthermore virtue is no more to be found among our school graduates than among those who have dropped out along the way.
So in my lifetime a good candidate for what has changed the least is education. This is ironic in that what has changed the most is all that we have learned, although not in schools and mostly from scientists, about ourselves and about the world. Ironic because whereas education ought to have reflected the huge changes in our knowledge of the world it has continued in its set ways as if nothing had changed.
We still have the room full of kids, of the same age and equally ignorant, being talked at by the teacher hardly less ignorant than her students given the impossibility of her knowing more than a tiny, tiny fraction of what there is out there to know about whatever her subject may be. This is the way things were when I was in public elementary school myself in the 1930s, and it’s the way things are for my grandchildren today.
Reforms are meant to change things. Given the endless series of reforms that our public schools have been subject to during my lifetime the schools ought to be different today, and much better than they were. But they are no different and probably much worse, although there’s some justification for the latter, for their having failed to live up to Horace Mann’s promise.
For the schools today are pretending to prepare everyone for college, an impossible if admirable task. This accounts most of all for the all too familiar atmosphere of failure present in the schools in our large cities, those schools that are attended for the most part by an impoverished and usually minority youth population.
When I was a child only a small minority of the youth population was expected to go on to college and those who did, remaining in school through high school, were consequently a much more academically select group than those who are kept often unwillingly in school today.
One school reform, often mentioned and talked about, also throughout my lifetime, might have brought real changes. But as in so many respects our society seems unable to make changes to the way it has done things in the past. This is the way it was when I was a kid. This is the way it should be now. And most of all the people in charge of things are well paid and secure and want to go on being in charge, do nothing that might put what they have at risk.
Government organizations and structures, no longer dependent on the vote or the will of the people for their existence, the U.S. Postoffice, for example, the Defense Department, the Entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the many others, are all in need of basic reforms, but so far have resisted change.
The one school reform, still talked about, and still capable, perhaps even in my lifetime, of replacing a failed system of schooling with a system of education where children learn, is one that removes the central administrative bureaucracy from the running of our schools and turns all decision making authority over to the parents and children.
This just one necessary reform is that parents and children choose their schools, and doing so decide what they want from their schools. Then, as soon as they do this, schools reflecting their likings and interests will begin to appear. In other words schooling needs only to be returned to the market place (where it was at one time) in order to again be consequential in the lives of children.
As soon as the sending of packages was no longer the sole right and responsibility of the U.S. Postal Service many more packages were sent, more cheaply and more quickly. Similarly the education of our children ought not to be the sole right and responsibility of teachers and administrators and school boards. If that were to happen, if our one reform were to take place, children, through their own efforts, might begin to learn.
The money for doing this is already available. Through our taxes we are already providing all children with a “free” education at least up to and through high school. Whatever we are paying now for our children’s schooling, say $9,000, would be made available to the parents to be used for the school of their choice. If it’s their money to spend they’ll start to take much greater interest in the product they are buying.
To improve the schools ought to be no different from the way we improve our cars and computers. You do what the people want, you don’t give them what you think they should have.
When parents are customers they will flock to those schools that do best for their children, and the good schools will improve, and the bad schools, unlike at present, will disappear. The schools will begin to reflect, as they haven’t up until now in my lifetime and as they should, the interests and abilities of the students.
At the present time these interests and abilities are pretty much left out of the considerations of the teachers and administrators as they prepare for the new school year, the result being that they lose probably a majority of their students from day one.
As a result of this reform the schools will become more diverse than ever before. There will be music and art schools, sports academies, many more vocational schools than there are now, language schools, and many others that we can’t even imagine. The traditional college preparatory program will still be available, but this program will become, as it should be, just one among many.
Listening to the interests and abilities of the students, and allowing the parents the power to choose, this will permit and encourage “a thousand flowers to bloom.”Explore posts in the same categories: Education, School Reform