A Blank Sheet of Paper, Part 1

A post about education, but starting elsewhere.

In business, one learns to fear the day when the boss asks for ‘zero-based budgeting’. Anyone who has ever lead a department in a company is familiar with budgeting – you are asked to estimate the next year’s expenses (and, if you’re on the money-producing end of things, income) for your area. The easiest thing to do is to just look at how much you spent (or made) on a budget item last year, then, if things haven’t changed much, bump it up a couple percent as your estimate for next year. Put more thought only into areas that you know your boss cares about, rearrange things a bit if you have to, and – done! Since budgeting is about as much fun as dental surgery, the quicker the better.

Enter zero-based budgeting. You are asked to play the game: what if you were starting with a blank sheet of paper, and didn’t know how much you’d spent last year, and needed, therefore, to justify spending anything at all on anything you want to spend money on? Do you really need that copier or junior adjuster position or plant in Mexico?  If so, justify it, and tell us how much it’s going to cost! This process extends the dental surgery and removes the novocaine. You are supposed to be able to make a case for every cost of $0.01 on up.

But the spirit behind zero-based budgeting is a good one: we should know why we do things, and not just accept that we do them because last year or decade or century we did them – because we’ve always done it that way. It’s easy for a business (or a government or anyone or any organization) to get stuck in behaviors that are merely habit. (Of course, it’s just as possible to embrace change for the sake of change – a topic for another day.)

So: girding our intellectual loins, let us get out out blank piece of paper and go through what it is we mean by education, and what we want for ourselves and our kids.

Why educate? What are the Goals? How do we know when we’ve gotten them?

There are different answers to these questions. As is so often the case, we can’t get anywhere until we answer them. Here are some perennial answers.

For about 80-90% of all peoples through all of history, education meant preparing one’s sons and daughters to replace their mother and father in the culture in which they found themselves. Mostly, this meant learning to be a farmer or a slave (that later not taking too much education to achieve!); sometimes, it meant hunter-gatherer training. An inescapable part was learning the tribal or village lore, including norms of behavior, taboos and religious obligations. This sort of education was achieved by immersion in village life with occasional admonitions and correction. If the village or tribe survived from generation to generation, you were doing it right. Something like these ideas of education persist in any sane educational model.

Sparta, at least during its descent from the cultural leader of the Greeks to the military tyranny so admired by tyrants both ancient and modern, answered that we educate so that the people serve the state. We need men who are expert soldiers willing to die for the state, and women who breed up as many good soldiers as possible.(1)  Our goal is to create a 3-fold defense: our soldiers will prevent defeat by foreign armies, internal dissent, and cultural change. Making allowances for different cultural starting conditions, these Spartan answers can be seen reflected in many educational systems.

Luther argued that the state had the obligation to provide and enforce schooling to make sure the people could read the Bible on their own and understand it correctly – to train them up as good Lutherans. The state was to make sure every child in it received this education; success meant a nation full of solid Lutherans. The motivation of the state in all this, aside from pure Christian fervor, would be that good Lutherans are good subjects.

History has sadly shown that the temptation to merge the Spartan and Lutheran ideals has not always been resisted. Fichte saw Luther as an essential but imperfect step toward an education that would create a nation of perfect Germans, who would serve the state with perfect, obedient and selfless devotion.

When the parish schools were starting up in America, the answer was given: We educate to help our kids become solid Catholics and solid American citizens. A solid Catholics was defined as one who can say, as the Rite of Reception of adult converts puts it: “I believe and profess all that the holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God.” A solid American citizen was a responsible member of American society, doing his part to uphold and sustain the nation – working, fighting in the military, supporting the government, voting, and raising his kids to do the same.

Once the products of Catholic schools could be seen to be both good Catholics and productive members of American society, we could say we’d succeeded.

Modern public schools have mission statements (2) like these:

The Daniel Hand High School community believes that the mission of our school is to support all students by providing them with challenging educational opportunities which will prepare them to be globally aware citizens of the 21st century. To succeed in this mission, we recognize that our students must demonstrate competence in oral and written communication; understand effective and responsible use of technology; and develop critical thinking, problem solving, and creativity. In addition, it is critical that our students respect and contribute to the diverse, multicultural community and international community in which they live.

Before we move on, a little gentle mockery is called for. The 13 to 18 year olds at Daniel Hand High School need to be globally aware citizens in a multicultural community. The community they actually live in is, according to the link right above, about 92% white and 96% economically advantaged.(3)  It is the mission of the school, therefore, to prepare them to live in a world they don’t live in – a subtle acknowledgement that Madison, Connecticut is the kind of place well-educated kids flee? Further, the drafters of this gem are not able to state their mission, only what they believe their mission to be: Not ‘Daniel Hand High’s mission is’ but ‘the Daniel Hand High community believes that the mission is’. Is someone with a nefarious purpose keeping the true mission of the school from the ‘community’ such that all the poor dears can do is guess at it? Perhaps some evil genius is using Daniel Hand High as a front for his plans for world domination? Your guess is at least as good as mine. Yet these folks will impart ‘competence in oral and written communication’ to those students.  Sigh.

Back to the topic of this post: why do modern public schools educate? What are the goals? How do we know when we’ve achieved the goals?  Perhaps my kidding about the community only being able to say what they believe their mission to be hits too close to home? That missions statement is so hopelessly vague it could mean just about anything. A saying I’m fond of: people who write mission statements clearly have no idea what they’re doing – or they be doing it, not writing mission statements.

I’ve droned soporifically on about what the educational leaders in this country say their goals are, so we won’t repeat them here. Instead, in part two, we will look at what *our* motivations and goals are or ought to be, and, rejecting the methods developed to obtain other, contradictory goals, we’ll outline how we think we can get there and what success would look like. We’ll design schooling starting with a blank sheet of paper.

  1. Marrou points out that Sparta in the 8th and 9th centuries B.C. nurtured the finest poets and held the most beautiful festivals in all of Greece. Its athletes won many Olympic crowns. The elegance and beauty of its women were praised. Only as a result of internal political turmoil did the tenuous victors begin to change the state into the Sparta every one has heard of, for the sole purpose of tightening their grip on power. Women’s heads were shaved and they were regularly paraded about naked, in order to desensitize them to any female feeling and turn them into more efficient baby factories; children were taken from these unsentimental women by the age of 7 and subjected to more and more rigorous training and toughening up, girls to be breeders for the state, boys to be soldiers. In the end, by the time Roman conquest had turned Sparta into a curiosity, a traditional ceremonial battle between boys, which had begun as part of a festival centuries earlier, became a spectator sport in which boys would actually kill each other. So, yea, yay Sparta!
  2. Oh, man – googling public school mission statements is exactly the kind of eye-opener one might expect, if one were me. I’m going to need to post and dissect a few for laughs – bitter, despairing laughs, sure, but laughs.
  3. Or whatever the opposite of economically disadvantaged is.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

One thought on “A Blank Sheet of Paper, Part 1”

  1. The “multicultural mission” that public schools talk so much about is just a way for kids to discover possible destinations that they can travel to on a luxurious vacation…while they ultimately become indifferent to truly learning anything. But seriously, does anyone really think that forcing kids to learn another language (for example) is *actually* for the purpose of learning another language, or about another country or culture? Especially since most parents want their kids to secure a lucrative and primarily English-speaking based job *here* in the United States?

    By the way, I think that Edward Feser’s recent article on happiness and pleasure (per Aquinas, of course) can help explain why we’ve allowed education and work/careers to become forcibly joined at the hip by the state. Have we reduced education to work/careers so much that we’ve forgotten what education is for in the first place, or even what education is?

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