Mythconceptions about the purpose of schools

(The mythtake would be thinking that these puns ever get old…)

So there’s this new, poorly argued, platitude-ridden, bit-o-pablum opinion piece by Paul Farhi in the Washington Post this morning: “Five Myths about America’s Schools”.   Consider the source and the title and the article can probably pretty much write itself in your head.  I had initially intended to blog about the article, but I got sidetracked by something I found myself writing.  Part of Farhi’s argument about why Charter Schools aren’t great runs thusly:

Credit for (the academic success of some charter schools’ students) may rest solely with the students, however. Charter school students are among the most motivated, as are their parents, who sought an alternative education for their children and mastered the intricacies of admission.

And siphoning off those better students through choice may create the same disastrous effect as de facto segregation through the geography of poverty — it leaves behind those least able to advocate for themselves and most susceptible to falling through the cracks.

Now in the first place, Farhi’s not thinking clearly.  Credit for something as complex as a student’s learning outcomes cannot — pretty much by definition — go solely to the student.  Even if the student learns to duck from walking into doorway, the doorway deserves a little bit of the “credit”.   So let’s stop with the “sole” responsibility bullcrap.

But this really got me thinking about “credit”, and about necessary and sufficient conditions for learning outcomes. It may be that schools not only don’t deserve sole credit (which seems obvious), but even that they don’t even deserve chief credit.   What is the purpose of a school, after all?

“TO EDUCATE STUDENTS!” is the universal reply.

And it’s probably true, but only at an extremely general level of description.  What’s the purpose of a carburetor?   “TO MAKE THE CAR GO!” might be the response.  And that’s true, too, as far as it goes.  But the purpose of the carburetor is, more properly, to create an admixture of air and fuel in preparation for combustion.

The education of students is no less a complex thing (and may be more complex) than the operation of an automobile.   The role of the school in this process (and here we’re talking solely about the “learning” side of schools, not the containment or the certification side) deserves some elaboration, I think.  One way to think about this is to identify the components of the process:

  • The school (that is, the teachers, the buildings, the various media, and the administration)
  • The student
  • The student’s support network: family, friends, etc.
  • The student’s physical resources: his home, books and other media, school supplies, etc.
  • Widespread social pressures and customs

That may just be a partial list.  I was trying to aim for “broad” components: there’s no need to discuss every screw thread in the carburetor, after all.  I’m also only including the parts of a successful education, a functioning education.  Education (like most things) can go wrong in two ways: internal failure or external attack.  A car can break down, or it can get invaded by cable-eating engine weevils; a student’s education can break down internally due to component failure, or it can be destroyed by incessant bullying.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t think about the external things that can interfere with education, I’m just not dealing with them right now.

So what’s the school’s role in all this?  I want to float the idea that the purpose of the school is to create a fully supportive environment in which learning can take place, and to exclude external threats.  This does NOT mean that the school is required to fix the other parts of the process that go wrong, although perhaps it can attempt to mitigate their failure, just as a properly functioning steering column can mitigate the disaster of a brake failure in some situations.

Education can take place with the following sufficient conditions:

  • Student wants to learn.
  • Student has access to a book with the stuff he wants to learn in it.
  • Student can read.
  • Student has time to read.
  • Student actually chooses to read.
  • Student understands the book.

It’s not clear to me, though, that any of these are really necessary conditions, except maybe the last two.  And they aren’t necessary in their specific forms, but in terms of more general principle:

  • The student chooses to learn
  • The student understands what he has attempted to learn

That the other conditions aren’t necessary seems obvious.  You can learn without wanting to, for instance.  I learned about how to handle the death of a small child in the family a few years back.  I didn’t want to learn that.   Had I been given a choice, I would have walked away immediately, saying “Screw this.  I don’t want to know this.”  But there it was.  So desire isn’t necessary to learning.  We taught unwilling recruits how to be soldiers all the time back in the day, and people have been doing it for centuries.  And you might think, based on these examples, that there’s no way to gently teach someone who doesn’t want to learn, and so that our schools do require a desire to learn if they are to avoid resorting to extremely unpalatable methodology.  Maybe.  But that’s not really my point.

My point is that if you take the things that are actually necessary to education, and you ask yourself, “What role does the school have to play in these?”, it seems that the lion’s share of the “credit” for education belongs to the student.  The school, it seems, exists primarily to provide facilitation for learning.

And if that’s the case, then we might have really excellent schools doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing in order to create the conditions of successful learning, but whose students are nonetheless failing to learn, but through no fault of the schools, just as every non-functioning car isn’t the result of the engine’s going out.  Sometimes the ignition system doesn’t work, sometimes the wheels get stolen, sometimes the tranny falls apart.

Apropos of the Whitehead discussion below, I think that part of a school’s job is probably to accentuate the ways in which education is “relevant” to the students’ lives; it is in this way that I think schools can influence (though in no way take “credit” for) whether a student actually chooses to learn.   You might also think that student desire can be influenced less subtly than through full-blown coercion: gold stars, certificates, displays of love and affection, etc.   But that sort of cajoling isn’t really education — it’s just part of what goes into establishing one sufficient condition, and it has its own moral problems as well.

Anyway, I think we pretty much stink at that — at making education relevant, at bringing out desire.  Schools pretty consistently fail at this, and it’s for many of the reasons that Whitehead (and Rousseau, and Dewey, and others) describe, not least of which is that it’s fundamentally up to the student to decide what he or she wants to do.

But maybe that’s just not a school’s job.  Maybe we expect too much.