Wednesday, November 4, 2009

James Moffett: The Universal SchoolHouse

What is the role of education in society? James Moffett addresses this question in his controversial book  The Universal SchoolHouse in which he proposes the abolition of compulsory education in the United States. This book created a stir when it came out back in 1994 and is now out of print.  You can still get a copy on bay, alibis, at amazon etc.

Mr. Moffett's proposals are innovative and represent the kind of "out-of-the-box" thinking he hopes would be engendered by an ideal education; but there are many pragmatic and philosophical matters that will prevent any widespread embrace of his proposals.

In the opening paragraphs he begins his assault on the status quo with a handful of assertions and assumptions:
  • 1) Compulsory education is the antithesis of the democratic ideal of freedom and should be abolished.
  • 2) Education is currently delivered via "agents of the state" and is somehow sinister and repressive.
  • 3) The production of an educated workforce for the maintenance of commercial venture is a less than lofty goal.
  • 4) Standardization through a common curriculum is in no way to be desired in public education because it will have a detrimental effect on future citizens by stamping out the capacity for diverse thinking, which might be considered a survival contingency for that society as a whole.   
  • 5) Current educational practices will in only a few decade, be considered primitive, obsolete.

Compulsory education verses freedom for minors

    If compulsory education were suddenly abolished in the United States as is advocated by Mr. Moffett, its chief result would be not be freedom from restriction and standardization.  Its end would be freedom from knowledge for a large portion of the next generation. Without compulsory education, future citizens would be free indeed - free to be as blissfully ignorant as their parents would allow.

    In fact his proposal would result in completely disenfranchising those who are already least likely to get a good education from the current system. For parents with resources and a commitment to educate their children, home schooling or private schooling would be options. For their children, little would change. But children of parents without either time, concern or finances would have six or seven extra hours a day to soak in all the rebellious angst they could get from a peer culture largely created by inherently avaricious corporate enterprise in the media of television, movies, music, and music videos. This diet of sexuality and spleen could be supplemented with intellectual excursions into the whinny politics of victimhood, via "talk radio," and a certain strain of performance oriented poetry where being a victim is rewarded by a higher score - and also by the undocumented web sites of various Internet pundits (like me) whose notion of the term "credentials" stops with a photo ID drivers license.

Agents of the state or flotsam on the tide?

    Really, I cannot see teachers as agents of the state as Mr. Moffett implies. I could easily see them as a too-willing professional in-group committed to the current prevailing fashion in "educational" thought and further influenced by the goals of local parent-teacher organization. Sometimes teachers seem to inadvertently indoctrinate students with the prevailing popular "ism" of the day as if it were a verifiable scientific fact or a moral imperative. The approach sometimes seems to be one of "mission" rather than inquiry.

    The possibility of diverse thinking and originally on the part of teachers is hampered, partly by curriculum but also by the need for a sanitized "political correctness" in the face of bullying, lawyer-brandishing parents and school boards.  If teachers are agents of the state they are somewhat hogged-tied lot.  They do remarkable work despite impossible demands for documenting paperwork and endless blame heaped on them by parents - some of whom regard the public school system as a convenient baby-sitting service, and an demands for homework as an imposition. While I agree that this arrangement is repressive and perhaps sinister, the "state" is not the only culprit.

Goal - the educated worker or the well-read lay-about?

    What exactly is wrong with educating with an eye to the needs of business as long as that is not the only consideration?  Everyone needs to earn a living or generate capital in some way or other. After all, if we all planned to spend our welfare money on Heidinger and Prost - who'd pay taxes to support us?

    The ideal of a free democracy and of an informed, involved citizenry originated in the Greek city-states. There, the well-rounded citizen was quite free indeed to develop his intellectual capacities as a sort of intellectual parasite - supported as he was by an enormous population of slaves.

    We do not however, live in a pure direct democracy like a  Greek polis. We live in a representative democracy with a capitalist economic system.  Is an educational system to serve the development of individual alone?  Does it not serve the society as a whole?  When teachers are in demand, do universities rally to produce them? When engineers are scarce - is it wrong to find that programs to encourage an interest in science and math pop up suddenly at the elementary school level?

    I expect that somewhere later in Mr. Moffett's book, I will find more references to the spiritual development of the individual in order to provide the most contingent value to the society as a whole. And that society's economy does not run on educated sincerity alone. Avaricious enterprise loathed and maligned by many, (including me), has an important place. Without it economies fail.  If it need s workers who can read and write good English, perform basic math and who actually show up for work when they say they will - are these capacities so at odds with freedom or "spiritual" development? Freedom from what? Self-discipline?

In this economic climate - it's a lot easier to see that those sometimes onerous jobs, now notable by their absence, do contribute something. But a versatile, self-empowered individual educated for change rather than a magic disappearing career at Bear Sterns, (may it rest in peace)  might weather the economic storm and find meaning in something other than a job. Hmmm.

Melting pot or soup pot...

    Mr. Moffett seems to feel that standardization through a common curriculum is in no way to be desired in a public education. He asserts that it has a detrimental effect on future citizens by stamping out the capacity for diverse thinking, which might be considered a survival contingency for that society as a whole.

    Yet common instruction in no way guarantees a common outcome. One assignment generates as many odd lines of thinking as there are students. Common material does not guarantee common conclusions.

    It is true that a healthy, viable capitalist democracy requires both structure and freedom. It wants order and knowledge as vital underpinnings to generative chaos. Where does a society's general, common knowledge come from?  Where do we get our ideas about what behavior is acceptable when we are not at home? In this era of fragmenting demographics, where there will be no majority only substantial, multiple minorities where commonalties of culture, language, ethnicity, religion, deportment, attitude, intention and assumption can not be assumed; where do we learn how to act? School? Church? Music Videos?

What exactly will hold us together as a society if a common core of learning and experience is no longer provided by the public school system?  In reality media sources in television and video games now provide part of that core. Watch cartoons with a child. There is a lot of moralizing and moral framework set out in cartoons. Yet without schools we'd have an over abundance of superhero myth and too little of practical day to day life experience inherent in the daily discipline of homework.

    When considering the merits of compulsory education for such a society, in fact for any society; a balance must be sought between the need for an educational core that lends itself to societal cohesion on the one hand and freedom for individuals on the other. Both are needed.

A note on the likelihood of systemic change

    Unlike Mr. Moffett, I doubt that much will have changed in structure of our public educational system in the next couple of decades. In fact it has been two decades since his book first came out. It's more of the same in public education. Our system features a multi-layered structure of authority which is  incredibly resistant to the kind of sweeping changes Mr. Moffett envisions. 

    On a unit by unit basis, each of thousands of school systems across the country is a purely local phenomenon governed by a locally elected school board. Naturally local boards are steeped in prevailing local politics. These boards are held in check by squabbling voters. Just try changing your school's sex education policy to see this effect in action.  School boards are also notoriously jealous of their power, and are quite unlikely to vote themselves out of existence

    In addition to local forces of inertia, there are state and federal mandates and funding incentives, all of which require reams of documenting paperwork. These are beyond the per-view of local boards to repeal. Indeed, these sometimes overbearing demands for local spending were not crafted by a single mind for a single purpose. They represent a haphazard crazy-quilt of educational policy, sewn together item by item, by congressmen and senators in a series of unwieldy political deals. Undoing any of these mandates is an equally arduous process.

    Finally, besides the local governance, the state and federal regulations and funding incentives - there are the national teachers unions, which are well financed and armed with attorneys.  Often it seems that the positions taken by large unions have more to do with the union's need to maintain its power, than with the philosophical visons of its more forward-thinking reformers.

-- Mar Walker