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

Saturday, November 19, 2011

What's so "public" about public education?

It seems to me that what is meant by "public" in public education is something rather diminutive and it certainly is not something that takes into account the values of most parents.

Public is governmental is secular. Another way to put this is that public education as it is currently configured is partial at best. It is not rooted in a particularly strong hypothesis of meaning nor does it generally even admit that it possesses one.

Should education be restricted to a certain, limited view of things or should it be a window that opens to all of the real? The Austrian Jesuit, Joseph Jungmann insisted that "education ought to be an introduction to the whole of reality." I've had secular educationists "agree" with me on this definition of education, but that was because their view of reality is truncated: secular reality is all they see.

The choices of inclusion and exclusion in what is considered "public" in our schools is very interesting:
  • anthropology, biology is included but spirit is excluded
  • metaphysically, the schools exude a soft agnosticism and fundamental questions such as "Does God exist?" are systematically avoided.
The regime of agnosticism makes "practical" sense because if students discovered God existed, where would we put Him [or Her] in the present curriculum?

But let's leave God out this for the moment. After ten years of teaching in the public schools I found it amazing that few teachers recognized that they themselves communicated a hypothesis of meaning to their students. It is as obvious as air and thus can similarly be taken for granted. What I observed in my colleagues was a hypothesis that went something like this:
  • if you study hard and go to college, you'll get a good job
Pretty thin gruel, that. I don't blame the teachers per se for promoting this view: they breathe it as we all do. We are all implicated in a culture we did not create. American culture is notoriously superficial and it is difficult to tell if that is because of public education or that our culture drives superficiality into education. Methinks it's a symbiotic relationship.

There are more adequate hypotheses (Neil Postman characterizes these as "gods" or stories or narratives in The End of Education) and not all of them are "faith-based." How so many intelligent and educated people can think that students can be truly and completely educated without having a clue about the meaning of life is something that I am not wise enough to puzzle through.

That the hypothesis of economic utility is ultimately empty and, literally, incredible, is evidenced by the indifference of the denizens of public high schools. Indifference? Life is a wonderful, mysterious adventure but the soft nihilism we preach in school leaves students bored and flaccid.

(This post is based on my response to a blog post by Deborah Meier in "Bridging Differences" in Education Week.)

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