Schools as scapegoat 

The Mind Trust's recent proposal aimed at revamping public schools in Indianapolis has energized discussion in the city about how and why we educate our kids.

This is good, particularly to the extent it actually encourages us to come to grips with the essential question of what it means to be an educated person.

This, unfortunately, has been a dimension sorely lacking throughout years of educational theorizing, and the political game-playing that too often masquerades as educational reform.

For decades now, Americans have been unhappy with the way our schools have been performing. At first it was that schools were too regimented; they bore down on individuality, encouraged conformity and put kids on tracks determining who was college material and who was not.

This led to a lack of structure, "open" classrooms and a break-down in supposed standards. Kids were advanced from one grade to another without acquiring basic skills so that their self-esteem remained intact.

All the while, educational and behavioral theorists were hard at work, creating what has amounted to an industry devoted to telling us how children learn and what they should be taught. These ideas and practices have found their way into schools and school systems in various ways. Some have been implemented with success, even here in Indianapolis.

But, in the end, nothing, it seems, has really worked. Read the papers, listen to the news: Our schools are chronically failing, in crisis, letting us down.

If you are a parent, with a school-age child, this sort of information affects your life now, today. It can determine where you choose to live (if you have that choice) and the everyday quality of your life. Your son or daughter will only be in first grade, or eighth grade or a junior in high school, once. There are no do-overs in school careers. Personal futures are on the line.

If these stakes weren't high enough, there is an even larger socio-political agenda driving the collective discontent with schools. America likes to think of itself as a self-made society. No matter who you are, or where you come from, the story goes, you should have a chance to succeed. Education plays a crucial part in keeping this story alive. Families have proudly pointed to their first generation to go to college, to "better" themselves. For them — for all of us, really — education is considered transformative.

And so, for example, schools have become a tool for social interventions when parents are considered too dysfunctional to adequately raise their kids. We use preschool and full-day kindergarten to try to create as much distance between kids and their parents as possible with the hope that, in this way, the kids can excel or, more to the point, escape their origins.

The transformative power of education is the cornerstone of the American dream. It reflects the rationalism at the core of our founding documents, the Constitution and Bill of Rights. For Americans, education fixes things, is the solution for every problem. Poverty, violence, environmental short-sightedness: We want to believe that if people are educated they will make these things better by making better choices.

At least that's what we hope. Because if education's not the transformative answer to our social problems, then we might have to come up with new ways of governing ourselves or, for that matter, new ways of living.

This belief in education as our great social fixer — the thing that, if we can get it right, can save our cities, reinvent our economy and energize our communities — has turned our schools into theaters where all our collective anxieties about these things have come to roost. Whatever bugs us about contemporary life, whether it's our lack of cultural cohesion, the coarsening of discourse, diminished sense of opportunity, or loss of generational continuity — schools must be to blame.

Schools have become the default scapegoat for our seeming inability to get a handle on the larger social and cultural issues that bedevil us. We act as if we believe that if the schools were better, our society would, by definition, be better, too.

This makes sense on its face. But at the risk of playing chicken-and-egg, maybe we have it backward. Sure, it would be great if we could create a first-rate school system — whatever that might be. Families, the city, the state and nation would all benefit in countless ways. But our seeming lack of ability to reform schools to anyone's lasting satisfaction might also be a reflection of a larger, deeper social malaise, a symptom, instead of the cause we keep insisting it is.

The simple fact that we continue to evade trying to define what it means to be an educated person — substituting this macro definition for such micro issues as the validity of testing, the role of teachers' unions, standards of accountability and parental options — reveals not only a lack of vision, but an abdication of responsibility when it comes to the lives of our kids, not to mention the perpetuation of our form of democracy. The problems in our schools have less to do with what happens in the classroom than with what's going on with us.

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David Hoppe

David Hoppe

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