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.

I will call this coworker “Coworker”. Coworker and I were completely immersed in a discussion about a third person who I will call “Third Person”. We both had very clear ideas about why Third Person had acted a certain way, and what Third Person was thinking. We got pretty deep into our discussion about Third Person’s intentions and motivations. Third Person, meanwhile, had entered the room and was standing right next to us but couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Eventually, Third Person walked away in exasperation…and we just kept on arguing.

It was embarrassing to realize, but Coworker and I weren’t really arguing about Third Person. We were both too busy making points about our own beliefs and interests. The purpose of the conversation had very little to do with Third Person.

Notice how the conversations about school reform are driven by the government, and educators, and colleges, and private businesses… Their words are always about students, but that isn’t really what they’re talking about.

Diane Ravitch and Whitney Tilson can argue all they want, but it is time for us, the people who this argument is actually about, to walk away and leave them behind. Public education does not exist for educators or reformers or private businesses. Public education exists for us, the public this whole system is supposed to be serving. Ravitch, on the side of educators, argues that educators will serve our best interests, and Tilson, on the side of reform, argues that reformers will serve our best interest. Neither of them has noticed that we are standing right here and are very capable of speaking to our own interests, thank you very much.

Control of public education should not be in the hands of educators or reformers or private business interests. Control of public education should be given directly to the citizens being educated.

I’m not just making a cute argument. I mean this literally. WE are the people who should be in control – not the abstract, protracted, illusion of control we get by voting for Board of Ed members, but the kind of direct control that would let us, with our children, set our own goals then mix, match, come, go, take a little from column A and a little from column B and a little from our own kitchen and a trip to the park in our efforts to meet those goals; then, most importantly, allow us to judge the success or failure of each element in the journey ourselves. Whether we come back for more should depend entirely on whether we decide it is worth our time. It cannot be mandatory.

A real free market would allow people to skip school to learn rock climbing, or read a book, or see a show, or help someone in need, or write a play, or invent a game, or sleep, or build a toaster, or write a novel, or go on a pilgrimage, or listen to senate hearings, study insects, swim, cook, search for dinosaur bones, take care of the neighbor’s dog, have a debate, visit a sick friend, collect rocks, put on a show, start a bee farm, build a mousetrap, go camping, research a disease, hike up a mountain, learn to speak Arabic, test a hypothesis, organize a book club, read the Bible, organize a barn-raising, train a dog… repurpose old three piece suits.

I know. I hear all the objections. Most people don’t have the luxury to do anything they want… Most people need their children to go to school so they can go to work… You can’t let people decide what to teach their children, some of them will teach things like Creationism… What about the bad parents who force their kids to work? What about the PEOPLE WHO WON’T LEARN TO THINK LIKE WE DO?!

I have replies to all the objections I can imagine –  but my replies are also irrelevant.

I not only don’t need to reply to objections or solve other people’s problems, I have no right to. I just have the right to freely participate and serve my own interests. Which, by the way, tend to include doing things to help other people. I have a deep belief in benevolence as a basic human trait. Unfortunately, the constant competition and shaming that occurs in school doesn’t do much to support that trait.

The problems that would be created by removing compulsion in order to give people actual freedom over their lives are no more significant than the problems that exist in the current system.  But the current system is also completely inconsistent with a basic tenet of our country: the inalienable rights of individual freedom and the protection of minority positions from the tyranny of the majority. There would still be problems to be solved, but there would also be room for creative solutions. Education would evolve as the self-organizing system it should be.

Arguments about public education, whether pro-reform or anti-reform, seem to assume that the poorer and more disadvantaged among us aren’t capable of being in charge of their own lives; that they will make bad decisions and squander their freedom, or self-destruct, or be a burden on society, or create chaos…destroying us all in the process.

No. They won’t. At least no more than happens now. This is just personal conviction speaking, so I might as well say what I believe.  Sharing freedom with people who are different than us is terrifying, but necessary. Giving people the freedom to focus on their own priorities would motivate real creative growth. That the most disadvantaged among us have fewer resources is true, but it’s also true that the resources they have are overlooked and invalidated. The unemployed are seen as excess baggage. People who have fallen into the ranks of Disability classification because of the unlikelihood of their finding traditional employment with the abilities they actually have, are discounted as useless and without value. The kitchens that are emptied while mothers go to work sit idle.  Vacant lots are seen as the devil’s playground and everyone thinks of education as something that only happens in classrooms. Classrooms, when looked at another way, are pretty artificial and limited. My son used to complain that nothing ever really happened at school. It seemed largely true. The kids spent their time talking about things that happened a long time ago, or that might happen out in the world, or that they might have done somewhere else, or might get to do sometime in their abstract future. Even their science experiments were largely choreographed and sterilized. Yet, the value of trusting people who don’t look like teachers, to interact with children of varying ages in environments that don’t look like schools, is never even considered.

I suspect the actual growth and learning that could and would arise with the willingness to mix all of these undervalued resources with love, support, kindness, suspension of judgment, open-mindedness, and creativity would be phenomenal. The relationships that could evolve might be riskier and certainly would be less predictable. But part of the problem is that we have limited our sights to that which can be comfortably predicted. It is a scenario that is engineered to prevent unexpected growth. Nothing is seen as valuable unless it can be predefined and measured by an authority. Creativity, on the other hand, can be fairly well defined as unexpected growth.

I don’t want us to stop valuing education or stop caring for everyone, or stop gathering together to learn about the world. I just want us to stop forcing someone else’s inhibited concept of education on all of us, all the time. I want our education system to really be ours. I think that requires actual freedom in our daily lives, including the freedom to walk away when school isn’t serving our purpose. The growth that freedom would spawn would be visible to everyone, enlarging the public’s conception of education, enriching it…setting it free.

Diane Ravitch and Whitney Tilson both speak about empowerment as if it is something school leads to. But they don’t speak about it as an integral part of the everyday process of school. Empowerment belongs in the process, not as an abstract endpoint. Their arguments start with the assumption that every child’s entire pre-adult lifetime should be devoted to schooling that is designed and measured by someone else, so that somewhere down the line they can be trusted with actual freedom – which, by the way, is also predefined for the majority of people as a form of subordinate labor. It’s time to question that basic assumption. If we want citizens to be in control of their lives and their communities, then we have to give them control during the years when they are learning how to interact with the world. We can’t spend the entire childhoods of our citizens training them to follow a script and accept external judgments of value, then expect them to suddenly know how to create their own value in the real world.

Unfortunately, the way it works now is self-perpetuating. The people who are best situated to navigate the single file obstacle course of education eventually join the ranks of experts who then devote their lives to its continuation. Most of their time is spent repeating the process for the next batch of children, but a lot of effort is also put into fine-tuning. The result is the constant appearance of change without any real meaningful change. The meaningful changes almost always result from unintended consequences of the deliberate changes – like the extreme inflation of college tuition or the hoards of over-scheduled, over-anxious, burnt out graduates of No Child Left Behind. Still the successfully schooled believe in its validity because their identities depend on it.

This obstacle course will never lead to anything new, but it will continue to grow. Instead of enabling children to come up with some previously unimagined means of livelihood, or start apprenticeships at age 12, or find subordinate jobs as high school graduates at age 17, or even join the workforce as college graduates at age 21, the system will compel every child to attend mandatory preschool and universal higher education. Success will require graduate degrees and the age of independence will continue to creep forward, moving from age 21 to age 24 or 26. It’s already happening. Then we’re surprised when we have legions of young adults feeling lost and anxious because they haven’t yet learned to deal with the vast uncertainties of real life.

So yes to choice, but no to choice that is prepackaged and designed by people who want to drive our motivations for us. Yes to choice, but no to choice that uses guaranteed public money for private profit. Yes to public, but no to the forced version of “public” that scripts and grades us as if our lives belong to the nation before they belong to us.

The public is us.

They can argue all they want, but it might be time to walk away.


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