Defending Public Education

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In the last issue of the Public i there were two articles critical of public education.
One advocated home schooling, the other no schooling. I will argue that no schooling is always bad for a young person, and that home schooling at best can be justified in certain unique circumstances but is a poor choice as a general rule. I am a curious person to write such an article. I went through the public education system in Chicago, first Stephen K. Hayt Elementary School and then Nicholas Senn High School both on Chicago’s North Side. Through the entire experience, I dreaded going to school every morning. In elementary school, I was nauseated in the morning at the thought of trotting off to school and often arrived having rid myself of my breakfast.
The last day of summer vacation was the gloomiest day of my life. My mother often reflected that, given such dread, it was strange that I would go on to a public university (the U of I) to take my B.A., pursue graduate studies, and then assume a teaching career. As a youngster, I would certainly have opted for home schooling or no schooling if given the option. I thank my lucky stars that I was not given that option. I would have chosen badly because I would not have known any better. Formal public education used to be a scarce resource in our society and still is a scarce resource in many parts of the world. In our early society children had to work at a very young age and were given no choice as to their occupation.
In many impoverished societies impressed child labor is still a huge problem. Despite the fact that both the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights and the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stipulate that compulsory elementary education is a fundamental right of all children, that right is not granted to many of the children in this world. It took political struggle to gain it in the United States and it is an enormous struggle to try to actualize it in less affluent countries. The elite elements of those societies in which child labor is exploited have no interest in promoting it, and the desperately poor families require the labor of their young children in order to survive. It is curious that the abolition of this right finds resonance in the affluent U.S. (I have not heard it in Europe) among middle-class parents who have given up on public education as a matter of principle.
I do not want to get into the debate over whether public institutional or parochial institutional education is the better choice. That is a different issue and I am fine with parents and pupils choosing parochial education so long as it is not at the expense of the taxpayer through state subsidies. Institutional parochial education can serve some but not all of the positive functions of public education. Public education is an important mechanism for upward mobility in a class-divided society such as our own. Many parents are simply not equipped to educate their children.
Most low-income and single parents have to work so long, often in more than one job, that they do not have the time to educate their children. At the very top of the economic and social hierarchy, super-wealthy patrician families like the Bushes send their kids to private prep schools to prepare them for the Ivy League or other elite private universities like Stanford or Duke. What are the non-affluent to do if we were to abolish public education? The general argument against public education has some very severe class and racial implications. There would be drastic unintended consequences if public education were to be abolished. Neither of my parents had a B.A. For all my angst about school, I am sure that I would have never have enjoyed the fulfilling experience of being a professor at a major university if I had not been given the experience (albeit against my will even though it was my right) of public education.
Public education gives the child her first experience in moving outside of the particularistic confines of the family. The family is a unit that is above all devoted to the self-interest of its members. It develops tight bonds of partiality between parents and children.When the child enters a school, she learns that there are people outside of her particular family who have interests, needs, and ideas that are different from those of her family. The parochial school by definition is less expansive of the child’s horizons than the secular public school, but it still offers a wider horizon than no schooling or no schooling outside of the home. In school, the child is confronted with difference and hopefully learns to be respectful of those differences. The child learns how to communicate with others outside of the family. Respect for difference and the ability to communicate with others who are different and not family members are absolutely crucial attributes for a democratic society and polity. They are also consistent with teaching the child to be a critical and questioning citizen.
A related function of the school is to foster a communicative process between peers on the one hand and teachers and students on the other. This involves two conceptions, equality and respect. In public education, students see that their class peers are entitled to the same consideration that they are. In the family, they see this with their siblings, if they have them. In school, they learn to become less narcissistic because they see that others to whom they are not related merit the same treatment that they do. On the other hand, they learn that they are not equal in an important sense to their teachers. They come to understand that there is an intellectual world out there that the teacher has a better hold of than they do and that under certain circumstances it is appropriate and in their own interest to take advantage of that. There is thus a double educational process going on in the classroom, egalitarian learning among student peers and authoritative learning from the teacher. Some would argue that the latter is just a manifestation of raw power. I respond that the good teacher genuinely cares for his pupils and earns their respect through demonstrating that care while stimulating the child’s intellectual curiosity and learning. Of course power is involved, but when not abused it is not a dominating, damaging power. In the case of a good teacher, it is a symbiotic power in which the power of the teacher is used to empower the pupils.
Additionally, public education entails accountability in a way that home schooling does not. Since the learning progress of the pupil is assessed by people outside of the particularistic family, those responsible for the education of the child are in a position to less partially assess her progress. Despite the overemphasis on testing in the Bush Administration’s mandated guidelines, testing is but one of several ways of assessing a pupil’s progress. There are more holistic ways that most teachers employ as well. But in many states, there is virtually no accountability outside of the family that home schools. If the family is satisfied with the learning of the daughter or son, that’s fine. And under conditions of no schooling as it was described by Gina Cassidy in last month’s Public i, the child is accountable to herself. In both instances, home or no schooling, none of the above advantages of public education would apply. This assumes that only the family, and not the society as a whole, has an interest in the education of children.
I do not deny that in practice there are serious problems in public education in the United States today. Some have to do with unequal or inadequate funding, some with racial and class segregation because of housing patterns, some with the difficulty of attracting superior teachers because of the shamelessly low pay accorded to teachers, some with the lack of involvement of parents and community members with their children and in the schools. These issues need to be addressed at all levels of government and in local communities. In Urbana, some teachers and community members created a movement called the Project for Educational Democracy (PED) that addressed the issue of parental and community involvement in school decision-making.* Whether it be the Urbana’s PED or the Small School Movement in Chicago, there are movements that recognize the imperfections of public education and attempt to address them.
In certain exceptional cases, such as threat of serious physical or psychological harm, I can understand why parents might remove their children from schools. But I do not believe that the interest of the child or the society is served by turning this into a general principle. On the other hand, I think that it is a general principle in a democratic society that all of us have an obligation to be attentive to our public schools and to become involved in supporting and improving them whether we have children in them or not.
*For an in-depth study of the Urbana PED, see A. Belden Fields and Walter Feinberg, Education and Democratic Theory: Finding a Place for Community Participation in Public School Reform, State University of New York Press, 2001.

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