Monday, March 19, 2012

A brief but passionate rant about education

I break my usual Monday silence to share some thoughts that came to me after reading this article. Its overall point is that homeschooling must be more closely regulated. While the author, Kristin Rawls, acknowledges that few formal studies have been done on the matter, anecdotal evidence suggests many homeschooled kids, particularly in fundamentalist movements like Quiverfull, are not achieving even basic levels of literacy. The reasons this may be happening look compelling: overwhelmed mothers with large numbers of children to educate, along with full responsibility for household chores and an ideology that holds "moral" (i.e. religious) education far above the factual and intellectual kind.

Fair enough. But it's also true that public (and probably even private) schools across the country are also turning out illiterate kids at an embarrassingly high rate. The fact is, this country has always had a ferociously conflicted attitude about education: parents' aspirations for their children to better their circumstances crash head-on into the old frontier suspicion of "book learning" (you don't want some weakling with his nose in a book next to you when a bear, or an Indian, is charging). Although I have no evidence for this myself, I suspect our ongoing debates about education policy, and the current fad for threatening and punishing educators, speak directly to this ambivalence. American individualists (and I'm one, in my own way) hate that we need education and educators. We hate that someone else knows more than we do about something, and that we have to subordinate ourselves, or our kids, to that person's expertise. Hence the appeal of homeschooling: it says that no one knows what's better for kids than their own parents do--no matter what the subject. The rugged individual merges with the expert.

But it's not just homeschoolers who feel this way. The recent decision by the New York City Public Schools to publish their highly problematic rankings of teachers gives non-experts another weapon to attack those who think they're so damn smart. Look, I get that there are bad teachers who are hard to root out of the system. I get the need for some objective (or close to objective) measure of students' success, and for accountability to both the school system and parents. I was lucky enough to attend excellent suburban public schools, and I still had a handful of teachers who were out-and-out lunatics, who traumatized me. But in this country there's a deep suspicion and even loathing of anyone who dares to educate others. And while I lack expertise in education policy, let me suggest these two culturally based efforts, which all of us can apply this very moment and into the future:

1. Encourage the aspirations of children and adults who seek education. Do not mock them.

2. Encourage the aspirations and work of educators. Do not humiliate them.

No comments: