Monday, August 15, 2016
Public Education vs. Public Schooling
I am a true believer in, and a full supporter of, public education.
The trouble is that public education and public schooling have become synonymous. Schooling is one method of education; but it is certainly not the only one and, I argue, not the best one.
Until we separate public education from public schooling--to truly "deschool" our perspective on learning--we will be mired in a debate about reforming one, singular method of education (that is, schooling) while ignoring other methods of education that could be (and I believe are) better.
In his pathbreaking 1970 book, Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich writes: "Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring" (Introduction).
A perfect example of educational webs, as opposed to funnels like school, is the public library. I write often about public libraries as ideal examples of currently-existing, taxpayer-funded, community-based, self-directed learning hubs. Libraries are amazing! They are openly accessible to all members of a community and, unlike schools, do not segregate by age or ability. They offer classes, enrichment opportunities, lectures, events, ESL lessons, computer courses and a whole host of other, purely optional, non-coercive public programming. They are brimming with gifted facilitators who love "learning, sharing, and caring" and who are eager to help guide community learning. Increasingly, libraries are expanding their offerings beyond books and digital information to become hackerspaces and makerspaces. Many libraries lend out items such as tools, musical instruments, kitchen supplies, recreational equipment like fishing poles and snowshoes, and even gardening plots. If one library doesn't have what you want or need, you can freely choose another. In some cities and towns, libraries take over summertime distribution of the federal free- and reduced-lunch program to help nourish children all year long. Some libraries, like the McAllen Public Library in McAllen, Texas, which made headlines for taking over an abandoned Wal-Mart building, are open 355 days a year. Public education at its best.
The primary difference between public education and public schooling is that the former is open and self-directed, while the latter is compulsory and top-down. Both are community-based and taxpayer-funded; both can lead to an educated citizenry. But public education, like public libraries and community learning centers, can foster an educated citizenry without the cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual wounding that we so often find in coercive schooling. Parker Palmer writes in the Foreword to Kirsten Olson's excellent book, Wounded By School, about "the hidden and long-lasting wounds that result from the structural violence inherent in the ways we organize and evaluate learning, wounds that range from 'I found out that I have no gift of creativity,' or 'I learned that I'm no good at sports,' to 'They drained off my self-confidence,' 'I emerged feeling stupid,' or "They put me in the losers' line and I've been there ever since.' Equally sad and profoundly ironic is the wound that may be the most widespread of all: the eagerness to learn that we all bring into the world as infants is often diminished and even destroyed by our schooling."
By moving beyond the paradigm of public schooling, toward public education for all, we can open ourselves up to enormous possibilities for learning. We can foster a citizenry that is not only educated, but happy, competent, and fulfilled because individuals' innate curiosity and natural drive to learn and do have not be squelched by schooling's narrow, one-size-fits-all method of education. We can encourage innovation and imagination--skills profoundly important to confront the seemingly insurmountable challenges our planet now faces and that are nearly impossible to cultivate within a forced schooling model that values conformity over creativity.
We can do this. We can support public education in its truest sense and open ourselves up to the panoply of community-based, taxpayer-funded education possibilities that will sprout when we move beyond the shadow of the public schooling dinosaur.