On Education II

After taking my seat on the Brattleboro Town School Board for the first time I took up as an early task the reading of the responsibilities of a school board member. Not surprisingly number one was to see to the education of the children. That suggested that I learn something about education. I remembered my father writing a paper on John Dewey in the 50’s when, after two and a half decades, he had the motivation to finish his Masters in education. So I read a teeny bit about Dewey, and a smattering of Piaget, Montessori, Bruner, Skinner and a few others. Mostly what I learned was how regrettable it was that Vermont doesn’t provide either new or seasoned school board members anything but the most brief and superfluous information about the job. A college course on educational theories along with that which is used here would enable school board members to do more than rubber stamp programs. (That said, I’d like to make note of an exception. My colleague and fellow candidate Robin Morgan who did some solid work helping to bring diversity programs to the fore).

From the readings arose the basic question: why do we educate children at all? What does any society, country, community, tribe, clan, family need children to know? The answer is obvious, isn’t it? (Long pause here).

Ah yes, indeed it was obvious. We educate children to perpetuate our societies, communities et al in their best possible forms. Because life is beautiful, pleasurable and rewarding. But can life be these things if one is at war? If one is sick? If one is hungry? Or lives in fear? If one sees little or no hope for the future? But as individuals we have limited control over these things. This is why we live in communities in the first place. To be fully developed, to be effective and productive, to be fully realized in our humanity we live in community. Thus education cannot be only about the self. It must be about the community within which one lives. It must be about neighbors and neighboring communities. It must be about the larger world that effects ones community and self.

I travel a fair amount around the country. Family reunions in New York, North Carolina, Missouri, California; families of friends in Ohio, Kentucky and the Puget Sound region. As a school board member I ask everywhere about schools and education. And everywhere I hear the same: we have good schools. By this measure, anecdotally anyway, it seems we have good schools everywhere.

In fact one notices that school buildings do look very similar across the country. Teachers’ colleges aren’t so different across the country. Certification requirements aren’t so different from state to state. And what with groups of entire states adopting similar corporately produced programs, curricula and testing educational content if not quality becomes rather similar across the country. It’s been this way for many decades. In fact the thrust of education hasn’t fundamentally changed much in well over a century.

Now look at our country. Juxtapose what you see with our educational systems. Does the state, the circumstances, the character of our country reflect the education we have given our children? Can a country or a community or a family not reflect what it has taught its children? Should our local educators be having discussions about this? Should we be talking about what we mean when we say we have good schools? Referring back to the thrust of education I submit that we have since the late 19th century been educating our children to provide labor for the purposes of corporate and industrial interests. We have ignored if not shunned for lack of “profitability” the education necessary to preserve, improve and sustain the interests of life on the planet.

We need not worry about well-trained, qualified and committed teachers. We have all we can afford. I am confident we have quite sufficient teaching skills across the district. We have a plethora of programs. It isn’t about whether or not we can teach. It isn’t about shipshape buildings. It is about what we teach.

There is an old saying. Nine times out of ten when you ask someone what they mean by what they say they get angry or silent. Nine times out of ten this is exactly the response to my inquiries and assertions. But I will persist in critical thinking and challenging the status quo. I will keep searching for meaning and understanding (and evidence!) until we are all in a circle holding hands and singing “What a Wonderful Life.”

Spoon Agave, Town School Board member and candidate for re-election.

Comments | 1

  • I'll bite...

    I think a “real” education preparing someone for 2020 would look very different from our current “let’s make everyone a math science expert” emphasis. Common Core was set up to help students “compete in a global marketplace,” which sounds suspiciously like preparing for low wages. (If we really wanted to prepare students for a global economy, they’d learn Chinese, Arabic, etc….)

    (I’d add Reggio to the list of educational theories to research.)

    We should do the project a teacher had us do in 7th grade… design the ideal school from scratch. We each had to come up with a curriculum and supporting materials (mostly drawings of school floorpans, but also designs for new mobile desks and such.)

    If the schools held a contest to design the perfect school, we’d see lots of creative, new approaches, I’d bet. (Hint hint, this is easy, let’s do it…). At worst, you’d have a community thinking about schools and education a bit more than usual.

    In that regard, I offer a challenge to readers – add a comment here describing the perfect school for 2020 and beyond.

    If I were starting from scratch, I’d start with goals. What’s the end result we want? For me, that would be smart, creative people interested in a wide variety of things, willing to work on a common good as well as personal interests.

    Off the top of my head, I’d say I would want students to be able to rise to their full potential, without limit. I’d like the system to do its best to help each individual know a common knowledge as well as specific information of special interest to that individual.

    Reading, writing, math… essential.

    Knowing how things work, especially computers and networks, would be useful. I’d want them to be able to write essays, create storyboards, and be fluent in media production.

    I’d want them to know how money is created and how it works.

    I would want students trained in practical basic life skills – cooking, cleaning, carpentry, car and home repair.

    I’d want them to be exposed to things they might not know they are interested in.

    They should know how government works.

    I’d want to keep students involved with the big problem that need solving. I’d want them to think about climate change, pollution, species extinction, war, surveillance. I’d want them to be aware of how they fit into the history of the world and culture. I’d want them to be able to identify basic plants, trees, animals, insects, and know how weather works.

    I’d want kids teaching as well – years at the children’s museum taught me that kids have a lot they can teach, too. It can be cooperative.

    I’d hope that by the end, each graduate would be able to take care of themselves, others, and the natural world for future generations. I’d like them to have healthy skepticism of scams, but also be tolerant of alternative ways of looking at things.

    I’m sure there’s more.

    Looking over my list, I’d say our schools do a fair amount of what I want right now. They also don’t do some things I’d hope for. That makes me think that my list could be achieves with a revision and tweaking of what currently exists. I wouldn’t need to throw it all out. : )

    That said, I think keeping local control as local as possible is best. I think there should be local things taught that aren’t common to educations across the country. I think local school boards, if willing, would be able to provide it.

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