I was recently at our local public library and overheard two high school girls discussing teen pregnancy. Why, they wondered, would a girl do that? I had to bite my lip to not offer my opinion: "They get pregnant because it's more interesting than school."
Motherhood — even teen motherhood — is both an adventure and an opportunity filled with possibility. It promises a new life, the deepest affection thinkable (that of mother and child), and, yes, possibly great peril. Through pregnancy, the teenager enters into a dramatic story.
The story public schools tell girls (and boys) is decidedly less interesting. It is the story of so-called success through studying hard and getting a good job. For those students who — because of habit or incuriousity — are content to study bits of knowledge disconnected from each other, public education "works": they study hard, get good grades, get accepted to college, finish college and (perhaps) get a decent job.
For many other students, this vague success narrative is neither appealing nor credible. It is no wonder that so many are drawn to drugs, alcohol, bad music, video games, and promiscuity. Beyond the anesthesia, these things provide a guide for life which is more compelling than the tale of economic utility and suburban respectability. Since the schools won't provide an interesting or compelling hypothesis of meaning, the kids find one ready-made or invent one.
Some will argue that the role of public schools is not to dabble in questions of meaning or anthropology or, heaven forbid, metaphysics, but it is obvious to any clear eyed observer that they have been doing this for some time. The meaning of life as envisioned by the public school system has already been summarized: you exist to be a productive member of society; whatever else you do is up to you.
The tacit anthropology is that the student is a weird hybrid of snowflake and machine: utterly unique but capable and urged to emit correct responses that the teacher-technician has inputted. Metaphysically-speaking the schools flail about in a case of terminal agnosticism: God may or may not exist, but in a clever reversal of Pascal's Wager, it is best to bet everything on the chance that He does not.
For more than ten years I taught in public schools: one prison and three high schools (in four different cities). One might think I saw a great deal of diversity (I did), but the underlying assumptions of these four institutions was fundamentally the same. Two major assumptions are that the person needs a lot of information but very little else, and that education can be separated from the question of what makes for a good life.
In the midst of my present "sabbatical," I've had the opportunity to teach some homeschooled Catholic high schoolers and the contrast with them and their public school contemporaries is amazing. They are bright, curious and open; they are not sullen and bored. The homeschooling parents aren't rich but they have communicated a rich hypothesis of meaning to the kids and the kids have an opportunity to verify something concrete and definite about life.
Such possibilities ought not to remain the privilege of the rich or those willing to make huge familial sacrifices. It is imbedded in our nature to seek the meaning of our lives.
Some find that meaning in religion while others find it in irreligion. Some find it in the "bad infinity" of pursuing wealth and shopaholicism.
Still others find the present public secular education perfectly acceptable because existential questions are of no interest to them. The point is this: if we take the idea of American pluralism seriously, this pluralism ought to extend into K-12 education. If the State cannot do this (for whatever reason), perhaps the State needs to get out of education.
Or, if not out entirely, then it may be necessary to radically reconfigure how the government funds education so that the idea that parents (not the State) are the first and irreplaceable educators of their children is properly supported. This isn't rocket science; it's simple democracy.
Matt McGuiness is a freelance instructor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.