More harm than good

Mike Caulfield and I have been having some fun thinking about questions of reform and the state of public education.  I freely acknowledge I am out of my element, but I left a long comment on Mike’s post here, and I figured I would re-post it here for the record because it frames some things I haven’t said on the bava before, but are dear to me, like, for example, becoming a fascist High School teacher at an inner-city school in Brooklyn, which really frames my deep distrust of our educational system, period.


I’m not sure if this is rarefied or not, but I’d don’t necessarily understand how public education right now, and it’s divestment, isn’t part of the problem. In many ways I agree with you that the system is being gutted, my issue is that comes as much from inside pressures as outside pressures. In effect, making the question of access and equity a mission that moves outside of the current channels of reform and good will to something a bit more drastic.

I’m not sure you are quoting me, but I actually do believe the “current education model does more harm than good.” I think the equation of education with security is entirely problematic. Let’s face it, if given a choice security would always win out over freedom—just look at the 9/11 track record—and what we have here is an idea of security and financial possibility wrapped up with a sense of access and equity. Fact is, the two are often at odds with one another, and the idea of freedom remains and democracy remains a carrot to some degree, how can we call ourselves a democratic society when we fail to freely and fairly educate the whole population. Well, because we aren’t, and the education system is an amazing spoke in the flat tire that is our institutions.

Now, I hate to turn to a TV show in a conversation like this, but I can’t help myself. Season 4 of The Wire frames for me just how insane the idea public education—which I absolutely believe in because I can’t see anything else so clearly yet, and luckily I live in a wealthy enough city that I can say this without having to wonder how I’m going to afford my kids education beyond my taxes—as not being more harmful than good for the majority of the students who come from inner-city schools that are simply institutional factories of bullshit tests and the worst kind of socilization. I worked as an English teacher in a Brooklyn High School, Clara Barton HS to be exact, for almost two years. It was a school with a predominantly Black, West-Indian, and Guyanese student population, and there is no question that a majority of them were amazing in so many ways, I don;t think I ever laughed so hard, but that had nothing to do with either me or the school. In fact, I think where we came together was just how similar an innercity school like that was to a prison. It bred mistrust, absolute disrespect for authority (which may be one of its strengths :) ), an inane and oppressive curriculum, mindless petty acts of control and subordination, and a general feeling that is all but antithetical to an sense of freedom and democracy. Our institutions at the level of immediate and intimate experience are often as far  as possible from any of the ideals we abstract out from them—liek the noble pursuit of public education.

Pragmatic calls for reform and better education seems to elide the fact that reform is premised within a system that has made it a priority of distinguishing these low-income students from high-income students through an insane idea of local, tax-based funding that perpetuates the very ideas of inequality along economic lines. And this is where I am done with reform and some institutional idea of universal access and convinced we have many of the tools already, and simply have to frame a movement outside that tax base, or at least beyond it. I don’t know how, and I can only dream—but I believe there will be a way and it is important to work within the systems we’re given to survive—although I had to leave Clara Barton because I increasingly was feeling more and more like a fascist and it was truly horrifying for me—and strive for as much equity as we can, but always knowing that their has to be a tidal wave of change along class, race, and gender lines. And it won’t be comfortable or secure—it will be frightening and most probably highly contentious.

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4 Responses to More harm than good

  1. Jen says:

    Why are we (educators) putting so much effort into reforming the existing system when there is a huge home schooling and alternative education movement with all the momentum needed to cause a real revolution? Why aren’t we backing them up and pushing them forward and asking them what we can do for them? Is it because we’d all be out of work? How many of us have our own children in this harmful system? Shouldn’t we start at home? I don’t have any answers, just lots of questions.

  2. parezcoydigo says:

    Rev– I feel your frustrations from having worked in secondary ed. I taught for three years in NC at a high school that is often touted as one of the top 10 public schools in the nation– which it is, for half of its population. This school was a magnate school for academically gifted students, and had served for the first 10-15 years of its existence as a neighborhood school for a low income section of town that was predominantly Black. Magnate programs were instituted in NC to meet federally mandated integration goals, and served as a form of reverse bussing if you will.

    On paper, the school was integrated by instituting these programs, but only on paper. What resulted was a school within a school, in which the nicest facilities, the teachers with the most experience and expertise, etc. taught almost exclusively white and asian students from the suburbs, while neighborhood kids ended up in trailers, in my then-22-yr-old world history class and had little interaction beyond the sports field. The inequalities were, broadly speaking, only reinforced in this model. And I came to resent the administration, the parents, and many of the kids who (while very funny) were also beyond my skill set to manage. And that’s what I felt like I needed– skills to manage, rather than to educate and engage.

    All that said, I am the product of 100% public schooling. I feel a real and abiding commitment to not only the concept but also the practice of public schooling. It is the only possible means to potentially ensure equitable access to knowledge. Homeschooling simply will not do it. And outsourcing and monetizing elements of the institution won’t either (the root of my flip-ness on the FastCompany thread.) Whatever form “reform” comes in (or reformist pressures), if it is accompanied by either physical abandonment of the public education or the conception abandonment of the “public” nature of public education, it will only exacerbate the differentiations of class, race, gender, and other forms of privilege that are so frustrating in the current models.

  3. Jim — I left a mega long response in the comments to your comment (and hence to this reposting of that comment). It is here:

    Let me know what you think.

  4. Mike Bogle says:

    Hi All,

    Great thread that’s emerging here – definitely food for thought. Along those lines I see the logic in both Jen’s and Parez’s thoughts, which I thought I might expand on.

    For starters, my family are homeschoolers (not sure if I’ve ever mentioned that before), and are a part of a fairly active learning community up here in the Blue Mountains.

    My wife and I are also educators. My wife taught at several different levels of schooling in Australia (primary, secondary, TAFE/higher ed) for a number of years before moving to curriculum design, then to educational technology, and finally taking on the monumental task of uber-mummy and home educator. So we more or less cover the spectrum on the matter.

    From my perspective both Jen’s and Parez’s points are important because they each highlight pragmatic/practical as well as the idealogical elements.

    Like Parez, I think learning and education is a fundamental right that everyone should have the opportunity to explore and develop. However economics have a direct affect on the sorts of opportunities we each have.

    I recall writing a post a while back shyly discussing homeschooling, and an educator from Mexico commented that she thought it was a great idea – however the option was largely beyond many Mexican citizens because it required at least one parent remaining at home to fulfill not only the role of primary carer, but those that were historically addressed by the school system – including facilitator, mentor and teacher. This, she said, was just not financially or economically feasible for them.

    Arguments of pedagogical efficacy and quality of the learning aside, her point was that many people can’t afford to homeschool. For them, public schooling is critical.

    Really, homeschooling isn’t for everyone either – and I’m reluctant to start trying to portray one sphere of education as better or worse than another. They’re just different, with their own strengths and weaknesses, and affording learners different opportunities.

    So I recognise the idea that public education is a core institution of society. Despite the fact our kids aren’t a part of this system – I am.

    I work at a public university (UNSW), and am a product of the public school system as well (in Southern California); so really I have to believe that there is at least some good (or potential for good) in the educational system. But yes, there are areas where the system is failing its students – and where I think there needs to be a fundamental re-thinking of how we approach learning and education.

    To a fair degree I think these changes have to be affected from the inside, by those who understand the politics and the players and can see the problem areas. There’s a distinct need for subversives and mavericks in public education to constantly question and prod and bring policy makers to task on what is in the best interests of the students, versus those of the administrators and senior executives.

    This is one of the things that keeps me going in my role – the prospect of helping improve education.

    However I also think that pressure needs to come from the outside as well, because the longer you’re exposed to the system of formal education, the more you become desensitized the idiosyncrasies and problem areas that exist. For example, how many cynical educators do we know, who have just given up after years of trying to affect change and now just go through the motions?

    I also clearly recognise the potential for negative impact that schooling can have on young people – particularly in their formative years – via punishment and belittlement, poor policies and procedures, and lack of one-on-one interaction due to exploding class sizes (Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” just popped into my head here). In our case it’s meant we’ve opted to pursue the path of alternative education – but that doesn’t mean I want to give up on Public Education. It’s too critical an institution for society.

    Just my thoughts – thanks for all the contributions everyone 🙂

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