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.