Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why American public education is worth the fight

There's a danger in doing this kind of blog that one can get all wrapped up in anger and frustration and general irkedness, and I won't pretend for a minute that there aren't some real threats to the stability and future of American public education. But it's worth reminding myself from time to time why I care.

The US is a big gloriously polyglot mess of a country, stitched together out of pieces-parts from every other people on the planet. As such, we can only claim a handful of native art forms. Jazz, comics, maybe baseball. And true public education.

Only in America do we dump people from any and all backgrounds into the same building. Only in America do we let you pursue whatever dream of a future you can conjure up. Only in America have we put it down in law that one of your obligations as a citizen is to get an education.

We don't even make you vote, but we put the full force of law into making you learn to read and write.

We guarantee that every child, regardless of background and home life, will have at least one unrelated adult in his/her life who can provide good direction and model a healthy adult life. We guarantee that every child will have access to a place where every person is put in place to honor the needs of that child first and foremost-- not profits, productivity, or the good of the institution. As I tell my students every year, "You need to take advantage of this place. You will never again be surrounded by people whose only job is to look out for your best interests."

They say that home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. But in America, there's one other place like that-- a public school.

American public schools collect everything there is to love and hate about our culture. American public schools display everything that is beautiful and everything that is broken about us as a people. American public schools are everything that we have to say about hopes and fears and aspirations for our future.

Given all that, of course American public schools capture all that is random and chaotic about life (as well as the very American fear and distrust of random chaos). As teachers, we know that we will leave a mark on the future, but we rarely know how. The moment that you built and planned and put all your effort behind vanishes into your students' pasts like a brief breath of wind, even as you discover that a few simple words you spoke decades ago have become a treasured guidepost in someone's journey.

American public schools are Democracy in action-- messy, tumultuous, contentious, inefficient, joyous, sprawling, striving, triumphant, rising, advancing, spirited, exhausting, reborn again and again and again. Do we contradict ourselves? Very well, we contradict ourselves. We are large. We contain multitudes.

I do not share warm-hearted stories. If you asked my students if I am warm and nurturing, they would laugh. But I believe in public education. I believe in it as an expression of our national character, and I believe there is nothing so awesome as varied young persons side by side finding their way to a greater understanding of themselves and each other, finding ways to be in the world, to be human, to be themselves.

Nothing else compares. Nothing.  American public school will never be a neatly manicured hyper-orderly efficiently unified system because America will never be that kind of country. That's okay. It's not a bug; it's a feature. The fight will never be over, but American public education will always be worth fighting for.

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