Diving into the Wreckage: Our Schools, Education Reform, and the Future Society

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Those of us who resist that narrow vision— who enter the contested space intent on fighting for more democracy, more joy and justice, and more diversity of thought and desire—and who hope to live in a more emancipated society, struggle to create and nurture robust schools. In a vibrant and liberated culture, schools would make an iron commitment to free inquiry, open questioning, and full participation; access and equity and simple fairness; a curriculum that encourages independent thought and judgment; and a base-line standard that recognizes the humanity of each participant. As opposed to obedience and conformity, the foundational curriculum would promote initiative, courage, imagination, and creativity. Schools in an authentic and animated democracy would put the highest priority on fostering free people oriented toward enlightenment and liberation.

Schools for compliance and conformity are characterized by passivity and fatalism and infused with anti-intellectualism and irrelevance. They turn on technologies of control and normalization—elaborate schemes for managing the mob, knotted system of rules and discipline, exhaustive machinery of schedules and clocks, laborious programs of sorting the crowd through testing and punishing, grading, assessing, and judging—everyone in a designated place and a place for everyone. Knowing and accepting one’s pigeonhole on the towering and barren cliff becomes the only lesson one really needs, and all of this offends a robust sense of schooling for participatory democracy; it conforms more easily to schooling for a society at the end of empire, bent on permanent war and experiencing the fatal eclipse of the public square.

By contrast, teaching toward freedom and democracy is based on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being, and acts on the principle that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and, conversely, that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all.

We expect schools in a democratic society to be defined by a spirit of cooperation, inclusion, and participation, places that honor diversity while building unity. Schools in a realized democracy resist the overspecialization of human activity -- the separation of the head from the hand, the heart from the brain, and the creative from the serviceable.

On the side of a liberating and humanizing education is a pedagogy of questioning, an approach that opens rather than closes the process of thinking, comparing, reasoning, perspective-taking, and dialogue. It demands something upending and revolutionary from students and teachers alike: Repudiate your place in the pecking order. It urges, remove that distorted, congenial mask of compliance: You must change!

The ethical core of teaching toward tomorrow is necessarily designed to create hope and a sense of agency in students. The big lessons are these: history is still in-the-making, the future unknown and unknowable, and what you do or don’t do will make a difference; each of us is a work-in-progress—unfinished, dynamic, in-process, on the move and on the make—swimming through the wreckage toward a distant and indistinct shore; you don’t need anyone’s permission to interrogate the world.

When the aim of education is the absorption of facts, the acquisition of knowledge becomes exclusively and exhaustively selfish, and there is no obvious social motive for learning. The measure of success is always a competitive one. People are turned against one another, and every difference becomes a potential deficit. Getting ahead of others is the primary goal in such places, and mutual assistance, which can be so natural in other human affairs, is severely restricted or banned.

On the other hand, where active work is the order of the day, helping others is not a form of charity, something that impoverishes both recipient and benefactor. Rather, a spirit of open communication, interchange, and analysis becomes commonplace. In these settings there is a certain natural disorder, a certain amount of anarchy and chaos, as there is in any busy workshop. But there is a deeper discipline at work, the discipline of getting things done and learning through life.

Knowledge is an inherently public good—something that can be reproduced at little or no cost, and, like love, is generative: the more you have, the better off you become; the more you give away, the more you have. Offering knowledge and learning and education to others diminishes nothing. In a flourishing democracy, knowledge is shared without any reservation or restrictions whatsoever. This points us toward an education that could be, but is not yet, an education toward complete human development—humanization—enlightenment and freedom.

This is the urgency: “Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witness they have,” writes the dazzling James Baldwin (1985). “The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out” (p.393). This is the burning imperative for school people, parents, and all citizens today, and might become the measure of our determination now.

Baldwin, J. (1985). The price of the ticket. New York: St. Martin's Press.

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