Publicly Supported vs Centrally Controlled Education

Excerpted from CAROL BLACK:

Photo by Carol Black

“In “developed” societies, we are so accustomed to centralized control over learning that it has become functionally invisible to us, and most people accept it as natural, inevitable, and consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy. We assume that this central authority, because it is associated with something that seems like an unequivocal good – “education” – must itself be fundamentally good, a sort of benevolent dictatorship of the intellect. We allow remote “experts” to dictate what we must learn, when we must learn it, and how we must learn it. We grant them the right to test us, to measure the contents of our brains and the value of our skills, and then to brand us in childhood with a set of numeric rankings that have enormous power over our future opportunities to participate in the economic and political life of our society. We endorse strict legal codes which render this process compulsory, and in a truly Orwellian twist, many of us now view it as a fundamental human right to be legally compelled to learn what a higher authority tells us to learn.

And yet the idea of centrally-controlled education is as problematic as the idea of centrally-controlled media – and for exactly the same reasons. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect all forms of communication, information-sharing, knowledge, opinion and belief – what the Supreme Court has termed “the sphere of intellect and spirit” – from government control. Nothing could be more fundamental to the sphere of intellect and spirit than the education of our children, and yet freedom of education was not included in the First Amendment along with freedom of speech, press, and religion, because at the time of the American Revolution the idea of centralized state-controlled schooling was not yet clearly on the horizon. But by the mid-19th century, with Indians still to conquer and waves of immigrants to assimilate, the temptation to find a way to manage the minds of an increasingly diverse and independent-minded population became too great to resist, and the idea of the Common School was born. We would keep our freedom of speech and press, but first we would all be well-schooled by those in power. A deeply democratic idea — the free and equal education of every child — was wedded to a deeply anti-democratic idea — that this education would be controlled from the top down by state-appointed educrats.

The crucial confusion here is between the idea of publicly supported education and the idea of centrally controlled state-administered education. To really get your hands around this distinction simply replace the word “school” with the word “radio” in the following sentences and see what you get:

I am in favor of publicly supported radio.

I am in favor of centrally-controlled state-administered radio.

Not the same thing, are they?

* *
The fundamental point of the Occupy Wall Street movement is that the apparatus of democratic government has been completely bought and paid for by a tiny number of grotesquely wealthy individuals, corporations, and lobbying groups. Our votes no longer matter. Our wishes no longer count. Our power as citizens has been sold to the highest bidder.

Viewed through this lens, it becomes quite interesting not only to look at what your children are required to learn in school, but at what they are not required to learn. While your kids are very busy toiling over algebra and chemistry, international trade agreements are being forged and currencies are being manipulated by entities that most Americans don’t even know the names of, much less the inner workings of. Kids are compelled to solve quadratic equations and write essays on Shakespeare, and they graduate without understanding how to calculate the interest on credit card debt or decode a mortgage agreement. They learn an old fable called “How a Bill Becomes Law,” while corporate lobbyists draft legislation that will pollute their air and water, deny them health care and unemployment benefits, and put barely tested drugs on the market and genetically modified organisms in their food system. And in the developing world, teenagers are struggling with — and more often than not, being defeated by — English Romantic poets and high school physics while the World Bank and IMF are negotiating incentives for foreign investment that will lead to their ancestral lands being sold out out from under them to foreign timber and mining companies and Wall Street speculators in agricultural land.

Our kids are so drowned in disconnected information that it becomes quite random what they do and don’t remember, and they’re so overburdened with endless homework and tests that they have little time or energy to pay attention to what’s happening in the world around them. They are taught to focus on competing with each other and gaming the system rather than on gaining a deep understanding of the way power flows through their world. The most academically “gifted” students excel at obedience, instinctively shaping their thinking to the prescribed curriculum and unconsciously framing out of their awareness ideas that won’t earn the praise of their superiors. Those who resist sitting still for this process are marginalized, labeled as less intelligent or even as mildly brain-damaged, and, increasingly, drugged into compliance.

Next time you hear a teenager saying she’d like to know more about Occupy Wall Street but she can’t because she has to study for a chemistry test, or a parent saying he’d like to let his child run around outside a bit more instead of putting him on Adderall but he can’t because the school schedule doesn’t allow it, or a teacher saying she’d like to do more hands-on experiential learning or open-ended discussions or creative projects with her class but she can’t because she has to do standardized test prep, please ask yourself: why can’t they do these things? Who says they can’t? Who’s in charge here? Isn’t this is a free country?

Isn’t it?

* *
When Thomas Paine wrote the pamphlet that helped ignite a revolution, he didn’t title it, “Expert Assessment by a Certified Professional,” he titled it “Common Sense.” In other words, the very root, the very essence, of any theory of democratic liberty is a basic trust in the fundamental intelligence of the ordinary person. Democracy rests on the premise that the ordinary person — the waitress, the carpenter, the shopkeeper — is competent to make her own judgments about matters of domestic policy, international affairs, taxes, justice, peace, and war, and that the government must abide by the decisions of ordinary people, not vice versa. Of course that’s not the way our system really works, and never has been. But most of us recall at some deep level of our beings that any vision of a just world relies on this fundamental respect for the common sense of the ordinary human being.

This is what we spend our childhood in school unlearning. Not only can’t we as children be trusted to learn, our parents – and even our teachers – can’t be trusted to manage our education. They must have supervision, evaluation, they must submit to the authority of higher “experts.” But if ordinary parents are not competent to judge whether young children are developing normally or whether teenagers are adequately preparing for adult responsibilities, how are they competent to judge proposals for national health care reform or U.S. policy in the Middle East? If before we reach the age of majority we must submit our brains for twelve years of evaluation and control by government experts, are we then truly free to exercise our vote according to the dictates of our own common sense and conscience? Do we even know what our own common sense is anymore?

The usual argument for centralized hierarchical control of schooling is that ordinary people simply aren’t competent to make sound judgments about these matters. It has to be managed from above by trained professionals; we have to have some kind of quality control that will override the intellectual weakness of the hapless American public. And yet it bears remembering that all these hapless Americans attended American schools. We live in a country where a serious candidate for the Presidency is unaware that China has nuclear weapons, where half the population does not understand that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, where nobody pays attention as Congress dismantles the securities regulations that limit the power of the banks, where 45% of American high school students graduate without knowing that the First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. At what point do we begin to ask ourselves if we are trying to control quality in the wrong way?”

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