Public Schools Best Fulfill Dr. King’s “Purpose of Education”

CZCqp_RUkAE-ZHI

 

What is the purpose of education?

 

Is it to train the next generation of workers?

 

Or is it to empower the next generation of citizens?

 

Is it to give children the skills necessary to meet the needs of business and industry?

 

Or is it to provide them the tools to self-actualize and become the best people they can be?

 

In today’s world, our leaders continue to insist that the answer to the question is the former corporate training model. Knowledge is only valuable if it translates to a job and thus a salary.

 

But we didn’t always think that way.

 

As another Martin Luther King Day is about to dawn this week, I’m reminded of the man behind the myth, a person who clearly would deny this materialistic view of learning.

 

When we think of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we usually think of the towering figure of the Civil Rights Movement who gave the “I have a dream” speech during the March on Washington in 1963.

 

However, as a teacher, I find myself turning to something he wrote in 1947 when he was just an 18-year-old student at Morehouse College.

 

While finishing his undergraduate studies in sociology, he published an essay in the student paper called “The Purpose of Education.”

 

Two sections immediately jump off the page. The first is this:

 

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.”

 

So for King it wasn’t enough for schools to teach facts. It wasn’t enough to teach skills, math, writing, reading, history and science. The schools are also responsible for teaching children character – how to be good people, how to get along with each other.

 

It’s a worthy goal.

 

But 2018 contains a far different educational landscape than 1947.

 

When King wrote, there were basically two kinds of school – public and private. Today there is a whole spectrum of public and private each with its own degree of self-governance, fiscal accountability and academic freedom.

 

On the one side we have traditional public schools. On the other we have fully private schools. And in the middle we have charter, voucher and home schools.

 

So which schools today are best equipped to meet King’s ideal?

 

Private schools are by their very nature exclusionary. They attract and accept only certain students. These may be those with the highest academics, parental legacies, religious beliefs, or – most often – families that can afford the high tuition. As such, their student bodies are mostly white and affluent.

 

That is not King’s ideal. That is not the best environment to form character, the best environment in which to learn about people who are different than you and to develop mutual understanding.

 

Voucher schools are the same. They are, in fact, nothing but private schools that are subsidized in part by public tax dollars.

 

Charter schools model themselves on private schools so they are likewise discriminatory. The businesses who run these institutions – often for a profit – don’t have to enroll whoever applies. Even though they are fully funded by public tax dollars, they can choose who to let in and who to turn away. Often this is done behind the cloak of a lottery, but with no transparency and no one checking to ensure it is done fairly, there is no reason to believe operators are doing anything but selecting the easiest (read: cheapest) students to educate.

 

Charter schools have been shown to increase segregation having student bodies that are more monochrome than those districts from which they cherry pick students. This is clearly not King’s ideal.

 

Homeschooling is hard to generalize. There is such a wide variety of experiences that can be described under this moniker. However, they often include this feature – children are taught at home by their parent or parents. They may or may not interact with their academic peers and the degree to which they meet and understand different cultures is variable to say the least. They may meet King’s ideal, but frankly the majority of them probably do not.

 

So we’re left with traditional public schools. Do they instill “intelligence plus character”?

 

Answer: it depends.

 

There are many public schools where children of different races, nationalities, religions, and creeds meet, interact and learn together side-by-side.

 

Students wearing hajibs learn next to those wearing yarmulkes. Students with black skin and white skin partner with each other to complete class projects. Students with parents who emigrated to this country as refugees become friends with those whose parents can trace their ancestors back to the Revolutionary War.

 

These schools are true melting pots where children learn to become adults who value each other because of their differences not fear each other due to them. These are children who not only learn their academics as well – if not often better – than those at competing kinds of schools, but they also learn the true face of America and they learn to cherish it.

 

This is the true purpose of education. This is the realization of King’s academic ideal and his civil rights dream.

 

However, this is not the case at every public school.

 

While there are many like this, there are too many that are increasingly segregated. In fact, in some areas our schools today are more segregated than they were at the time of Dr. King’s assassination.

 

These are schools that get the lion’s share of resources, that have the newest facilities, the widest curriculum, the most affluent clientele.

 

So, no, not even all public schools meet this ideal. But those that don’t at least contain the possibility of change.

 

We could integrate all public schools. We could never integrate our charter, voucher and private schools. That goes against their essential mission. They are schools made to discriminate. Public schools are meant to be all inclusive. Every one could meet King’s ideal, if we only cared enough to do it.

 

Which brings me to the second section of King’s early essay that pops off the page:

 

“The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals.”

 

Seventy one years ago, King was warning us about the situation we suffer today.

 

When we allow academics to be distinct from character and understanding, we put ourselves at the mercy of leaders with “reason, but with no morals.”

 

We put ourselves and our posterity in the hands of those like President Donald Trump, the fruit of a fully private education.

 

Racism and privilege become the defining characteristics of a class without character, in King’s sense.

 

If we want to reclaim what it means to be an American, if we want to redefine ourselves as those who celebrate difference and defend civil rights, that begins with understanding the purpose of education.

 

It demands we defend public schools against privatization. And it demands that we transform our public schools into the integrated, equitable institutions we dreamed they could all be.

Advertisements

Why Care About Other People’s Children

health-kids-smiling

As a vocal critic of charter and voucher schools, one of the most frequent questions I get from readers is this:

“Why should I care about other people’s children?”

One reader put it this way:

“Why should my child’s education and safety have to suffer because of difficult and violent students? …it isn’t my responsibility to pay for a miscreant’s education.”

The question says more than any answer could.

It shows quite clearly that school choice is an essentially selfish position.

That’s why some folks champion privatized education – they only care about their own children. In effect, when a parent sends their children to a charter or voucher school, they are telling the community that they don’t care what happens to any one else’s kids so long as their kids are properly cared for and educated.

It is the root cause of most of our problems in education today and has nothing to do with children. It’s all about adults – adults lacking empathy.

On the one hand, I get it. As a parent, you can’t help but love your child more than anyone else’s. You would beg, cheat and steal to make sure your child has enough to eat, is clothed and sheltered, has everything she needs to succeed in this world.

That’s a position for which few would show any embarrassment. It’s just being human.

But it shouldn’t also mean that you don’t care at all for other children.

I’d like to pose a radical thought – loving my child does not mean I’m indifferent to yours.

Children are innocent. They haven’t done anything to earn the hate or enmity of the world. They see everything with fresh eyes. Many of them haven’t even learned the prejudices and ignorance of their parents. And even where they have, it is so new it can be changed.

When you look at a babe in arms do you feel the same indifference? I don’t.

Perhaps it’s just the way we’re built. I feel an immediate nurturing instinct. I want to protect and provide for children – any children – even if they’re not mine.

If you saw a baby all alone crying on the side of the road, would you stop to help her? I would. I couldn’t help it. I can do no other.

If I saw a toddler in distress, a tween, even an unruly teenager in need, I would try to help. And I think most of us would do the same.

Doing so wouldn’t hurt my child. In fact, it would show her how a decent person acts towards others. It would teach her empathy, kindness, caring. It would demonstrate the values I try to instill in her – that we’re all in this together and we owe certain things to the other beings with which we share this world.

Why would you not want to do that?

We do not live in a world where you have to choose between your child and all others. There is a middle course. We can do for all society’s children without unduly sacrificing our own.

And if we can, why wouldn’t we?

Public school is essentially a community endeavor. It is an attempt to give everyone in your neighborhood the same start, the same opportunity, the same advantages.

It means allowing all children who live in the community the ability to attend the community school. That’s better than selecting the best and brightest and to Hell with the rest.

It means the community pooling its wealth to help all students. That’s better than dividing that pool up and pitting one group against another so that some get what they need and others don’t.

It means having an elected school board who holds public meetings, deliberates in the open and has to offer almost all documents to the light of day. That’s just better than an appointed board of directors who hold private meetings behind closed doors and who aren’t compelled to show any documentation for how they’re spending public tax money.

When you send your child to school – any school – she will have to deal with other students. She will meet children who are mean, unkind, unruly and a bad influence. But this is true at all schools – public and private, voucher or charter, secular or parochial. The biggest difference is racial and economic.

Our educational institutions today have become so segregated by class and race that even our public schools offer white middle class and wealthy students the opportunity to learn in an environment nearly devoid of children of color or children who live in poverty. This divide is drastically widened by charter, private and parochial schools.

So when people complain about the class of children they want to keep separate from their progeny, it is always imbued with a racist and classist subtext.

What they mean is: I don’t want my child to have to put up with all those black students, all those brown children, all those unwashed masses of impoverished humanity.

I proudly send my daughter to public school for the same reasons that many withhold their children from it. I want her to experience a wide variety of humanity. I want her to know people unlike her, and to realize that they aren’t as different as they might first appear. I want her to know the full range of what it means to be human. I want her to be exposed to different cultures, religions, nationalities, world views, thoughts and ideas.

And I want it not just because it’s better for my community – I want it because it’s better for her, too.

I want my daughter and I to both live in a world populated by educated citizens. I want us both to live in a society that treats people fairly, and where people of all types can come together and talk and reason and enjoy each other’s company.

Only under the most extreme circumstances would I ever subject her to charter, private or parochial schooling. And things would have to come to a pretty pass for me to home school her.

Imagine! Thinking I could offer my child all the richness of a public school experience, all the knowledge of a district’s worth of teachers, all the variety of social contact – how vain I would need to be to think I could do all that, myself!

Some people want their children to become little versions of themselves. They want to create a generation of mini-me’s who’ll carry on their way of thinking into the future.

That’s not my goal at all.

I want my daughter to share my core values, I want her to learn from my experiences, but I don’t want her to think like me at all. I want her to be a new person, special and unique.

I want her to be her.

If you stop and think about it, that’s what most of us want for our children.

It’s a common goal that can be achieved with a common mechanism.

So why should we care about other people’s children?

Because it’s better for ours. Because doing so makes us better people. Because all children are ends in themselves. Because they’re beautiful, unique sparks of light in a dark universe.

If those aren’t reasons enough, I can’t help you.