Thursday, February 27, 2020

Schools And Other Shared Public Spaces

One of my first jobs in education was minding the cassette player.

The actual job was assistant marching band director, and my duties included chaperoning the freshman/sophomore bus to away games. It was the mid-80s, and the "good" schoolbuses in our district had built-in cassette players, and the students brought their favorite music, vying for control of the stereo that everyone had to listen to. My job was to arbitrate those arguments (I quickly learned that the big hammer of such conflict was, "If you guys can't work this out, I've got a cassette here in my pocket that I brought from home..."). It was actually cool to watch them negotiate and settle these arguments.

Of course, the really rich kids had Walkmans, and by the end of my tenure, the cassette debates were over, and the bus looked more like they look today-- several dozen students each wired into a personal musical universe. It was peaceful,  but it was also without any of the interaction and cooperative decision-making displays of the earlier era. The students had found the technological means to carve a public space into several dozen private places.

That process has, of course, been paralleled throughout many of what were our previous shared spaces. I grew up in a small town, with one radio station that everyone listened to because that was the choice; only folks in big cities had choices between different formats. Top 40 was a mix of many styles, all jammed together on one list.

You know the litany. Everyone used to choose from among the same three tv networks. Three! They read the same magazines, watched the same movies. Most of our culture occurred in shared spaces. 100 years ago we even went out of our way to create shared spaces, like fraternal and civic organizations.

In fact, let me tell you the story of Monarch Park.

Monarch Park was a local phenomenon, a destination park created, like many others (e.g. Cedar Point) by a train or trolley company to give people a reason to travel. Monarch Park opened just at the end of the 19th century and flourished as the new century began. It had flower gardens, games, an electric tower, a roller coaster, a dance hall, a restaurant, an outdoor concert venue that later showed movies, a playground, and even a bowling alley. At its peak, it was the shared public space for the entire county; on holidays like July 4, the cities were empty, everyone was at Monarch Park, there wit their entire family.

Today, there is barely a trace of the park to be found. It died in the mid-twenties, killed off by automobiles, which gave people the power to choose their own personal destination, one that they didn't have to share with everyone else-- not even everyone else in their own family.

There has been a steady strong push against shared in our history. Shared space has its own problems and challenges. For one thing, they've rarely been shared with everybody. Shared public spaces have often come with barriers to keep Certain People out. For another, sharing te space means putting up with things you don't like. In the mid-seventies, our local morning dj took a strong liking to "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree" by Tony Orlando and Dawn, and he played it every morning, usually just before it was time to head to the bus stop. If you had offered me, right then, a device that would let me only ever hear music that I wanted to hear and never have to listen to that damn recording ever again, I wouldn't have had to think five seconds about it.

Shared public spaces always--always--include things we don't like. And every time a new technology--automobiles, Walkmen, cable tv, the internet--makes it possible for us to carve up another public space, we do it. (If you want to get an even broader and deeper look at this, read Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone).

Shared spaces require us to figure out how to get along with those who share it. In a carved-up world, we get to focus on how to make things we don't like go away. My iPod and Spotify playlists don't include "Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree," and they never will. And I'm okay with that. I cut the cable cord over a decade ago, so I never watch anything I don't want to watch, and though that means I can't have conversations about current hot tv shows and I don't even know many of the celebrities that exist in the world, I'm okay with that, too.

But the carving of public places has had some unhealthy effects. The internet has an unparalleled ability to carve things up, granting people the power to never be confronted with opinions, or even facts, that they don't care for. And when they are confronted with such things, many on social media are not moved by an urge to understand, but by an impulse to drive the Other away, to carve the interlopers out of their crafted and curated space. That carving has extended to our political life; we no longer share our elected representatives-- every Representative, Senator, and President is either our guy or their guy, and with Trump we arrive at a President who doesn't even pretend to be there to represent and serve all Americans.

The carving of shared public space doesn't work the same for everybody. The rich have always been able to buy their own expensive private slice, while the less wealthy have to settle for what they can get. But that's one of the effects of technological advance--it puts carving tools within reach of the less affluent. And the aspiration to be rich merges with the aspiration to control your own private slice of the shared public space.

There are lots of ways to try to understand the privatization of public education, but I can see it in this context as driven by the push to carve up public spaces. I stream only the music I want. I watch only the television that I want. I craft and curate most of my environment; why should school be any different? What are helicopter parents except folks who want to control every other aspect of their child's life just as they do at home? Church attendance is plummeting. The politics of division is overwhelming the politics of unification. Public schools may be the last remaining shared public space; it seems predictable that public education would attract the impulse to carve them into small private slices. And, it should be said, the threat to public schools is not all from the outside-- when folks try to use segregation, boundary redrawing, in-house oppression to carve off a private slice of the public place, that's more of the same impulse. And yes-- sometimes what happens is that by finally opening the shared space to people who have previously been barred or ignored, we get other folks saying, "Well, if Those People are coming in, then I want out."

We know what shared public spaces cost us-- we have to put up with, cooperate with, and generally get along with people we don't agree with or even like. We are still figuring out what the Great Carving, the slow drift into privatized safe spaces, is costing us. I would argue that Jefferson saw a lesson of history--that folks, especially the rich and powerful, and more located in a shared public space than they think they are, that no safe bubble insulates you from needing the consent of the governed.

You can't build a strong community without shared public space. The first rule of a relationship is that you have to show up, and the great carving provides people with a means of not showing up, ever. "I don't want to talk to those people. I just want to get what I want." And when community collapses, we are left with survival of the fittest, the triumph of wealth, might makes right, and a world in which injustice is unchecked and unchallenged.

I don't have an answer for all of this. Once carving technology appears, you can't really roll the clock back. I could have forbidden the use of any personal audio devices on the bus but that wouldn't have given us back the old thing; it would have just created a new thing.

But the privatization of education has not been spurred by any new technological advance. That is a stumper for the "But other things have been changed by technology so shouldn't education be the same crowd." The desire to carve a private slice is only one of the impulses fueling the privatization movement, but carving a private slice of a public place always creates the chance for someone to make a buck, and so profiteers are always right there when the carving advocates come out. The movement to privatize and disrupt public education is a complicated storm of many different impulses, some of them sincere and heartfelt and personal, and some of the venal and grasping and greedy.

I remain a fan of public education in no small part because it is one of the last shared public places left, even as it is being whittled away. It is a space that reflects the big unruly mess that is a democratic-ish country, and yes that means conflicts and negotiations and an unending clash of conflicting values and goals. But the proposed alternative--these people want something different so they'll just go over there by themselves--requires a continued breaking of relationships, a repeated running away from conflict in place of resolutions. In fact, a worsening of conflict, because once separated into private slices, everyone can just create cartoon strawman versions of Those People Over There to revile and deride.

I've been reading about the ideal for years--if you want to send your kid to a private school for left-handed druids who don't believe in evolution but do believe in global warming, and who want to play in a marching band, well, then, you should be able to make that choice. Everyone should have their own choice of a hundred separate different school systems. But we already know how well "separate but equal" works out. And by demanding that such a ecosystem of parallel schools be organized by free market forces, we guarantee failure, because the free market is great for picking winners and losers, terrible for creating equity among disparate groups.

At the end of all this, O Readers who are still with me, my point is simple.

Breaking up shared public spaces is not healthy for us as a society, but sometimes it can't be avoided. In the case of public schools, there are no compelling reasons to break up the shared space. It would not be healthy for us to do that. Let's not do that.

If anything, what's needed is to do a better job of sharing that space, so that it is fully welcoming and supportive of all children. That's what we should be doing, not telling students who have been underserved, "Well, rather than fix that and get you your full portion of the shared space, we've just set up this little other space over to the side here." We should embrace the shared space, expand the shared space, open doors and remove barriers to the shared space, because no matter how much we try to create the illusion that we are traveling separately, each in our own little bubbles, we are better when we understand that we are all traveling together.

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