What Type of Society Do We Want to Live in?

There are lots of provocative ideas in this blog post discussing a new book from John Abbott, director of the 21st Century Learning Initiative, but I was most struck by this sentence: “disaffection with the education system reflects a much deeper societal malaise.”

I’ve never been a fan of the idea that our country has been in a downward spiral, since say 1950 or so, but that is not to say we do not have significant problems. If you are like me, you think that education is part of the solution to society’s problems; indeed, it is perhaps the most critical part. If you are like others, you think that diagnosing a “failing” school just means you are diagnosing a failing society – poverty, segregation, crime, outsourced jobs, what have you – that has actually failed the schools, rather than other way around. This view is frustrating for us in the education reform movement because it suggests a helplessness – if we’re anything we’re eager optimists. But yet, I get it, if you are a teacher who has a student who gets their only meal at school, or whose father is in prison, or lives in foster care, society’s problems seem larger than you could hope to solve, larger than how well the Common Core State Standards are implemented or how you are evaluated. They seem more significant than whether the charter school down the street has to pay rent. Do our well-intentioned ideas just result in more noise and more stress to a job that already has a lot of things distracting from actual teaching? Good leadership resolves this problem, I’d argue, if you can find it.

And yet, we also hear this idea that ed reform, including NCLB, has led the education system astray, from some golden age of educating “the whole child” or preparing children for “democracy”. This golden age is imagined – no one looking to restore “the promise” of public education can quite point to the actual date or city where this existed. Even worse, we might not have actually been concerned about the whole child or democracy. Abbott suggests our traditional public school is a product of the “Industrial Age, which relied on compliant factory workers and mass consumption” and  “promotes weakness rather than strength”. There is lots of evidence that the public school system was created as much to instill an Anglo-Saxon “protestant work ethic” in a population of immigrants from non-English speaking places as it was created to educate “the whole child”. A forced melting pot, as it were. Our society has changed since 1950, 1890, or 1776. In fact, we’ve gotten more tolerant, more accepting. We’ve gotten more  progressive. Does it make sense for the school system to reflect those eras more than 2014?

Abbott suggests we figure out if we want to live in a society of “citizens” that are engaged and connected with each other versus a society of “customers”, subservient to institutions, corporations, subject to the interconnected global economy but not a true shaper of it. It’s a great point, although I’d argue the problem isn’t that we’re facing this choice, is that’s some of us get to live in the first society, and a lot of us feel like we’re stuck in the second. (I also believe we’re in a new age of the “citizen-consumer“, and that is actually empowering.) Still, my solution is largely the same as his. The folks who can fully participate in the interconnected world, which is both a more democratic world and a world of more economic opportunity than ever before, are those who are life-long learners. We can all agree that parents, schools, and communities share responsibility to ensure that every child becomes a life-long learner as an adult. So let’s do everything we can to help parents let learning take place, to create healthy cities and safe neighborhoods that let learning take place, and to foster schools that let learning take place. We’re on the cusp of a new era of innovation in education, if we’re far-sighted enough to set the policies, and create the conditions, for that innovation to take place.

A society that takes on big problems that seem insurmountable? A society that strives to ensure every kid is a life-long learner? That’s the type of society I want to live in.




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