1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Education: Prisons and Schools

(This piece was published sometime in February, 2009 for the Denver Post online edition)

Why do our public schools lack so many public ideas? Look outside of school and find a cacophony of ideas, viewpoints and opinions; turn inward and inoffensiveness is found to be the defining characteristic. This absurdity crystallized for me several years ago as my class was exploring some point of Plato at a prison in northeastern Colorado: an inmate remarked that in prison one speaks of neither religion nor politics. “Good gravy!” I exclaimed, “Then what else is there to talk about – sports?”

Sadly, in this respect some public schools resemble penitentiaries. To exclude religion and politics from education means to radically diminish questions about where we came from and where we are going. Our schools should be places where ideas – radical and conservative alike – are argued for and against. They ought not to be places where we facilely equate high test scores with deep thoughts or assume a school is great because many students are taking Advanced Placement courses.

Part of our problem is that we don't know what we mean when we use the term “education.” In The Risk of Education, Luigi Giussani says that “to educate means to help the human soul enter into the totality of the real.” This seems to be a very satisfactory definition, but I will leave the reader to judge how well the typical public, charter, private, parochial or home-school educates to this standard.

Today our schools seem to be driven more by what can't be done than by what needs to be done. Rather than help students to discover reality, in and out of the four walls of the school building, the curriculum is reduced to a kind of lowest common denominator, lawsuit-proof, tapioca pudding: almost tasteless but inoffensive. Here are three fascinating topics that get roundly mistreated:

Sex. It becomes mere plumbing, hygiene and safety. No commitment, no adventure, no meaning. Then there's our human origins. We act as if Darwin's theory is – by itself – an adequate answer to the question, “What is man?” The more interesting metaphysical questions are entirely bracketed.

Lastly, there's God. The less said about God the better. I once had a (high school!) principal who said that because Christmas was rolling around, we teachers had best keep our mouths shut if students asked what we thought Christmas meant. While such overt censorship as this is rare, his comments do reflect a common attitude about God and education.

One can trace the problem of maligning and mismanaging God, man and sex back to a certain incoherence in the First Amendment itself. It speaks of both non-establishment of religion and free exercise of religion. Our schools seem to have taken the pragmatic course of ensuring that nothing gets established or exercised.

While none of us likely to solve the great church-state separation debate, we can surely reflect more deeply on the goals of education. Suppose that all of us – like Giussani – actually believe that young people ought to be introduced to all of reality. How might that change what we ask of schools and the kinds of graduates they turn out?

This is a question that educator Dennis Littky has asked and answered. In The Big Picture: Education is Everyone's Business, he writes, “Over the course of three decades watching kids walk into my schools, I have decided I want them to be lifelong learners, creative, ready to take risks; to have integrity and self-respect; to have moral courage; to truly enjoy their life and their work.”

Like a good disciple of Aristotle, Littky insists that these results are attainable if we keep in mind the kind of student we want to see graduate. It is possible if we help the student discover reality in all of its splendor – without setting limits on what the student might learn. What our schools need is more reality, more humanity, more risk and less ideology.

[Matt McGuiness teaches at a public school in Denver]

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