No links to start discussion today. No quotes with snarky replies. Just a few thoughts that I’ve been working on for a little over a year now. I thought that it’s about time to toss a preliminary version into the public space and see what happens.
First, a few assumptions (which could easily be wrong):
1. It’s not incoherent for a country to aspire to multicultural pluralism.
2. A multiculturally pluralist country nevertheless will have some sort of shared culture.
3. At the most fundamental level, the primary purpose of the education given to children in any society, at any time, is to reproduce a culture and to give children the ability to fit into that culture. (This is straight from Dewey.) The sorts of things that are often said to be purposes of education — economic success, survival, the growth of powers, etc. — are the purposes of the various aspects of the particular culture in question.
The tension is obvious: if education is about cultural reproduction, then which cultures in a multiculturally pluralist country get to reproduce?
On the one hand, the answer seems obvious. “They all do. They have a right to reproduce themselves, and to exist. That’s what multiculturalism is.”
But we also have to educate for the “shared” culture, the over-culture that makes our multicultural country a nation in the first place. And we need to do that without interfering with the reproduction of the various subcultures.
When we, as a country, find ourselves contemplating something like the Common Core — which proposes to establish a “national” curriculum (and that is exactly what it proposes, despite the protestations of some of its proponents) — we’re faced with the question of what, exactly, our shared culture is that needs to be reproduced. And not only are we then in the business of picking and choosing what parts of the culture get included and which do not, we’re also inevitably going to have to deal with the notion of cultural change and how we should alter our culture by altering the values and practices that are transmitted to the next generation.
This is, of course, one of the reasons (if not the reason) that education is so politicized in this country: education has been institutionalized to a tremendous degree in the United States, and that means it’s something of a “winner take all” in terms of cultural (re)production. All of the fighting that goes on — whether it’s about textbooks or Howard Zinn or Heather Has Two Mommies or prayer in schools or “Evolution is just a theory” — it’s all about the struggle to seize control of the mechanism of cultural reproduction and establish the culture that is desired.
One strategy to avoiding this sort of life-and-death struggle, of course, is to “thin” out the notion of our shared culture. (Note — I touched very briefly on this issue in the third chapter of my dissertation.) Instead of having our public schools serve as a center of substantive values creation and the inevitable culture wars that follow, we might think to “dial back” the public school’s curriculum to include only those things upon which universal (or near-universal) agreement can be established.
Nearly everyone — even the Amish, the Gangsta Rappers, and the Hippies — seems to think that learning to add and subtract and read is a good thing. But while that might fly with mathematics, with reading it’s almost impossible to teach the skill without having something to read. And that means exposing children to ideas, which necessarily means presenting them to kids as “endorsed” by society.
So it’s easier said than done.
I suspect that the great push to make schools into job-factories, that is, institutions whose sole purpose is to prepare students for some sort of “career”, is a reaction to the cultural battles that (I think) reached their apex in the late 80’s and early 90’s. If the schools just limit themselves to producing economic widgets, and leave the culture to the local institutions, then everyone’s happy, right? We all share the thin “culture” of economic efficiency, don’t we?
Well no. First off, it’s not clear that everyone got the message that there was supposed to be a truce in the culture wars. There are many political factions (primarily but not exclusively progressive) who desperately, desperately want to teach substantive values in schools, and who aren’t happy until they win. (And they never win, because no matter what sorts of institutional change they manage, it’s never enough.) That’s one problem.
A second problem is that this sort of thin-culture “education” (if we can call it that) really requires that there be some local, supplemental institution providing a substantive, value-laden culture. Otherwise it’s just a skills-training center, and not a proper education for children at all. If a student is not given a culture into which they can fit, not given a culture in which they can take up a meaningful role… well, we’re ignoring the fundamental purpose of education. (And this might help explain why so many students are shooting up their schools these days, but that’s probably a cheap rhetorical point unworthy of me.)
Additionally, for the greater part of the last century, schools have served as a (albeit contentious) source of cultural values. Our national culture has gotten quite used to the seeing schools as sources of civic value, and we’re ill-equipped, I think, to have the rug pulled out from under us with so little warning.
This post grows over-long, so to sum up: there is a fundamental tension between the fact that we want (to the extent “we” want) to live in a multicultural society on the one hand, and the notion that we can have some sort of centralized education curriculum on the other. There may be a way to deal with this tension, but I think it first requires that we acknowledge that it exists, and that we explicitly attempt to deal with it.