Mike Rose is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the author of Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America, recently released by Penguin with a new preface, and The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker. His new blog on education can be found through his website mikerosebooks.com
As the 2008 election moves center stage, I would like us to pause and ask ourselves the big question. Why do we as a nation yearly engage in the hugely expensive and culturally monumental ritual of sending children to school?
From everything we hear, it’s to prepare the next generation for the economy, and that preparation is measured through scores on standardized tests. This has been the primary justification for education for a generation.But our children are more than economic beings, and learning and development cannot be reduced to a few test scores.Education turned my life around, so I come at this issue in a very personal way. I long to hear more in our national discussion about the powerful effect education can have on young people’s lives.
During most of my time in school, my father was seriously ill, and my mother worked two shifts to keep us afloat. I was a disconnected and dreamy child, vaguely fearful of our circumstances, full of longing but without much direction. There’s a lot of kids out there like me. And they need all that school can provide.
We need to talk more about school as a place where young people form connections beyond the family to adults who can guide and mentor them. This was hugely important for me. These relationships often develop around a shared interest, around biology or mechanics, basketball or theater, thus putting a human face on knowledge and discipline.
We need to talk about school not only as a place where young people acquire knowledge, but where they learn how to use it, how to make an argument with historical events, how to think with numbers.
We need to talk about self-reflection, becoming methodical, examining your own work. And we need to talk about reflecting on motive and on the consequences of choosing one path rather than another–whether in a science experiment or in the schoolyard.
School is a place where young people learn how to think with and through each other, how to jointly puzzle over a problem, how to make sense of discordant views, how to arrive at consensus. School is a place where your world can open up–mine certainly did–through history, and geography, and literature, but, too, through the people you meet and through your own growing sense of where you fit in the scheme of things.
And all the above help young people develop a sense of themselves as knowledgeable and capable of acting in the world. This, finally, was what education gave me, a pathway from hazy disaffection to competence, to a dawning awareness that I could figure things out and do something with what I learned. This was the best training I could have gotten for vocation and citizenship.
If I could make one suggestion about education to the 2008 presidential candidates it would be to put aside the standard rhetoric about jobs and test scores and think about why they send their own children to school. Ask the same question of the wide sweep of the electorate they’ll meet on the campaign trail.
And if I can make a suggestion for the rest of us, it would be to have this conversation among ourselves. I know that principals and teachers are so swamped by the events of the moment that such conversation is difficult. But I think it would be worthwhile. Such conversation could also be initiated in parent groups, and among administrators, teachers, and parents. And parents could have it with their children. What does school mean to them? Imagine this conversation making its way to school boards, into letters to the editor of the local newspaper, to policy makers. We as a nation could begin a wider discussion than we’ve had in decades about why we educate children in a free society.