The Purpose of Schools

I am an advocate for radical democracy, which focuses on creating inclusive, engaging, empowering, and connecting together all aspects of community for all people, regardless of gender, social, political, cultural, economic, educational, and other differences. My advocacy for radical democracy includes education, which is any process for learning, and schooling, which acknowledges a socio-political agenda for education and transmits those perspectives to students. In my belief, all public schools should support the purpose of engaging all people in democracy as much as possible. That means that if we’re teaching math, it should be for the purpose of strengthening democratic engagement. If we’re teaching science, it should be for the purpose of strengthening democratic engagement. If we’re teaching art, debate, gym, or ethnic studies, or anything, we should be teaching it in order to strengthen democratic engagement. If we cannot explain how the topics taught in a public school strengthen democratic engagement, then public schools should not be teaching these topics.

There are those who do not believe in schooling of any sort, public or otherwise, including John Taylor Gatto and Ivan Illich. Illich’s treatise Deschooling Society is based on the premise that our society’s primary education methods create compliant, complacent, and inadequate social actors remains popular, as does his contemporary, John Holt. Holt, a teacher, maintained that all young people learn better without any boundaries.

“Unfortunately, we English teachers are easily hung up on this matter of understanding. Why should children understand everything they read? Why should anyone? Does anyone? I don’t and I never did. I was always reading books that teachers would have said were “too hard” for me, books full of words I didn’t know. That’s how i became a good reader.” – Holt, J. (1967) “How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading.” in Norton Reader An Anthology Of nonfiction. (2004)

Recently more advocates are coming out against schooling, including Lauie A. Couture, who believes “children are born to learn everything they need on their own.” (Luckily, despite the title of his recent book Against Schooling: For An Education That Matters, renowned critical pedagogue Stanley Aronowitz still believes in schools.) Unfortunately, many of the folks who are against public schools specifically, or schooling in general, are recoiling against the education they experienced as young students, or against the popular media-driven conception of schools. This is terrible and terrifying, if only because it’s these same media engines that are driving the demise of democracy in general.

This is a dangerous trend. In a time when democracy is being dismantled and repackaged for consumption by an array of corporate forces, there need to be more critical advocates who are in the struggle to reform and transform public schools, not fewer. Young people need to be strategically, deliberately, and meaningfully involved in the struggle to improve schools, and sought after as vital agents for school change, not simply as passive recipients of whatever adults decide is best. In this way, they can also be advocates and actors in the transformation of the educational process, moving it away from the historic isolationary and consumptive learning processes many schools propagate and towards an engaging, equitable, and integrated future that can benefit all of society, and particularly radical democracy.

I am the product of a mediocre public education with teachers who were overburdened and disconnected from their students. The public schools I attended were not good, particularly for students from the racially segregated, socio-economically discriminated neighborhood I grew up in. I am the only one of my four siblings to graduate on-time, the only one to go to college, and one of the few members of my extended family to attend college. Maybe it was our free school lunches or middle and upper-middle class teachers, but things in my schools didn’t work for me or my family, or many of my friends and their families.

Now, public schools have let down my daughter’s education, too. Recently her mom and I decided to take her out of the public elementary school she attended because they simply were not capable of engaging her unique educational gifts. The number of students and the pressures to perform forced the school to attempt to label her and entrap her in “special attention” because they had no recourse for a student who wasn’t interested in conforming to their learning expectations, conveniently.

However, I AM NOT, AND I WILL NOT, GIVE UP ON PUBLIC SCHOOLS.

I will continue to struggle and strive for their improvement, reform, and transformation. Not a month goes by where I’m not sitting at the table with public school educators and administrators learning the realities from their perspectives. Not a week goes by when I’m not listening to students tell their truths about learning in the system. Not a day goes by when I’m not thinking about making public schools better with the hope of making radically democracy better. Not a day.

Join me in reinforcing this perspective on the purpose of schools. They are vitally necessary for the success of the democratic experiment this nation is engaged in. They are vitally important for the future of freedom and hope. Public schools are vitally important. Let’s start acting like it.

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