What are Schools for?

What are Schools for? (The blurry lenses of social schism)

            There are experiences that life presents to us which are shared by almost all. In modern times, these tend to be institutional. Almost all of us must work, we must shop, we must train in some manner and through some official channel. The Whitmanesque quality of life’s essential existence is covered over by the highly rationalized routines of daily living. Yes, I sleep and you sleep and the murderer sleeps as does the child, but the experiences which have more of an impact upon us are not, or are no longer, those that come from simply being the human animal, mortal and fragile, susceptible to sorrow but also joining with joy. And certain of these rationalized experiences leave more of a mark than others, given their longitudinal character when undergoing them, and the phase of life in which they occur.

            For over a dozen years when we are at are most vulnerable, we are in school. It is schooling, therefore, that is the most marking of modern life experiences. As Andy Partridge wrote, ‘You can take the person out of the school, but you can’t take the school out of the person’. Now we are no longer ‘marked by the masters, bruised by the bullies’, but insofar as an authority still judges us, and peers still mock us, the basic character of schooling remains in force. The origins of mass and thence universal schooling are well known. John Taylor Gatto is perhaps their most trenchant critic, though his own suggestions for solutions to the problems of schooling are oddly parochial and even nostalgic. At the same time, we are also as well aware of creative departures from the assembly-line school in John Dewey’s lab schools, Summerhill, Black Mountain College, and the Montessori system, to name some of the most famous. We are told that one Taylor Swift no less, was a Montessori graduate, and she herself has said in interview that its DIY pedagogy was what allowed her own musical creativity to develop. So before we summarize the pathology of the schools in rational fashion, let us pause right near the beginning and recognize that schooling and learning are likely two distinct things. That ‘education’ is too amorphous a term to ultimately be of use in any analysis, and that training is the more apt descriptor.

            Schools get us when we’re young. Born out of the Hobson’s choice between raw child labour and cooked child training, the public school is to this day a space wherein the two key lessons are production and consumption. Not only must we learn how to perform both, we must learn to do so in the correct order. Playing a game on one’s phone in class is ‘out of order’ in this more essential sense. We are consuming in the space of production, the simple converse of doing our homework whilst sitting in the back of the movie theater with our miffed date cuddled up beside us. The public school has few expectations of us; that we are semi-literate, enough to either take up a service job or move on to college; that we are semi-sociable, enough that we neither become criminals nor revolutionaries; and that we are perversely grateful, so relieved to have simply graduated that we are content just to walk away and count our blessings.

            That is, until we have our own children. Then, as parents, we finally have the chance to express our revenge against all that the schools did to us. A childlike vendetta thus emerges, and thenceforth merges with childish action: the teachers need to ‘stay in their lane’, ‘I’m the parent and I don’t ‘co-parent’ with the State’, ‘schools need to leave morals to ‘society’’, or even simply and oddly contradictory, ‘leave our kids alone’. Which calls to mind another, more famous, pop music lyric, that of Pink Floyd, which too enjoins the teacher to ‘leave us kids alone’. The phantasmagorical sequence from ‘The Wall’ which has that short song as its soundtrack has tens of millions of views on the net. Yes, I too wanted to torch my high school, kill a few of its teachers. That was the child’s eye view. But as an adult and as a philosopher, I want more than that. Much more.

            If the public schools are undemocratic – children are told what to do with no real input into the doing, mimicking as closely as possible the adult workplace – then the charter schools and private schools are inherently anti-democratic. These latter need to be shut down, their student complements combined with the rest of our kids, their elite tax bases dedicated to universal learning, understanding, experiencing, not training, not educating and God knows not schooling. This move alone would solve almost all of the issues in today’s schools. Those students who then, armed with all of the resources reserved now only for elites, enclaves, or some bastard version of parochialism, who still found learning to be too much for them, should simply be kicked out. Schools were never meant to make wine from water. But the reckless entitlement that elites reproduce in their ‘own’ schools, where their ‘special’ and ‘superior’ children engage in a well-practiced apartheid at the expense of ‘normal’ children is the scandal of our current society. We live in a political democracy sabotaging itself through the ongoing presence of a social plutocracy. And the separate school systems are the foundation of this self-sabotage.

            Paul Ricoeur, one of the great thinkers of the post-war period, reminds us that ‘The love we have for our own children does not exempt us from loving the children of the world’. Indeed, one might go so far to say that to be the child of elites is to be unloved in any authentic way, sent off to board with strangers with the sole purpose of reproducing an endogamous marriage pool so that wealth never falls into the ‘wrong’ hands. This absence of love is the truer reason why we fail, as both individuals and as a culture, to ‘love the world’s children’ in any significant and meaningful manner. Just as ‘love thy neighbor’ presumes that one does indeed ‘love thyself’, a yet more intimate experience that is positively lacking in our society today, we cannot be said to comprehend the portent of maintaining a pricey and pretentious elite while the world, including its children, goes to hell. To borrow once again from our musical commentators, if ‘just surviving’ really is such ‘a noble fight’, we may begin by asking why should we ennoble it when there is a much less romantic option at hand.

            Don’t burn down the schools, it’s a waste of infrastructure. Torch instead the boundaries which divide humanity by class, ethnicity, and credo by introducing our children to the beginning of a social and cultural transformation, and then letting them, from the earliest of ages when such ‘mature’ social divisions have yet to be learned and all are ‘naturally’ amicable to one another, take it from there.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over 55 books in education, ethics, health, social theory and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.