What Are Schools For?
Thomas B. Farquhar -
"All education is religious education."
In 1926, when Alfred North Whitehead wrote these words in his essay "On Education," the ideas that would shape U.S. education in the 20th century were just beginning to gather momentum. They were not religious ideas, however. They were drawn from extravagantly successful developments in the management of industrial production and from the metaphors of military organization.
In the 1920s, the IQ test had just become widely available for use in elementary schools, after massive experimentation on US army recruits during World War I. New industrial theories like the assembly line, economy of scale, and standardization of parts were not only revolutionizing the organization of factories, they also became guiding metaphors for the reorganization of social institutions. Schools were full of men who had fought -- and boys who would fight -- in the most massive military operations the world has ever known. Command and control, objective measurement, and efficiency became the central metaphors in a project to reinvent schooling as a manufacturing process or a military campaign: each new generation of students would march out of the factory-school in rank and file, ready to become, in society, the means of future production.
In these ideas lurk seeds of our destruction. They are hostile to human freedom, motivation, creativity, and solidarity. Much that is wrong with US schools today, from colleges to preschools, public schools and, yes, even in our Friends schools, can be traced to the power and influence of these metaphors. Early in the 20th century, new technologies of industrial production were misapplied to education, and as a society we are still in recovery from this abuse.
As we contemplate our contemporary situation, we find ourselves in the midst of another massive technological change. It should not surprise us that new technologies of information and communication are heralded as central to the salvation of US schools. Notions like distance learning, electronic connectivity, and the "virtual school" compete to become the mantra of educational reform, and the marketplace has set its sights on schools as prime targets for advancing its commercial interests.
Can we save ourselves and our schools from another century of misapplied technological metaphors? A sage once said that history repeats itself until someone listens. We must listen now. Our planet may not survive another century of schools adrift in morally irrelevant technological metaphors. We must demand that schools focus the attention of students, teachers, and parents on real problems like how to reduce militarization and violence, respond to ethnic hatred, control population, and revere and care for the natural environment that sustains life.
Friends know they are called to play a role in bringing about this transformation in schools. Whether their primary interest is public education, higher education, Friends schools, or home schooling, Friends know that our deep belief in the power of education to elevate and liberate the human spirit is a vital resource in a society that, to survive, must move beyond schooling that views children as the means of material production. In this, we stand apart as peculiar people. Contemporary themes in the national discourse on educational policy focus on the need for the United States to prepare students for global economic competitiveness by means of more testing and "accountability," "merit pay" for teachers, and "school choice" for parents. In schools that are too large, too impersonal, too preoccupied with control, and lack an inspiring vision for the future of society, these policy initiatives undermine student and teacher motivation for all but a few high-flyers, even as they threaten schools and teachers with loss of students and funding if we don't drop everything and teach to those tests.
We are a nation struggling to understand and support education, but without a vision of how to do this and without the will to bring an entirely new level of financial resources to bear on the problem. At the same time, we are a nation that is undergoing rapid changes in social institutions like the family and the Church. Our lives and minds are being changed by new technologies of communication and transportation. Our very survival is threatened by the 21st century's potential for violence between nations and ethnic groups, violence in schools and neighborhoods, destruction of the life-sustaining natural environment, and a variety of new threats to our physical and mental health. It seems that there has never been a time when the world so desperately needed a vision for education that is adequate to the challenges we face. How are we to develop a common vision in a society that is increasingly pluralistic and diverse?
We need to start with the question,
"What are schools for?"
After decades of public rhetoric about a purported crisis in education, we can expect a variety of responses to this question: they are for the preparation of young people to achieve financial success as adults; they are for ensuring a good supply of skilled workers into the US economy; they are for securing US economic success in competition with other nations; they are for preparing young people to fit into the consumer culture of today and tomorrow; they are for the supervision of children during the day when parents are at work.
When I was attending public schools, in the 1950s and 1960s, the answers would have been different. Back then the goals were civic virtues of citizenship and, after Sputnik, the study of science leading to new technologies related to military defense. We believed that big was better, and huge projects in atomic energy and space exploration confirmed the power of big enterprises to solve big problems. And young people were being prepared to conform, to become small pieces that fit into that huge system. At my school, they taught printing, mechanical drawing, auto shop, hairdressing, home economics, and business math, in addition to band, chorus, and college preparatory academics.
Education in the '50s was partly about the celebration of a US victory in World War II and partly about the need to prepare to defeat the Soviet Union in ideological, political, and military struggle. This was a Humpty Dumpty, propped up to motivate teachers and students, and with the Vietnam War, Humpty Dumpty fell hard.
When the Vietnam War came along, many young people said, "No, we won't go." This was a radical departure from the aims of their education and of their culture. The two themes of prime-time television were guys with guns and the material comfort of suburban families. That was part of the program. Society was preparing young people to carry guns in defense of an economic and political system dedicated to personal consumption. Then young people balked.
Do we have a vision for the future?
As a society, we are still trying to put together a vision that will inspire us, and the decaying fragments of the midcentury vision will not serve. With the disappearance of spiritual language from public schools, beginning in the early 1960s, it became more difficult to develop a shared vision for the goals of education. Religious language, at its best, has the virtue of calling forth the ultimate worth and dignity of human beings. At its worst, it excludes minorities and closes off the search for meaning. In an increasingly pluralistic society, it may be necessary to bar sectarian agendas from public school classrooms.
Today we must reexamine the practice of teaching specific job skills to future workers. Technology is changing too fast. If you don't know how to read complex material with good comprehension, you will not be able to work in a modern computerized print shop or high-tech repair facility.
And we know (the Vietnam War taught us this) that an uncritical acceptance of the plans and theories of government officials is no service to our democracy. Today, one might even ask if the pendulum has swung too far. Suspicion and contempt for elected officials is widespread, and doubts about the value and importance of government's role are expressed every day not only on radio talk shows but also in our nation's classrooms.
It should not surprise us that teachers tell their students to be critical of those in positions of power. A great many classroom teachers of today were the young people who challenged the establishment 35 years ago. Soon a vast cohort of older teachers will be retiring, and the resulting teacher shortage will prove to be one of the first great shocks to US education in the 21st century. But with their retirement will come an even greater shock. When teachers of that generation retire, and take with them the ethic of individual responsibility and individual resistance to authority that has given so many of them a passion to work with young people, who will be there to take their place?
What beliefs will the next generation of teachers bring to the classroom? This is the real crisis in education, and it is a crisis of values. Some have argued that the prevailing secular value among that next generation is to maximize income. Will we face, with greater force even than we do today, the idea that human value is measured in dollars? Theories of education based on economic utility are rooted in a lack of spiritual vision. Scripture says that where there is no vision, the people perish, and the goal of acquiring more material stuff than the next guy is no vision.
What alternative vision could serve to orient us, to motivate us and our children, to inspire us to learn for the right reasons, for enduring and meaningful reasons? Need it be more complex than to state the obvious? The reason for human beings to learn is so that we can live and so that we can serve. Whatever human life is about -- and we Friends claim to have no final answer -- without life and survival we will not have the opportunity to continue the search. We know, at the very least, that the search for truth and meaning has value.
So education is for survival. And not just our own survival. More important than the survival of the self is the survival of the family, of the community, of the society, the culture, the whole human community, and the ecosystem of the world that supports all life on Earth. An education for our survival (broadly defined in this way) is a worthy aim, and a potentially inspiring aim, for education anywhere and everywhere. A few years ago the idea would have been considered silly. Americans began the 20th century with the overly optimistic notion that our survival was beyond doubt. Experts argued that the problems of survival for our species and for our society had been solved.
What a difference 100 years can make! Now we know that over the next several centuries we stand a good chance of wiping ourselves from the face of the Earth because of insensitivity to our impact on the environment, because of our insistence on seeking ever larger destructive capabilities as we expand national interests and national defense, and because our habits of ever increasing population and per capita consumption place us on a collision course with the welfare of all species on this living planet, including ourselves.
Survival for our species requires a new kind of environmental sensitivity and understanding. Our culture revolves around consumption, and this must change. Somehow, schools must become primary agents for this change.
And education is for service. Psychologists tell us that adult psychological health is rooted in relationships that help one to feel useful, effective, needed by others, cared for, and able to feel and express caring for others. On some level we all know that the motivation to do something for others is even stronger than the motivation to do something for oneself. Education is really to prepare us to serve. Obviously this overlaps with the common notion that you learn in order to get ahead. People who have skills that permit them to serve the needs of society will be very much in demand in the society and the economy of the future.
But what a difference that shift in emphasis can make! We learn in order to serve others, and if we succeed, our happiness, our welfare, our success in what matters most in life will become more likely. The opposite formulation -- we learn to advance our own standing, to achieve personal material rewards -- simply doesn't work. The record shows that this path seldom leads to adult lives of fulfillment and happiness, and there is now reason to believe that it is a direct route to environmental destruction.
How can schools be reoriented to focus
on these more fruitful goals and motivations?
As one who works, teaches, and lives in a Friends school community, I know that our Quaker traditions offer a framework for action on an agenda of reshaping schools as agents of human survival and human service. Ours is a tradition that traces back through generations of Friends devoted to service. It traces back though Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, William Penn, Margaret Fell, and George Fox. All these people lived lives that were models of serving the will of God as they and their meetings imperfectly discerned it.
Our tradition traces back through Jesus, who said love not only your neighbor, but love your enemy. And he said to live modestly. Today, we can imagine Jesus reminding us that whether by warfare or by excesses in population and consumption, we have the potential to destroy our planet. He might tell a parable in which archaeologists from some distant world might one day visit a barren rock orbiting the sun and say "there was a group of mammals that were too smart and too unwise."
How can our schools help to make kids both smart and wise? In a Friends school, we can turn to the principle of peace as the bedrock of our educational philosophy and our educational motivations. All schools could exist to advance the cause of peace. All schools could prepare the minds and hearts of young people to serve others, care for the planet, and seek nonviolent solutions to human problems.
Most schools in this country cannot openly recite the teachings of Jesus on love, yet concern for others is a fundamental principle in virtually all religions. We must make caring a pillar of our secular ethic and build it into the curriculum of all schools.
Similarly, the love of peace is a fundamental principle in virtually all religions. We must make peace and nonviolence a pillar of our secular ethic. Quakers can offer leadership in this area.
The love of the planet, concern for its care, and devotion to the new forms of knowledge that will permit us to care for it responsibly must be the third pillar of a new American secular ethic.
Note that the national or global economy are nowhere mentioned among the three pillars of caring, peace, and environmental stewardship. Can we imagine an ethical foundation for US education that doesn't mention the almighty economy? This stark question points to a fundamental problem with the current discussion about education. The economy has become an end, and it is not an end. In a well-ordered society, economic measures are not an end but rather serve as the means to achieve human aspirations for as many of the people as possible. In a vacuum of public discourse about our true ends, and with a divergence of values in an increasingly culturally diverse society, the economy has become the lowest common denominator, and policy advisors advance the economy as if it's the only thing we share.
Not so. We all share a planet. We need to take care of it, and the economy needs to be our servant in that work. We all share an interest in settling differences without war, and the economy must be our servant in that work. We all share a deep need for connection with others, for love received and love given in the context of community. What joy awaits us if we can keep our vision on these pillars of human authenticity rather than on the economic factors that allow a few to pile up treasure on Earth! Students in school, at any age, know the difference between goals that are self-serving and aspirations to serve a larger good.
A school built on this foundation will be a smaller school than most schools are today, and it will have smaller classes so that adults and children can come to know one another more deeply. It will be a community, "a loving neighborhood," to borrow a phrase from William Penn.
Environmental sensitivity will be taught and practiced in such a school. Nonviolent responses to conflict will be taught and practiced. And service to others -- at school and in a succession of larger social frames, will be a guiding principle in the development of the school program.
With a vision for authentic schooling in mind, Friends pray for the courage and the wisdom to make a contribution to the larger societal discourse on education. Seeking to be adequate to the challenges of the 21st century, we stress survival, not superiority; we strive for peace rather than sharpen new tools for military advantage; we teach caring, sharing, and community rather than competitive hoarding. In advancing these reforms, we can squarely meet the challenges faced by school and society in the 21st century.
In 1701 William Penn established new laws to protect Pennsylvania colonists from government abuses. The terms of this pioneering reforming of the relationship between the government and the governed were laid out in a document called the Charter of Privileges. That bell in Philadelphia, we call it the Liberty Bell, was dedicated in 1751 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Penn's Charter of Privileges. Later, that bell became the symbol of a nation, and the principles laid out in the charter became the model for the constitution of that new nation. Three centuries later, democracies across the globe continue to borrow from these notions to secure enduring and fruitful arrangements between governments and citizens.
The time has come once again for our Religious Society to offer, from our position as a marginal minority, a framework for the reorganization of political and moral assumptions in schools and in public life. We need to be developing and sharing a vision, for all people, of a world in which love, peace, and environmental stewardship are the three pillars on which we build the hopes and aspirations of our human community.