The words ‘education’ and ‘school’ are used in two very different, nearly mutually exclusive ways. Yet in current discussions of education and schooling, whether a parent-teacher conference or a defense of the latest national program, these two different meanings are constantly confounded and intermingled. To sum up:
School 1: Seeks to pass on a culture, seeks to make students morally and intellectually fit to carry on and improve that culture. Education in this context means learning what is important to your culture, what you need to know to function within it, what is honorable and dishonorable, what you are expected to do. Examples would be the ephebia* of the Hellenistic Greeks and the one-room schools of America, as well as various religious schools.
School 2: Seeks to create a new culture, which necessarily requires destroying any existing cultures. School 2 seeks to make students morally and intellectually fit to implements and express the new culture. Education means here primarily learning to disdain the existing culture, to value only the approval of the gatekeepers of the new culture, to see the existing culture primarily as an impediment to implementing the new culture. As a necessary step, the beliefs and values of parents and any other representatives of any existing culture must be disparaged. Theoretical examples abound – the schools envisioned by Fichte, Mann, and Dewey expressly intended to replace current culture with a newer, better one. Real-life examples include schools under Communist Russia and China and Nazi Germany, which were all very clear about their intentions to create a new society. Also all compulsory public schooling in the industrialized world, a fact you can both trace historically and perceive if you can listen past the platitudes.
What makes seeing this difficult is that 90%+ of all conversations around education use the same terms to discuss the same issues in the same way. All talk about basics and learning and classroom management and parental involvement and teacher training and so on, even discussion of preparing kids for ‘real life’ – all get used by all parties, even when, if you could scratch the surface, it would clear they don’t at all mean the same thing. Only occasionally is the curtain pulled aside and the man with the levers revealed.
So, how do you tell what kind of a school you are dealing with? Glad you asked:
School 1, since it aims to support a culture, reflects the desires, interests and values of the parents and the society that are carries of that culture. Parents are assumed to be involved in their child’s education, and parental approval is deeply valued – the school seeks the approval of the parent. Children’s development is measured against some objective standard apart from mere approval of the educators or test results.
School 2, since it aims to discredit the beliefs and desires of the parents, strives mightily to circumvent parental involvement in all aspects of the child’s life. Parents are trained to believe that education is something done by experts; that they are doing their job if they keep the kid in school and make sure he does his homework; that parents and kids should place ultimate value in the approval of the experts as expressed in grades, test results, and admission to elite institutions. Compliance with these beliefs effectively removes the child from the parents’ and the existing culture’s influence: “successful” children are either in school, doing homework, doing extra-curricular activities – or sleeping. “Good” parents are those who have willingly removed themselves from their children’s lives in the name of getting approval from the educational experts – and from all the other parents, neighbors and relatives who have also bought into this.
Now, on the surface these two schools may appear to operate in similar fashion. In fact, school 2 depends on fooling many parents into thinking it is really school 1, or rather that there’s only school, it’s all the same. And, sadly, many schools that are by their natures School 1s believe that they must be School 2s, only better – Catholic schools, I’m talking to you! – so that a given institution can display both characteristics at once. At best, this inconsistency reflects an internal battle, where the school was established as a School 1, but is now staffed by people trained in School 2s, and serves the children of people trained in School 2s. The adults know, on some level, that they are protecting and passing something of value along to the kids, but the only idea of schooling they know is what they experienced – a very difficult situation, one made almost inevitable by the intellectual miasma which is the preferred medium of modern schooling.
But there are clear indications you are dealing with School 2:
– if the curriculum is totally managed by experts and imposed without any parental involvement or review;
– if test results are equated with ‘achievement’. (Test results are not achievement – they are not the same thing as having learned something; standardized test results just show if the student has been properly standardized.)
– if any homework AT ALL is assigned to 5th graders or below; when more that one hour’s homework a night is assigned to 6th, 7th, or 8th graders; or 2 hours to high school students; (The main purpose of homework is to keep the kid under the influence of school during times when he might otherwise be under the influence of parents and family. You can verify this by looking at how hopelessly stupid 98% of homework is.)
– if national standards are touted as a good thing – national standards are expressly meant to replace local standards, which would be the parents’ standards.
* Information on ephebies is scarce on the web. An ephebia was a ancient Greek school originally desigend to prepare young men to be soldiers for the city-state, which included both physical military training and training in the culture – why it is worthy to fight and die for; as a result of Alexander’s conquests, which eliminated the need (or possibility) for individual city states to defend themselves, the ephebia evolved into more of a citizen’s finishing school.