Thursday, May 24, 2007

Position Paper

I had to write a paper using the textbook that we have by Joel Spring to defend or challenge the following quote:

"A school has a multifaceted agenda and many constituents to serve...each makes its demands and exacts its price. The classroom is not a place of simple teacher-student interaction--not even when the teacher closes the door. It is a place in which the claims of various interests are negotiated. The classroom is both a symbol and a product of deadly serious cultural bargaining."
...Neil Postman

This is the essay I wrote to defend this statement. I call it "Playing along."

Education today is the knot in the center of the tug-o-war rope with many groups of people pulling it in the direction they want. All are vying to control or at least influence it to fit their vision of what is important and good. Among these influences are politics, economics, and society, but the madness does not end there. Also affecting education are race matters, and immigrant issues. All of these factors together create an environment in which many people are watching and commenting on school districts, school sites, classrooms and individual teachers. Many people have ideas about what education should look like, but few can agree. This leaves the classroom teacher to sort it all out as she arrives for class in the morning and her students file in to fill their seats. What is important? What do I want the students to learn? Do they need to be prepared for the work place? The political arena? Should I teach them morals and values? Which ones? Who’s? Should I teach them to conform to the social structure or rebel? Should I support their roots or convince them to embrace the common culture of this country? There are no easy answers to these questions, but teachers face them every day.

George Orwell wrote, “In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia.” If this is true it means that teachers cannot avoid the oversight and second guessing of politics, and also that any influence from politicians is likely to be close to useless. While it would be nice if education was free from the binds of politics, it cannot since its funding is derived from taxes collected by the very same political machine that seeks to manage the education of children.
One of the first purposes of education was to provide the country with “qualified leadership for a republican government,” (12). This goal, which was championed by the founding father Thomas Jefferson, would in essence create a meritocracy which is “an educational system that gives an equal chance to all to develop their abilities and to advance in the social hierarchy,” (13). Theoretically this would allow any student regardless of gender, race or religion to become the next leader of the United States. While there are obvious problems with this system that could be outlined, I believe all we need do is to look to the results of such a system. After 42 presidents (President Bush is the 43rd but Grover Cleveland was the 22nd and 24th) there has never been a woman, a non-white, and only one non-protestant. The only figure that might be disputed is that of social and financial class, being that several presidents grew up poor, and only through education and hard work became the leader of the nation. This does not add much confidence to the meritocracy.

Other political goals of education include: educating students to be good citizens, teaching the common goals of Republican government, to instill patriotism, and to promote community service. With regard to citizenship it was believed that education would promote cohesion amongst the populace and “curtail political violence and revolution, and maintain political order,” according to Horace Mann, (14). While this seems like a noble goal it is not without its cost. The government, interested in its own survival, is likely to focus on its positive attributes and underplay or ignore its stains. Mann knew this and even “argued against teaching politically controversial topics because of their potential for destroying the public school,” (15). The problem with this method is that students are likely to encounter controversy every where they go. Few topics in today’s political world are not controversial. Immigration, health care, war, marriage, religion, and poverty are just some of the topics that consistently arise in political dialogue; all are controversial.

When it comes to patriotism and community service there is yet again more questions than answers. While nationalism (patriotism’s father) is often a good thing if a nation is to be united, it can also lead to problems such as wars, civil chaos, hate crimes or even genocide. The issue with patriotism in the United States is that, “teaching patriotism creates problems for a society with a variety of religious, ethnic, and political groups,” (17). How does one convince such a diverse people that there is one common culture among the people of this nation? How does one find common ground amongst such a diverse group? This was a similar issue when requiring students to conduct community service. Students have a variety of values and morals, therefore finding community service for them to do is a challenge because conflicts are likely to arise. With all of this diversity and conflict, how can there be consensus on what political goals should be met in the classroom?

Besides politics there are other contributors to the educational tug-o-war. Among them is economics. It is a well accepted adage that money makes the world go round. Conversely the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, “money is the root of all kinds of evil.” What then is the influence of business on education. Just like politics, business is self motivated. It is interested primarily in improving its profits and competing in an ever growing world economy. Will American students be capable of competing against those of Japan, South Korea, China, or Singapore? The corporate community wishes to ensure that they will. Therefore, business leaders push the human capital theory which “contends that investment in education will improve the quality of workers and, consequently, increase the wealth of the community,” (24). This seems like a good goal except that it is not likely to benefit the entire community. Maybe by “community,” they really mean the business community.

This model calls for a system of sorting students into groups in which they are likely to succeed and contribute to the greater “good” of the nation through work. It is intended to close any gap between education and labor. A school would become the testing ground for student occupation, and the training center for a business owner’s newest employees. I wonder then what a curriculum based on this model would look like; or perhaps I have already seen it. Such a model would demand literacy and math skills especially along with any other courses that would further assist a student into a given field. For most students then, there is no need for arts or even history for that matter. What difference would it make after all if an employee was familiar with the Spanish American War, Women’s Suffrage movements, Emancipation of slaves, or the Declaration of Independence for that matter. It wouldn’t. No, only useful things should be taught. Things that will help students to be better employees, which should in turn make workers “happy because of the close tie between the schools and the labor market,” (25). While the motives of business may seem honest in their rhetoric, it would be catastrophic to ignore the fact that business is all about making money and increasing profits. There are several ways to increase profits, and not all of them include employee welfare. In fact business may increase profits by creating a labor surplus which would allow an employer to lower wages and replace workers more easily. It turns out that “the ideal situation for hiring is a large pool of applicants that will allow business to pay the lowest wages and select the best workers,” (29). With this in mind, we should not trust the interests of business with regard to the education of our youths.
Along with politics and economy, society also seeks to influence the schools. Just as politics seeks to further its cause, and businesses their causes, society seeks to train students to conform. One of the most interesting and difficult aim of education is the instruction of morals and values through the classroom. Few people would suggest that students should not have morals and values, but the questions that must first be settled are: is the school the place to learn such values, and what values should be learned? These are not easy questions to settle. Horace Mann decided that it would be best to “teach moral values common to most Protestant denominations,” (19). While it would be difficult even for Protestant denominations to agree on a set of principles, it is even more difficult to convince non-protestants that this is the best solution. There is a plethora of religious groups in this nation today that may take exception to the agreed values, not to mention the growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation or belief.

One of the issues that is currently one that schools are looked to for solutions is sexual activity among youth. Figures suggest that high percentages of teens are engaging in sexual behavior and the schools are seen as the place to solve this issue. With AIDS slowly becoming more common in our nation, the pressure is on for schools to do something about it through education. But what? Teaching abstinence is one solution through education but “those who believe in the right of free sexual activity between consenting adults,” disagree with this approach, (23). Instead they advocate for “educational programs that teach safe sexual procedures and advocate the dispensing of condoms in public schools,” (23). Who is right?

Even though “historical record indicates that moral instruction has not reduced crime, controlled teenage sexuality, or ended substance abuse, society still turns to public schools as the cure for many social problems,” (23). It is certainly important that children has a sense of right and wrong, or a moral compass, but is the school the place to learn such things? If not in school where? More than a hundred years ago sociologist Edward Ross declared “the family and church were being replaced by the school as the most important institution for instilling internal values,” (20). Can the school house fill a void vacated by family and church? Should it? It is a bad idea to attempt to instruct morality through public schools, and as evidence shows so far, it is not effective anyways.

What has all of this outside interest in education achieved? Has it achieved an equal school system in which merit is the measure of a student as Thomas Jefferson and others hoped? Hardly. Instead women, minorities and poor continue to lag behind the dominant white, male and protestant majority. This bias can be noted in that “at almost every level of educational attainment, “white, non-Hispanic” had higher estimated work-life earnings,” (44). This means that white people will earn more money no matter the educational level of minorities. Is this fair? Hardly. This problem is circular. Poor children go to schools in poor neighborhoods. Schools in poor neighborhoods have a “lack of a regular teaching force,” which causes there to be a lower quality of education, which means the students there will be less likely to go to college and finally earn less income (51). Because of all of that they are likely to stay in that neighborhood and have children there to repeat the process.

Besides that there is the issue of immigrant children. Is the US educational system fair to the immigrant children who speak another language? Education in the United States is Eurocentric, which means that it is comfortable for the children descended from European parents alone. For everyone else it is something different. Some people suggest that we widen the ethnocentricity of schools to include other ethnicities. This will help students from the dominant culture to accept children from other cultures, and also help students from a non-European background to feel comfortable in school because their culture will matter. Meanwhile NCLB legislation essentially proved to everyone that the US is Euro-centric in that all of the students must pass a test in English. This means that their home language is not viewed as important to the rest of society. Is that fair?

These issues is what the political, social and economic influence has achieved. Instead of equality and fairness, we have division and inequality. Every new legislation, every new program and every new lobby takes more away from the classroom by adding to the burden that students and teachers must endure. All of the tugging and pulling causes education to remain where it is; hovering over the mud hole. There will be little progress as long as outside influences continue to meddle in schools. I say let the legislators legislate, let the business leaders conduct business, let social leaders socialize, but let teachers teach, and most important, let learners learn.

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