02 October 2010

Education as a Privilege

In all of the ballyhoo about education "reform", about the need to transform our system of public education, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding regarding education. This misunderstanding may not exist in the day-to-day attitudes of many students, parents, or teachers, but it is deeply embedded into the maze of laws, regulations, and dictates which flow from the state and, more and more, the federal levels. The misunderstanding regards the acts of educating and learning.

The misunderstanding is that a child has a right to an education. This is a false statement, though it is easy to understand why some may believe it to be true. Saying that a child has a right to an education implies that nothing should get in the way of that education; that somehow, an education should be imputed upon him. This misunderstanding places - at least in theory - all of the responsibility for the outcome of education on forces outside of the student himself. He becomes the passive receiver of education. It disregards the fact that the student is active in his education; it may even attempt to diminish or negate the times when the student actively works against his own education (and the education of others, as well). In the end, it treats the student as a thing instead of a person - with all of the complexities that comes with being a person.

The Latin word for the verb "to learn" is discere. One of the important things about the Latin verb discere is that it has no passive form; it has only active forms. Therefore, one could not say, "I learned the students math today." Learning requires action by the person learning. And yet, because an education has become a right in the eyes of many, there is a corresponding belief in some (or many) that the gaining of an education can be - or should be - largely a passive exercise by the student. And so, laws are created ostensibly to put more and more emphasis on removing all barriers to this kind of passive learning. What laws and regulations of this sort may actually do is kick the can of "hard learning" down the road while simultaneously pushing off difficult learning tasks onto others - or simply neglecting them altogether. Thus, in pursuit of a right to education, many students may well have their education actively blocked by "well intended" laws and regulations.

This must change.

The only thing a student has a right to is an opportunity to gain a basic education - the ability to read, write, and work with numbers. The reason why my statement is limited to the very basics rests in the nature of equality of outcome. If we are to guarantee a right to something - even the guarantee of opportunity - it must always be at a minimal level, at least as these guarantees apply to the nation as a whole. To claim that every student in every corner of this large nation will have the same educational opportunities in total is to promise the impossible. Too much variety of resources, needs, and desires exist - even if one were to only look within a large school district. Thus, the guarantee of opportunity must be limited to the basics, to those things which can in reality be available for all students in all locations: mathematics, literature (fiction and non-fiction), and writing.

Outside of those basics, it should be up to localities to offer educational opportunities based on how they choose to use their time, money, and resources. This will, of course, result in vastly different educational opportunities for children; opportunities will vary based on location and culture, on community and family decisions, and on the relative importance that each individual puts on his education (or how much pressure each parent puts upon his child to gain an education). But this diversity - and I mean diversity in the truest sense of the word - has the potential to birth a creative, responsible, and intellectually curious generation in a way that our current top-down, authoritarian education apparatus may promise but can never fulfill.


Jarrod Bolin said...

Both sides of the political spectrum are at fault, unfortunately. Here is an article from one of your (I assume) most hated sources that I believe you would wholeheartedly agree with.

Jarrod Bolin said...

Anyway, in my opinion, the teacher is not a trusted professional. The teacher is treated like a kindergartener in almost every respect. We're told what to do, when to do it, and exactly how it has to be done. And, when our students fail the nationally mandated standard's tests, the actual students are not held accountable at all. It's our fault. We didn't jump high enough when the state said "Jump!" And there's no possible way it could have been any other factor besides teacher laziness.

We aren't teachers anymore. We're coaches. If our kids don't perform well enough on the field of (insert your state assessment here), then the coach is at fault every time.