Schools Change The World, For Better Or Worse

Adam’s Note: A few weeks ago I was thinking about my daughter, school reform, the nascent Occupy Wall Street movement, and the Elizabeth Warren video where she ranted about Republicans so effectively. The following is what I arrived at after reflecting on it all for a while. By way of preparing you for the introduction, as anyone who knows me knows, my daughter is very important to me. She and I talk about monkeys a lot.

Part One: The Basics of Society

We’re all descendant from monkeys. Somewhere along the way someone got it into their head that, hey, let’s work together to make life easier for each other. The monkeys started handing each other twigs to pick their ants out of the ant hill, they nurtured each others’ offspring, and eventually, with some twists and turns, they evolved into homo sapien – humans, us. About 12,000 years ago we got together and started forming societies. Some societies moved towards towns and cities, and others stayed within loose knit communities. This is where society came from.

Before forming societies, humans were engaged in intrapersonal exchanges of confidence and cooperation. We began trading “this” for “that”, and “that” for “those”, until we had some of this, that, and those. These exchanges generally were not seen for what they were. It took until 1916 for a West Virginia educator named L.J. Hanifan to call these them social capital. This social capital, which requires “goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy, and social intercourse” (Hanifan’s words), was basic requirement for societies to develop and grow. Any fiscal capital exchange, i.e. personal services, or property, or cold, hard cash requires the exchange of social capital before hand.

Social capital is what is exchanged when you help the old lady cross the street, have a conversation with the mailman, or drop coins into the Salvation Army tin at Christmastime. Teachers grow social capital among students habitually as they teach manners, encourage kindness, and infuse community service into their curriculum. The wonder of teaching social capital is that teachers have actually served to underpin another essential component in society that is called the social contract.

The social contract is a generally unspoken exchange occurring beyond the immediacy of social capital. It is a swap, too. But this time it is a trade on a grander scale, one that considers trading personal rights for social abilities. When social capital is interested in exchanging personal pleasantries or doing favors for neighbors and strangers, the social contract is more concerned with trading our individual right to defend our interests (thus police and the military exist) for the social ability to leave relatively peaceably within our borders.  

Recently, the Democratic candidate for a Massachusetts United States Senate seat named Elizabeth Warren caused The Wave to go around the Liberal Stadium when she chastised Republicans for their indifference to the social contract. She said,

“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”


Here she was talking about the apparent indifference of Republicans towards the social contract and preserving social order. Given my political inclination and her vast experience as an attorney and law professor, I believe Warren knows exactly what she is talking about, which were the basics of society.

Part Two: Social Engineering

Throughout my own 20-year career as a community educator and advocate, I have come to understand that deepened connections among young people and adults throughout our communities are key to the survival of democracy. It is from this perspective that I am interested in social capital and the social contract. I believe both of these happen through social engagement, and that is why I am concerned about our society.

Evolution has often been painted as a competition: From a random starting point every species is aiming to propagate their own kind at the expense of all others. Sociologists, economists, and even politicians will at times insist that competition is the root of all progress, and that from the chaos of living in the woods with our monkey relatives we only progressed because of competition. Darwin’s theory of evolution, “survival of the fittest”, and all that.

This is where society collides with schools. In his 1932 primer on genuinely authentic democracy education called Dare the School Build a New Social Order, radical educationalist George Counts wrote, “All education contains a large element of imposition, a case which is inevitable and in the existence and evolution of society, educators have a major professional obligation.” This “major professional obligation” centers on more than simply imposing curriculum, although that is a component of it.

Counts was describing the ways that teachers teach society to students, because that is what teachers do. The ways teachers teach, the topics they teach, the ways they describe the topics they teach… all of these prescribe precisely how young people learn to attach to the world around them. Counts was suggesting that if teachers teach authoritarianism and consumerism, then children and youth will become oppressed consumers.

This negative reality played out long before Counts delivered the speeches that comprised his 1932 book. For more than 100 years of public schools, and massively so in the last 11 years of “school reform,” increasing pressure has been put on competition to become the predominant methodology used in teaching. By fetishizing competition in educational processes, as a society we have squeezed the enthusiasm, joy, and simple pleasure of learning from our schools.

This competitive pulse has led to the exhibition of public education as a liability dressed up for the public as a commodity, at best. At worst it is seen as somebody else’s problem, a NIMBY situation that doesn’t affect the students we are apparently so concerned with. The results of this false positioning are being felt throughout our marketplaces, our governments, and our communities. It becomes most apparent in our personal lives, where many of us feel no deep connection to ourselves, let alone the people closest to us.

The cost of integrating the competitive approach throughout learning, teaching, and leadership in schools is the end of authentic student engagement in learning. Competition single-handedly obliterates the inherent desire of young people to learn and grow—which all children and youth have, despite socio-economic, cultural, or other background. Schools today, which rely on competition, are killing students’ desire to learn.

In turn, absent their desire to learn and grow, young people are experiencing a declining exchange of social capital. They are not experiencing the invaluable, positive, and powerful interchange between cultures that schools once nurtured. They are not learning the deep, meaningful background that schools could be teaching. Do not mistake my analysis though: I have great hope that children and youth will persevere; I just do not believe that schools are doing what they can to assist in that effort. Instead, they are perpetuating the competition and further stifling the possibilities we need them to actualize.

As social capital continues to dwindle at school, we see teachers increasingly encouraging young people to withdraw from their investment in the social contract. This is the worst possible scenario. Absent the substantive social discourse schools could nurture, teachers inadvertently teach that the social contract is not effective.

Part Three: Social Change

This reality gives our society the possibility for two real futures full of social change. The first is the worst:

In this scenario, as social discourse continues to unravel, our politicians loose their capability to arrive at a rational point of debate. This becomes increasingly shadowed throughout mainstream society, as the media hyperbolizes all aspects of the news, and commerce is loosed of the tense arrangement between producers and consumers. In this scenario, every child, woman, and man must defend for themselves, and in no time we distinguish the social contract, those spoken and unspoken norms governing our every move. A type of social malaise is contracted throughout society, and the former agreements shared in the social contract become null and void. More than becoming irrelevant by maintaining status quo, institutions such as schools become negative catalysts that increasingly drive the devolution of society into the hearts and minds of the nation’s citizenry.

In the second scenario, there is a revolution. This is a revolution of intent, as it challenges many of the basic assumptions underlying our society. It demands that the rights of all people are honored and cherished, defended and demanded by all people, for all people. It sees that the equality of the rights of the planet and all it’s creatures by honored, too. It places top emphasis on the conscious creation of social capital among all people as it propels the social contract into the forefront of society for examination, deconstruction, re-examination, reconstruction, re-envisioning, redevelopment. The overall demise of complacent acceptance and passive receptivity becomes the norm throughout society as the exchange of social capital becomes hyperbolic. Uncountable people from every walk of society emerge as massively active, infinitely invested players on the local, national, and global scale. Heroes are not required, as the everyman becomes the everypersonthroughoutsociety, and all people everywhere activate in a radical demonstration of human potential.

It may seem as if we are already deep into the first future. Luckily, the second has become emergent, and is being led by young people themselves. As Westerners revel in the American Fall and it’s great potential for social upheaval, our young sisters and brothers in the Middle East have known that we are on our way since the Arab Spring of 2011. There is much more ahead, and young people will and should continue to lead the way. They are rebirthing the social contract and revitalizing social capital, creating a new exchange and embarking on a strange adventure that has it’s roots in the Civil Rights movement, the Labor Movement, the Women’s Suffrage movement, and further back still. Most importantly, young people taking action to reinvent their schools and society have their roots in authentic democracy, exactly where they belong.

In Dare the School…, Professor Counts got blunt about why teachers should endeavor to something more than capitalist competition:

“If we now assume that the child will be imposed upon in some fashion by the various elements in his environment, the real question is not whether the imposition will take place, but rather from what source it will come… That teachers should deliberately reach for power and then make the most of their conquest is my firm conviction… It is my observation that the men and women who have affected the course of human events are those who have not hesitated to use the power that has come to them.”

What Counts did not see was that young people have their own power, independent that of teachers. And while many youth—not all, but many—have given up their power, many have not. Succeeding generations have shown us that those young people will not give it up, either. They young people continue to assert their power and do their work regardless, with their peers join them eventually. That is what the Arab Spring proved, and the American Fall is demonstrating right now.
Today is the day that students and teachers step up and meet the demands of the future of democracy and start teaching the social contract with intent. Many teachers—not all, but many—have given up their power. Classrooms need to be environments that foster investment in the social contract. Social capital needs to be deliberately invested in and built. Authentic democracy needs to be lived. Authentic engagement needs to be the goal. And a new social order is what the schools need to build.

Our world—and our young people—demand nothing less.

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