Saturday, January 15, 2011

When Left met Right at the UnSchool

I’m a Liberal. I’m a social democrat. Hell, I will go so far as to call myself a creature of the Left. This means I care about what people on the Left are saying and pushing forward because I also believe in grassroots movements. Memes move both vertically and horizontally and so it’s interesting to keep something of an eye on what elites are telling one another and what grassroots people are telling one another. Here is something that is being told on the Left about education:


The first thing to note is that instead of a critique of why we have a society where young women are being encouraged toward self-loathing the schools are to blame. If it were not for the schools, it seems, we wouldn’t see young women with body issues. There is no consideration of a need to reform the culture of schools, simply removing students from the public school system will be enough.


Several things leap to mind here. Firstly, there is a studied ignoring of the fact that mathematics, the hard sciences and engineering take a lot of specialized training as do medicine and law. If one is going to be an artist or a naturopath or a musician then yes, one can ignore higher education and the rigors of it. However, if one wants to be a neurosurgeon or study, say, quantum field theory one is going to need to have some practice in rigorous study, some of which one might not have the greatest enthusiasm for to put it mildly. What’s more, there is this unspoken--but present nevertheless--Rousseauian assumption about the nature of the child that, I think bears deeper scrutiny. I think that the crux of the above quote, however, is the last sentence. Why learn something that you do not need to do what you want to do. Not what need be done in order to be a good citizen or prepare for a job but what one wants to do. That is the most Rousseauian statement and the wellspring from which the philosophy springs.

As Stephen Pinker observes in “The Blank State”, Rousseau argued that “Children are noble savages, and their upbringing and education can either allow their essential nature to blossom or can saddle them with the corrupt baggage of civilization.” A large swath of the argument in favor of Un-schooling is predicated on this belief.


Something else that seems to be overlooked is the function of the public school system as a means of civic bonding and the creation of citizens. At some point the Left--and my parochial concern here is with what is being promoted in the name of core liberal values--seems to have abandoned the idea that we are citizens. In doing so we have lost the ability to speak to people who may not have our privileged perspective on things. Noble as the sentiment is that we are people of the world--and I consider myself aspiring to be a woman of the world--we are also citizens of localities. On the Left we like to say “think globally, act locally”--acting locally means being a citizen. As citizens of the United States of America, we are inheritors of a history, a tradition and an ideal. In fact, it is the loss of the goal of attaining that ideal that concerns me here. One of the geniuses of the public school system is that it is a place where young Americans come together to learn to be, well, Americans. Our first exposure to the Constitution is in public schools. Most of our education in civics that we will ever have and large swaths of American history will come from our experiences in the public schools. If we are ever going to be exposed to the great books, the place that most people will meet Shakespeare or Melville or Austen or any of a number of authors will be in public schools.

It is ironic that at the outer reaches of the Left and the Right, they meet a point of agreement. Now, they end up sounding as if they are saying different things but if you really listen closely you hear them singing in harmony. Someone from the Left might look at my saying that people should be exposed to Shakespeare, Austen and Melville and point out that all three of them are white. Where are the ‘third world’ authors, they will cry. Someone from the right might look at that same list and consider it elitist that I think that there are books or authors that people should be exposed to. However, both are substantially agreeing with one another--that the idea of a canon of books or authors that should be taught in school is fundamentally elitist and wrong is something they both espouse. The issue is where the emphasis lies not with whether it should be done.

My concern, however, is for the Left because that is where I live and where my political sympathies lie. We have abandoned the language of freedom and citizenship to the Right. We no longer speak of it and because of that we make ourselves irrelevant. We have abandoned the commitment to integration because we now believe--or say we do--that people of color are such different creatures that the idea that they could or even desire to assimilate is wrong-headed. We have abandoned the public schools as the great leveler of society.