Saturday, October 16, 2010

Friends and Educational Reform (Part 1 ?)

I just read an interesting editorial here Although I applaud any call to ease off on the national pastime of blaming teachers for all of our educational woes, the editorial ends on a sour note for me when it shifts blame to kids and parents. Blaming poor and working people for failing to provide the same educational benefits available to well-educated, middle-class, and upper-class families hardly seems fair either. Of course, I wish my students would take advantage of libraries, museums, and galleries and I wish they would read more and apply themselves. However, I also understand that academic success is a learned behavior that is not supported by the realities they face in their communities and families.

Our problem won't be solved by deciding who is to blame or who is responsible. We are all responsible and the solution will be complex. We might start with decreasing class sizes and increasing teacher independence. Politicians should keep the f8ck out of academics. Their job is to ensure that teachers get the funding, support, and tools needed to implement their plans. Peer oversight and development would allow teachers to actually utilize educational theory and practical experience without having to deal with some political ass who doesn't know pedagogy from pornography.

Parents can be better educational partners when they aren't dealing with being overworked, under or uninsured, and underpaid. Kids will learn better when they aren't hungry, poor, and stressed out by their parents' burdens. We especially need to reevaluate how we treat motherhood in this country. The poverty rate for women and kids is ridiculous. Maternal and infant mortality rates are shameful in the United States. Women's health issues continue to be a major problem, and the continued wage gap between men and women is especially troublesome as more and more families rely on women's incomes.

We also need to reassess the persistent message that the purpose of education is to get people jobs. This is dangerous when trying to motivate students. In a recession, if a kid sees that educated people are unemployed or making little, they see little reason to continue. If they know people who make "good money" and never went to college, they see little point in applying themselves. (My grandfather used to call people like me "college-educated idiots.")

If the colleges are inaccessible to working people (psychologically and financially), the antagonisms expressed between college-educated and working people will continue and will be exploited by reactionaries who seek to convince working people that intellectuals are a "liberal elite" who lack common sense and are therefore destroying the "American values" working people adore. Such bullshit, but it seems to be a pretty effective message.

Also, if we continue to focus on a message of education simply as job preparation, we ignore the fact that our economy and technology are shifting so quickly that the specific skills they learn for work will become obsolete before their careers are over. If they lack basic skills in literacy, cultural awareness, and citizenship, they may make a compliant workforce, but a very lousy citizenry. Our nation needs a competent, technologically savvy workforce, but it also needs a thoughtful, curious, and politically engaged population with a solid understanding of our diverse cultural heritage and a nuanced understanding of the institutions of government. Working people need the skills learned in the humanities to continue to advocate for themselves and their children.

We need to emphasize funding for the arts, humanities and sciences not only to give our people access to the intellectual wealth of our nation, but to emphasize a message that we actually care about ideas and learning more than we care about popular culture, making war, and scandal.

I can think of few areas of immediate community concern that are as in need of Friends' attention as education in general and public education in particular. If we are to live and grow toward greater spiritual integrity and grace within our testimony of equality, I cannot see how we can fail to address the growing educational chasm between the privileged and the poor in this country. The hatefulness and bigotry now being peddled as politics is an insult to Friends' belief in the inherent worth and divinity to be found in each human heart. If I believe in that of God in everyone, then I am also committed to serving that of God in everyone. I must be as concerned about poverty, education, and opportunity for my neighbors' children as for my own. Educational reform seems to be one of the proper spheres in which Friends may demonstrate the power of peace and equality. It is an excellent opportunity for us to show how it is possible to value the unique gifts of individuals within the context of corporate responsibility and integrity. Additionally, since Friends have such a proportionally high number of college-educated, financially wealthy, and academically connected folks in our Meetings for Worship, we are uniquely situated to provide important perspectives on this national debate. Friends who are not wealthy or as well-connected must also contribute from their experience and knowledge. Those of us who have much to offer but little power, must remind more culturally empowered Friends to work in service rather than in judgment.

I know that many individual Friends and groups of Friends are already engaged in this conversation. I'm looking forward to hearing more about some of that here. My perspective is limited. It reflects my own regional viewpoint along with my professional experience as an adjunct community college professor. I'm looking forward to hearing new ideas and perspectives from different parts of the country, from other countries, and from different vantage points on the educational continuum.