The School Choice Misnomer

This topic of popular discussion, School Choice, is misnamed. People discussing school choice are usually discussing nothing more than a change in limitations, a redefining of the mandated options, not free choice.
Some number of years ago (my way of saying my memory is shot and I have absolutely no ability to judge time anymore) I listened to research showing that children self-regulate their diets when they’re consistently offered a variety of foods and allowed to eat only what they want. A lot of anxiety over food is created by interfering with that self regulation and trying to control what children eat. The concept of school choice is kind of like giving the child who continually balks at the overcooked broccoli in front of them a chance to choose steamed cabbage and forcing them to eat one or the other. Meanwhile, some kid on the other side of the tracks gets to choose between cherry tomatoes and buttered peas. They both have a choice, so what’s the problem? Continue reading “The School Choice Misnomer”

The Spurious Value of Intelligence

Intelligence is a dangerous concept…

For many years I had a nagging feeling that I was living a contradiction. I truly wanted to teach our children to see things from different perspectives, and I truly wanted them to understand that everyone is worthy of respect and love – but that message was in conflict with the life we were leading.

Don’t get me wrong; we weren’t doing anything unusual. In fact, we were model citizens – two parents working ourselves ragged with good jobs, children devoting all their energy to school and sports, homework discussions every night, meals at the kitchen table, soccer practices, after-school care, summer camps…We were doing everything expected of upright American parents raising good, successful children.

We were excelling. Continue reading “The Spurious Value of Intelligence”

Authoritarianism at School…and Trump.

Authoritarianism and Status-ism – these are the enemies. My attacks on public schooling are not against education, they are against compulsion, and the prison of authoritarianism and status-ism that compulsion has locked us into.

My family has spent a good deal of time watching the Republican and Democratic National Conventions during the last several weeks. I am one of those people who has concerns with both sides – one side is too authoritarian, and the other is too elitist. I know which side I will support, but I will support it with misgivings. Trump’s tendency toward authoritarianism is too dangerous for me to even flirt with. Continue reading “Authoritarianism at School…and Trump.”

The Ugly Contempts that Guide us

In conversations about my objections to the compulsory nature of public school I often stare into reflections of my old self. It goes something like this:
I’ll say that I am completely against school attendance being compulsory and my friend, relative, acquaintance, or polite enemy will take a few seconds to think then say,
“Yeah, but….you and I would still make sure our children were well-educated – what about all those other people who wouldn’t?” The words vary, but the message is incredibly consistent. The message is that you and I can be trusted with our children, but those other people can’t be trusted with their children.

It happens over and over and over again.

In other words, compulsory education is needed to reign in those other people who aren’t capable enough or enlightened enough to understand how to take care of their children the way we know they should.

Think about it. Then see if you aren’t holding your nose at the stench it carries.

If you are a friend or family member who has said this to me, I apologize for sounding like a pompous ass…I still love you, though you may be less sure how you feel about me. I’m pointing a finger at myself as much as anyone because I recognize the impulse. I also see it as very wrong and I’m hoping to have company in this recognition. I held this attitude for a long, long time. My self respect depended on the belief that I was somehow superior to the average person, and certainly superior to some generic lower class of people. Eventually I had to admit what this actually meant…at least for me.  It meant that I believed a small class of people had the right to make decisions for a much larger, less intelligent, less well-educated class of people. I don’t think that anymore.

The point isn’t to judge but to express that, in my case at least, this position was based on little but prejudice. The kind of prejudice we pick up from the people who nurture us, often in their attempt to turn us into good people.

I recognized it in myself because I’ve felt the shame of being judged by others, and sometimes the people who have judged me as inferior to them were the same people I’ve judged as inferior to me. Tell me, which one of us should control how the other one educates their children?

Even if I was convinced that I knew what was best for someone else’s child, what right do I have to impose my decisions on them? How often has the inclination to fix someone else been fueled by blind prejudice that does more harm than good?

Those other people…people with bad taste and bad grammar, the ghetto rats, or obscene materialists, the fat people or the sluts, the gym rats, the ugly people; the Creationists, Fundamentalists, Atheists,  Jews, or Muslims; the people who clear their chakras and drink green smoothies after their cleansing fasts; people who join Mensa, people who leave school at the first chance,  home-schoolers; people who depend on food stamps and payday loans, or earn millions by selling questionable products; people who spank their children and saddle them with chores, or people who let their children roam free and don’t hold them accountable; people who drive pickup trucks or people who drive Smart cars; NRA members, hunters, video gamers; people who wear designer clothes, or balance champagne glasses on their butts, or have trophy houses, trophy jobs, trophy wives, and trophy kids, or devote their lives to the bottom line of Amalgamated Interglom; people who buy their clothes at Walmart or flout designer logos; people who go on cruises, backpack  through the wilderness, or never leave home; professors who spend their entire lives analyzing a handful of arcane books from the middle ages; people who plan to vote for Trump, or plan to vote for Hillary, or don’t plan to vote at all; banjo players, oil drillers, drifters, activists, vegans, Paleos, survivalists…

Who are the other people we think we’re better than? Whoever they are, I’m suggesting we respect them enough to trust them with their own lives – and their own children. If we think we have the right to impose ourselves on them, then they have a right to impose themselves on us. If we think the government has the right to impose itself on them, then we should be more honest about our ideals. The opposite of this interventionist attitude isn’t a cutthroat environment with every man for himself; the opposite is an environment of mutual respect in which real relationships can develop.

I have come to believe that we cannot override individual freedom of belief for a collective ideal, and that is  exactly what compulsory schooling does. What would I put in its place? I’d keep public school, but I’d put the reins in the hands of children and their parents. Its true that there are many opposing viewpoints still alive and well in our country, but there is a frightening uniformity in the belief that a single system of education, in which both the goals and evaluations are imposed from above, can and should be forced on the entire population.  That system of education exerts enormous influence over major life decisions and the actual minute to minute activities of our daily lives. We are not free in our movements, associations, decisions, or transactions as long as we are required to spend the entire childhoods of both our selves and our children engaged in constant service to compulsory schooling.

Yes, education should be freely, and universally available, but the power of judgment is in the wrong hands.

The mythology that this sacrifice of freedom is justified because of the skills and ideals it provides doesn’t hold up. It’s and ends and means problem. The ends are greater equality and freedom, but the means are strict institutional control. The means are in direct conflict with the ends, so it shouldn’t be surprising to find that we’re constantly falling short. We fool ourselves that evil is recognizable by clear evil intent. We forget that contempt and manipulation routinely camouflage themselves in good intentions. What better, or more appropriate, example do we need than eugenics? The idea that breeding of good people was appropriate for the good of society as a whole was enormously popular, even if it meant the rights of some individuals were sacrificed.

In his book Nietzsche and the Nazis, Stephen Hicks points out one way we rationalize the rise of Nazi power. We believe “that as masters of rhetoric and propaganda the Nazis succeeded in fooling millions of Germans about their agenda and manipulated their way into power.” Hicks has some sympathy for this way of thinking, “for it is the kind of explanation that comes naturally to those of us raised in liberal democracies.”

But what Stephen Hicks goes on to argue is that “National Socialism was first a philosophy of life believed and advocated by highly intelligent men and women. Professors, public intellectuals, Nobel Prize-winners—all powerful minds working at the cutting edges of their disciplines. It was they who shaped the intellectual culture of Germany in the 1920s and who convinced millions of Germans that National Socialism was the best hope for Germany’s future…They believed their ideas to be true, beautiful, noble, and the only hope for the world.”

“Nazi intellectuals and their followers thought of themselves as idealists and as crusaders for a noble cause”

“It may be hard to believe that the Nazis thought of themselves as noble idealists, especially with our after the fact knowledge of the horrible destructiveness of Nazism. It may be especially hard for those of us raised in Western liberal democracies to believe it—since from the cradle we’ve been raised to believe that freedom, equality, and peace are almost self-evidently good. ”

And there, in that last quote, is my dilemma: “we’ve been raised to believe that freedom, equality, and peace are almost self-evidently good.” Yet our freedom is so grossly curtailed by the requirements of state education that it only survives because of the depth and strength of that mythology. That mythology assumes that state education actually teaches those ideals that Hicks stated, but examination of the behaviors required show a different truth. Professors and public intellectuals design the programs for us, and our very ability to be a part of the community demands that we follow along. State education teaches obedience to authority and a willingness to accept external goals and judgment on a level most of us don’t expect from our dogs. We accept it because the social mythology is so strong. Our identities depend on the affirmation of worth we gain from its approvals. We accept it because we’ve learned that those other people won’t do what’s needed if it isn’t required.

I’m having trouble finding evidence that Freedom and Equality are being taught as anything more than flimsy abstract concepts. Their reality is being trained out of us.


Diane Ravitch and Whitney Tilson are Irrelevant

I just read this post about the places where Diane Ravitch and Whitney Tilson actually agree…and disagree.

I spend very little time reading posts like these because they seem beside the point to me.

Their main disagreement, or one of them at least, appears to be about school reform. Tilson is for school reform, supporting charter schools, vouchers, and school choice. Ravitch is against school reform, believing charter schools, vouchers, and school choice are harmful to public schools. Tilson seems to think reformers (experts? politicians? academics?)  should be allowed to come in and radically change schools. Ravitch believes educators should be given control over schools.

I’m not too concerned with the nuances of their positions because both arguments seem moot to me. I’m concerned with a much more basic flaw in the entire debate. It reminded me of an argument I once had with a coworker. Continue reading “Diane Ravitch and Whitney Tilson are Irrelevant”

The Lessons Schools Teach

I’m hesitant to quote John Taylor Gatto for several reasons, but I am doing it anyway…

Anyone who has looked into alternative views on public education has run into the work of John Taylor Gatto. Gatto was New York City Teacher of the Year three times, and New York State Teacher of the year once. One thing he makes very clear, though, is that his teaching success had nothing to do with the system that employed him, and everything to do with his willingness to defy it. The methods he used to help his students, many of whom were already labelled as defective and inferior, were not sanctioned by the school system. He has proudly admitted that he did things that were actually illegal, because that’s what real learning required.

So, while I am less than sure about some of his historical and political arguments, I am quite in agreement with his practical assessments of our school system based on his classroom experiences. Those observations strike me as dead on accurate. Continue reading “The Lessons Schools Teach”

Measuring Worth

I had a casual conversation in the dentist office a couple of years ago with a woman in the waiting room. She was reading a book I recognized and we fell into talking. It turned out that we had come to similar conclusions about our town’s gifted program, and she was very eager to talk about it. She was especially interested in the fact that I agreed with her even though my children had been a part of that program – for a time, anyway. The whole concept felt wrong to both of us.

The book she was reading was Mindset, by Carol Dweck – which has become so well-known at this point that “growth mindset” has been reduced to a meme. (Here’s a link to Carol Dweck’s TED Talk.) Even Carol Dweck is worrying that it’s been twisted into something less than productive when bandied about in the context of school performance. (Here she revisits the ideas to clarify their use in schools). In any case, there’s a lot of truth in the ideas, and they made a big impression on me when I first read it in early 2007.  I think about it often. In any case, my new dentist office friend was finding it extremely relevant to her arguments about the gifted program.

She thought the town was sending the message that some kids are inherently different from others, and not just different, but actually better.

It pissed her off. Continue reading “Measuring Worth”

Responding to NPR Stories

Two stories I heard on NPR during the last couple of weeks made the bells in my head ring loudly enough that I need to respond…at least briefly to silence my brain.

The most recent one, about gifted minorities, clanged painfully inside my skull. As a suburban white woman who has butt up against this idea of “giftedness” and rejected it as damaging; I hate hearing about its growth in any sense.

I expect the idea of identifying minority children as gifted will be embraced by a lot of people I know, but the whole concept of gifted versus non-gifted education leaves me feeling like I stepped in dog shit. So I’m not including a link to that story. I’m just getting its ugly clanging  out of my head so I can focus on a much happier note… Continue reading “Responding to NPR Stories”

The Sandy Hook Shooting, Alienation, and Us

We just passed the anniversary of the shooting in Newtown. I thought I might actually post this on that anniversary, but it is too hard. I have to move slowly and pretend it will be ok. I have to gently herd these skittish truths into an open field where they can be seen – despite a fairly certain dread that once I get them into the open, they, and I, will be open targets.

On the morning of that shooting I was also moving slowly. I was running late on my way to work – probably because driving my daughter to the high school added almost an hour to my morning commute. So I was running late, but I was refusing to act late. Hurrying had become constant, and I was tired of it. Besides, driving gave me time to think. The sky was clear and the roads were quiet. I’d get there when I’d get there. Continue reading “The Sandy Hook Shooting, Alienation, and Us”