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


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


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


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


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


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


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.