Public schools are, like America, relatively new in history. Especially schools as conceived as a public “good” available to all children.
But one can readily argue that men in power never conceived of schools as a public good for individual edification or growth of mind and spirit. Sure, there were both men and women that would have said so and did say so and also fought and worked with every ounce of their strength and every coin in their purse to make that dream of universal access to knowledge a reality akin to the franchise for all men and suffrage for all women.
But, still it is also easy enough to believe that this project is one of social engineering and always has been. You cain’t learn Huck Finn by books and what Tom Sawyer learned was that all stories can be used to his advantage. Twain, more than once has Huck share some knowledge with Jim (and vice versa) that is absolutely factually garbled but delivered in such a way as to make an artfully subtle point about learning in institutions and by the books and who, by turns is the wisest human on and off the river.
I read considerable to Jim about kings and dukes and earls and such, and how gaudy they dressed, and how much style they put on, and called each other your majesty, and your grace, and your lordship, and so on, ‘stead of mister; and Jim’s eyes bugged out, and he was interested. He says:
“I didn’ know dey was so many un um. I hain’t hearn ’bout none un um, skasely, but ole King Sollermun, onless you counts dem kings dat’s in a pack er k’yards. How much do a king git?”
“Get?” I says; “why, they get a thousand dollars a month if they want it; they can have just as much as they want; everything belongs to them.”
“Ain’that gay? En what dey got to do, Huck?”
“They don’t do nothing! Why, how you talk! They just set around.”
“No; is dat so?”
“Of course it is. They just set around — except, maybe, when there’s a war; then they go to the war. But other times they just lazy around; or go hawking — just hawking and sp — Sh! — d’ you hear a noise?”
We skipped out and looked; but it warn’t nothing but the flutter of a steamboat’s wheel away down, coming around the point; so we come back.
“Yes,” says I, “and other times, when things is dull, they fuss with the parlyment; and if everybody don’t go just so he whacks their heads off. But mostly they hang round the harem.”
“Roun’ de which?”
“What’s de harem?”
“The place where he keeps his wives. Don’t you know about the harem? Solomon had one; he had about a million wives.”
“Why, yes, dat’s so; I — I’d done forgot it. A harem’s a bo’d’n-house, I reck’n. Mos’ likely dey has rackety times in de nussery. En I reck’n de wives quarrels considable; en dat ‘crease de racket. Yit dey say Sollermun de wises’ man dat ever live’. I doan’ take no stock in dat. Bekase why: would a wise man want to live in de mids’ er sich a blim-blammin’ all de time? No — ‘deed he wouldn’t. A wise man ‘ud take en buil’ a biler-factry; en den he could shet downde biler-factry when he want to res’.”
“Well, but he was the wisest man, anyway; because the widow she told me so, her own self.”
“I doan k’yer what de widder say, he warn’t no wise man nuther. He had some er de dad-fetchedes’ ways I ever see. Does you know ’bout dat chile dat he ‘uz gwyne to chop in two?”
“Yes, the widow told me all about it.”
“Well den! Warn’ dat de beatenes’ notion in de worl’? You jes’ take en look at it a minute. Dah’s de stump, dah — dat’s one er de women; heah’s you — dat’s de yuther one; I’s Sollermun; en dish yer dollar bill’s de chile. Bofe un you claims it. What does I do? Does I shin aroun’ mongs’ de neighbors en fine out which un you de bill do b’long to, en han’ it over to de right one, all safe en soun’, de way dat anybody dat had any gumption would? No; I take en whack de bill in two, en give half un it to you, en de yuther half to de yuther woman. Dat’s de way Sollermun was gwyne to do wid de chile. Now I want to ast you: what’s de use er dat half a bill? — can’t buy noth’n wid it. En what use is a half a chile? I wouldn’ give a dern for a million un um.”
“But hang it, Jim, you’ve clean missed the point — blame it, you’ve missed it a thousand mile.”
“Who? Me? Go ‘long. Doan’ talk to me ’bout yo’ pints. I reck’n I knows sense when I sees it; en dey ain’ no sense in sich doin’s as dat. De ‘spute warn’t ’bout a half a chile, de ‘spute was ’bout a whole chile; en de man dat think he kin settle a ‘spute ’bout a whole chile wid a half a chile doan’ know enough to come in out’n de rain. Doan’ talk to me ’bout Sollermun, Huck, I knows him by de back.”
“But I tell you you don’t get the point.”
“Blame de point! I reck’n I knows what I knows. En mine you, de real pint is down furder — it’s down deeper. It lays in de way Sollermun was raised. You take a man dat’s got on’y one or two chillen; is dat man gwyne to be waseful o’ chillen? No, he ain’t; he can’t ‘ford it. He know how to value ’em. But you take a man dat’s got ’bout five million chillen runnin’ roun’ de house, en it’s diffunt. He as soon chop a chile in two as a cat. Dey’s plenty mo’. A chile er two, mo’ er less, warn’t no consekens to Sollermun, dad fatch him!”
There is so much that is so rich in here. Huck is trying to “learn” Jim the ways of Kings, mangling facts as he goes, but getting at the truth which would not be found by mere fact. But Jim is teaching us here, not Huck, about the way our minds are formed within our singular circumstances and how our thinking cannot often be made sense of in other terms, in standard terms. How does an institution of learning approach all the ways in which people are born and raised and the ways in which they are inculcated into the thinking of circumstance? By reduction; by determining a “best way” and committing instruction to a narrow way of being.
So we must think of school as a social institution which has a function within the society AS an institution first. The individual within such an institution is being “institutionalized” FIRST and in reality that is all that matters.
A cursory glance back at public education as a unique endeavor that was programmatic in the US will show a true and clear correlation between the shift from the agrarian to the factory economy. “Improvements” in machinery also required fewer hands on the land and the requirement that a family be large enough to handle the work (as well as to outlast scarlet fever and other diseases that made mortality rates so unimaginably high). More boys and girls on the loose with nothing to do–well except enjoy themselves (for shame!–again Huck is instructive here).
Farm boys, and girls, begin to go to school and grow up (if we call 10 to 12 years of age grown up) to “matriculate” to the factory floor. Goodbye sunshine and fresh air.
So, an institution arises that pulls in the “reformer” (all whelps should profit from learnin’ proper things) and the “industrialist” (intent on modeling “time discipline” and dullness of mind) as well as the church and town “fathers” who wish to provide moral and civic instruction to keep those raised on the freedom of expansive land out of trouble and respecting property rights.
And that, in brief, very brief, is the “birth story” of the institution we call public education.
To me, the school has never been a place that anyone necessarily intended to be anything but a way to manage inhabitants so they don’t cause a ruckus and accept all that their “betters” prescribe and proscribe.
The goal, if we can agree to the above generally, is to radically remake schools to a different purpose and to serve a different idea of community and economy. (Read some Wendell Berry on Home Economics.)
The charterizing, the digitizing, the microsofting and appleizing of the daily “learning” of children in schools is no different in intention than any earlier model of economic replication. It’s not so much to train a workforce; it’s to train a society to accept the future as created by those who manufacture it. Seeding the commercial potentialities I suppose might be a way to view it if you’re of a mind to think of schools as gardens of learning. (That cruel “vase” that was designed into the revised Volkswagen Beetle just flashed in my mind.) It is “in such a context, literacy training is simply an introduction to this positivistic conception of the world. By restricting knowledge to facts and laws, under the pretense of science, it is necessarily limited to helping people adapt themselves to the established order.” (Roger Garaudy, “Literacy and the Dialogue between Civilizations,” 1976)
This is the foundational purpose of the institution and it can be reduced simply: Schools are the primary custodial institution that is dominant as to the role in replicating the thinking of the agents of social control in the minds of people aged, roughly, 3 to 21.
Industrial labor in any form might be said to fulfill the exact same role for the rest of one’s life, but it is simply an enforcing of what is first learned in school. (Though arguably the “industrial” education of one generation is the first thing the next generation learns and this is bolstered, given detail, meaning, rationale, and then enforced in myriad internal manifestations in the schools.)
Prison is likewise a dominant instructor of a specific population, namely minorities, namely Black and Hispanic, and the unoccupied unemployed.
I am in no position to place the modern church but I don’t think it’s changed its role as the instructor of patriarchal dominance and delayed gratification.
As I’ve said before, the school seems an ideal place to revise our economically managed and mangled minds.
It is not hyperbole to say that nearly all of our thinking springs out of a dominant social script. One assumes that if this is the case, we can re-write it and enact a much more noble drama.
The Occupy Movement and now the Opt Out (of standardized testing) Movements seem to me very real expressions of deep dissatisfaction with the way the US has been manipulated and managed to benefit a fraction of our population. These groups wish to offer a different, dissenting script.
I honor this and beg them to become more aggressive in offering steps to instigate changes that go deeper than not taking a test or asking the owners to play fair with capitalism instead of cheating on top of dominating with property and politics.
Is there an elementary school out there with enough parents and teachers in agreement with the above that they can occupy a school building? Children, parents and teachers coming together to author a new social script that has nothing to do with how we program our kids to fulfill unchosen roles that benefit unknown cruel agents of manipulation.
Because this is the truth: School does not teach content to expand the mind; curricular content is used to fill the mind and make it dull to possibilities including and primarily the possibility of being strongly antagonistic to this social engineering.
The content of what happens in school is nearly irrelevant. “The description of persons who have the fewest ideas of all others are mere authors and readers. It is better to be able to neither read nor write than to be able to do nothing else,” writes Hazlitt in the essay mentioned above. It is the “mere” in that sentence that matters most and it is as applicable to being “merely” able to do Khan Academy calculus or being a chemical industry laborer in a hazmat suit.
But school can be a place where communities come together and find ways to live creatively together without competition and without envy. It can be a community devoted to discovering that humanity is ONLY human and is so much less in so many ways to so many other beings. A place where humans come to understand a necessary humility in the face of the monstrous yawning of the unknown as it continues to reveal itself to us on both small and large scales. We are weeds without the succor of common being.
What we have in us is a mind devoted to categorization. But it seems that this mind was formed by hierarchical power as our only way of being in the “now” and the only way to project the self into the future. As a mind molded by exigencies perhaps the most cogent thing to do is alter the exigencies and see what new universe emerges.
I propose we don’t protest; that we don’t simply resist; but that we strenuously propose and experiment with new ways of being in our communities and schools and world.
We would do well to disabuse ourselves of the “higher” calling of being a teacher. It is important that we understand that the social manacles are applied to those who operate within the institutions regardless of one’s perspective of value and or good intent.
Schools and teachers promulgate our class and social hierarchies in the very act of assuming especial knowledge. Freely choose to use your current positions to make social change possible from within the prison-house.
One important influence is…the primacy of oral over written sources for understanding how language works. This development is important because literacy and literacy culture have for centuries been tied to social mobility, class consciousness, and cultural elitism. With print came the grammar book, “proper” speech, and linguistic snobbery.” (Robert Disch, “The Future of Literacy” 1973)
It’s time to embrace the school as a place of common learning and common culture where we come together to make a new way of living by eschewing the hierarchy of class, power, race and wealth and the social structures that have been created to maintain it.
Photo Credit: UntraveledRoad Library