I am writing to all educators- not merely to the teachers, administrators, and other institutional personnel- but to all parents, caregivers, adults and older youth who are responsible for sharing knowledge and skills with children. I have an uncomfortable, but necessary, truth to share with you.
The United States’ education system is failing BY DESIGN and ON PURPOSE.
Please allow me to elaborate.
Our public and even private schools are not and have never been built for the benefit of our kids. Schooling was created to train children to be useful within the dominant social structure, particularly “the economy.” In the United States, our economy is one in which the vast majority of people have been working in jobs that are mind-numbing, soul-sucking, thankless, and/or physically debilitating with little to no financial security, recognition of our social-emotional needs, or care for our well-being. As the ultra-wealthy “masters of the universe” have gradually manipulated all of the levers of power at their disposal to eliminate the need for “workers,” it naturally follows that the benefits of employment would become less and less available to the masses. Well prior to the recent global pandemic and environmental disasters, work was not working for most of us!
Schools are increasingly being exposed as tools to perpetuate cycles of poverty, punishment, privilege, and power. Rather than focusing on the lack of resources provided by the government to our society’s most vulnerable and exploited communities of children and families, I’d like to focus instead on contemporary and historical patterns that may (hopefully) lead us to engage in a meaningful re-imagining of the purpose of education.
Wealth inequality and concentration of financial and political power has become so extreme in recent years that the majority of Americans have no personal or institutional “safety net.” This is tragic and undeniable. Treating the Earth and it’s inhabitants as “natural resources” for extraction, production, and consumption has led us to the brink of environmental collapse and spawned wars, famines, fires, floods, and subsequent despair and social unrest. Do we really want to continue training our children to perpetuate this destructive and unsustainable cycle?
It is not surprising to me that some people look back nostalgically to some point in America’s past when a single wage earner- typically a white male- could earn enough to support a family- buy a home in the suburbs or “good” city neighborhood with all the amenities (including quality schools), own and maintain a vehicle, acquire major appliances, go on vacations, remain employed with the same company for 40 years and retire with a decent pension. We know that this idyllic time of middle-class normality was not as “great” as many would like to believe, especially since it deliberately left out most Black and Brown people, unmarried women or women who wanted to work outside of the home, folks with disabilities, recent immigrants, and others who were outside of the White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant-designed power structure established at the founding of the country. For those who grew up with fathers who were alcoholic, abusive, and/or absent because of the stresses and pressures of being successful providers and mothers who seemed more concerned with impressing the neighbors than being emotionally available to their children, it’s not too hard to see that this lifestyle was not really working for those ostensibly benefiting, either.
Prior to industrialization, education was designed to provide landowners with labor that would be just literate enough in English and math to manage and farm the land efficiently, typically exploiting the bodies of those in the underclasses (determined mainly by constructed racial categories) who had no formal schooling at all- and who were often, in fact, punished for learning. Most students in those days completed their formal schooling by the age of 12 and went to work full-time in the fields, fully dependent on those who “owned” the land and the means of production. Those who pursued higher levels of education were the children of the wealthy, whose “educational achievement” would maintain their social status by preparing them to hold professional or leadership positions in administration and government. The rules they imposed on the country, including those related to education, were created within a framework of class distinction and holding people in their place on the economic and social ladder.
If we go back even further, prior to the colonization of the Americas, we know that there were people living here already who had no formal education system yet had managed to survive for millennia, living in relative harmony with each other within the natural world. Children learned the ways of their people by observing and imitating- through intergenerational continuity. We now call these groups aboriginal, indigenous, or first-nations people: defined as “produced, growing, living, or occurring natively or naturally in a particular region or environment.”
Recent scholarship in philosophy, anthropology, sociology, history, environmental sciences, and even astronomy and cosmology point to the inherent “workability,” if you will, of indigenous understanding of the world and humanity’s role within it. If we truly hope to address the catastrophic impacts of our civilization’s mythological worldview relative to the purpose of human labor and the educational needs of our children, we must seriously consider abandoning the entire system and creating one that centers the actual needs of people and the planet.
What would this look like? Well, to start, we should interrogate the some of narratives we have learned that have been proven inaccurate. Here are a few that I have recognized and reevaluated, personally:
- Formal schooling is necessary for children to be prepared for adult life.
I was taught and once believed that all kids need to go to school in order to have opportunities to be productive members of society. Education is the great equalizer and leads to engagement in civic life, gainful employment, and healthy families- this is the narrative we’re taught, right? I no longer believe this is true because, well, it’s demonstrably untrue. Quantifiable data and the lived experience of most of us show that regardless of educational attainment, most people are likely to stay within the same level of social hierarchy that they are born into or, as is more frequently the case of late, to drop into a lower caste category. The entire premise of equity/equalization is predicated on their being strata of social class and it is impossible, within this framework, for equity to be achieved within any of the systems designed to keep this framework in place.
2. It’s important to measure innate intelligence/acquired learning/achievement through standardized metrics and place students in “tracks” that are determined by the resultant data.
As a child who scored exceptionally well on standardized tests and in-class assessments of my comprehension, retention, and capability for higher order thinking skills, I am living proof that these things do not determine “success” as our society defines it. I was tracked into the “gifted & talented” programs in school and encouraged to pursue the most respected and esteemed professions in our culture- specifically, medicine or law. My aspirations were expected to be aligned with these tracks and the fact that they weren’t was seen as a lack of motivation on my part. I was labeled “disorganized,” “lazy/unmotivated,” and “troubled.”
As a young person, my mental/emotional health and subsequent behavior was impacted by specific, personal trauma from which I have healed through a long process of formal and informal therapeutic relationships. Having resolved my past pain while simultaneously broadening my perspective to understand the ways that the underlying cultural frameworks of our society influenced the behaviors of those who harmed me, I am now able to see the ways that the systems in which we are forced to operate are, themselves, inherently designed to perpetuate harm.
There is no measurement that can adequately describe the power of self-awareness and caring relationships to transform our culture and society in the ways our current situation demands. There have been valiant attempts to collect and communicate data in these areas through social science research, popular books, and various other forms of “thought-leadership” but since they are at odds with the system, they cannot effectively penetrate the structural force-field. I am still troubled- not because of what happened to me anymore but because of what has happened to all of us. We’ve become so invested in keeping the structures we’re used to in place, our imaginations have been collectively limited to think only in terms of ways to “reform” them, rather than dream of entirely different ways to live that are restorative, fulfilling, and future-minded.
3. Students are subordinate to adult authority and require educators to impart knowledge to them through structured, linear rules and processes.
Whether you are a parent or not, you’ve likely had occasion to observe small children at play. At the very least, you must remember some elements of your own childhood when you were just filled with wonder and connection. Remember…? When kids are allowed the space and time to explore the world around them, they learn not what to think but how to think. I remember sitting in the field near my childhood home watching insects and other animals crawl, jump, and fly and being so driven by curiosity I just had to find out more about them. My sisters, friends, and I would spend hours playing together- telling stories, singing songs, dancing, skating, rolling down hills, staring at clouds, making snow-angels, drawing/painting pictures, being silly and laughing at each other and at ourselves. This is the core of how I learned about empathy, compassion, joy, and social connection among peers. My best memories of my parents and other adults are the moments when they let their guard down and just enjoyed being with me- when they saw me, heard me, and showed me their love. Most of these experiences occurred prior to my starting formal schooling and I don’t think that is an accident. Once I became a student of the dominant culture with the subsequent expectations of conformity, competition, and comparison as the primary drivers, my connected, carefree days were effectively over. Internal and external conflicts naturally followed.
As an adult, I have formed and maintained relationships with many young people. In my experience, they have been invariably curious, passionate, creative, engaged, and motivated- NOT BY SCHOOL-but by authentic experiences in relationship with others who care about them. If anything, the imposition of rules and processes that are unnatural and counter to the way we actually learn have been major barriers to their education and fruition of their unique and collective gifts and talents. I believe the only way we will move in the direction of a world that works for all of us is by truly listening to our kids and recognizing the value of their idealistic imaginations in co-creating the world we want- the world our hearts know is possible. Our children and future generations of all species deserve no less.
I’ll close with a quote from Albert Einstein, who is regarded by many as one of the most intelligent and accomplished human beings ever:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed…”
Thank you for your consideration.