The nature of mandatory schooling in the United States of America.
A Professor once remarked to me, “kindergarten through 12th grade teaches you how to be a student, while college teaches you how to learn.” In concern towards her remark, I partially agreed, but unlike my professor I believed that the results of primary and secondary education had more to do with the student’s intentions than what the educators and policy makers sought to do.
Raised in an upper middle class family in New Jersey with both parents active in my life, I was afforded every opportunity to succeed. Yet, I did everything I could to destroy them. Before high school, I was a good student and never had to study or do homework to succeed, but once high school arrived, the tides began to change. During my high school years, I battled drug addiction and was constantly arrested and suspended for my habits. To say the least, my grades faltered and the only reason why I managed to pull off a 3.1 GPA is because I became very adept at cheating, and genetically received some intelligence. Now, I am fully aware that because of my socio-economic background and the color of skin, I was allowed certain liberties within the system that others would not have received and this helped me graduate and get into college. When I graduated high school, the proverbial safety net was removed and completely lost without the structure of needing to be in school 5 days a week accountable to others; I went off the rails. I quickly failed out of college, turned to harder drugs, and four years later wound up in rehab to sober up.
So what does any of this have to do with school? It may appear that it has nothing to do with school and that my parents should have been the ones to pull in the reins on me, but that is not the reality of the world we live. My parents were always around and active in my life, but there is nothing they could have done for me. The parental role, in my view, is to instill morals and values in their child, and then what that child does with those morals and values is up to them. Education and schooling is similar in this regard. What the child choses to do with the opportunities afforded them in the education system is entirely up to them, and for myself I used school as only a safety-net to keep me from coming completely unhinged. The argument could be made as well that this is not the role of school, but I disagree. The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” has never been truer than in our modern world. The disintegration of traditional communities and the exponential enlargement of the world due to technology mean that the role of school has become one where the child’s need for communal upbringing is met. Whether or not this is the intent of the education system is entirely mute, because I personally believe that meaning lies in the eyes of the beholder. We construct the world around us based on agreements we make with ourselves. Those agreements are derived from what we have perceived the world to be telling us, and so for myself, the only meaning I found in my schooling, and I realized this entirely after the fact, was one of safety.
Although I don’t believe that intent has much to do with what the child actually receives from school, in terms of this article it is important to at least address the intent of mandatory schooling. The first intent of schooling in this country, whether it is intentional or a by-product of false American patriotism, is to indoctrinate the youth of our country with the American ethos. This is not to be confused with the American dream, and it can best be summed up by Pink Floyd as, “all in all you’re just another brick in the wall.” In order for a society like ours to work we cannot have every person pursue their dream because if we did there would be no janitors, food service workers, etc. So essentially primary and secondary education can be used as a way to breed workers to sustain the ever growing gluttonous need for capitalism. This however is an exceedingly cynical and one-sided way of looking at what indoctrination is. In order for someone to know what he or she truly believes, they must first learn what they don’t believe. So by that same token, the American indoctrination that occurs in schooling can be seen as a means in which the student is eventually liberated from the constructs of our society as they come to grips with the lies they have be told. So this means, as confusing as it is, that one intent of mandatory schooling and government-regulated curriculum is both simultaneously to indoctrinate and liberate.
Another intent of schooling, and one that has unfortunately become less important as the roles of schools change, is to educate. Education and schooling are not one in the same. I cannot say for certain that the two were ever synonymous, but at this current impasse in modern society the schism between the two is larger than ever. As far as I’m concerned education is the betterment of the mind, body, and spirit and some students chose to pursue this. This intent is schooling in its purest form, to teach students the tenants of math, science, and the humanities, not so they can pass standardized tests, but so they can better themselves. To educate a student is to leave them better than they were before, with a better understanding of themselves and the world around them, and while this intent has taken a backseat as of late due to political agendas, teachers all over the country attempt to do this every day. Hopefully as the role of schooling continues to change and the march towards the corporatization of education continues, we as a society will eventually get back to this basic intent, incorporating the new role of schooling with the notion that we must educate and not just teach to pass tests.
So why do we do schooling? It is very easy to be cynical about this question, since the school system lies at the center of what appears to be a broken America. An America that has given us war, illegal wiretaps, Ferguson, Columbine, and a plethora of other racial, judicial, and ethically deplorable events, but I do not wish to be cynical about this question. School is there for some like myself as a societal safety net. A slow introduction into the realities of the world, acting as an extension of the familial boundaries that in our modern world no longer extended far enough. School is there for others to show them their place in the world. For some this will mean liberation and roles as captains of industry, while for others it will mean being just another cog in a larger machine, crunching out work with the hopes of retirement. School is there for still others to educate in the truest sense of the word. To better them, regardless of what the ends are. No matter what the intentions of policy makers are the real reason why we do schooling is up to the student. The system will always be broken because we are human and apt to fail no matter how hard we try. There will always be those with immoral proclivity in roles of leadership, but in the end what we do with our lives and our education is up to us.