Oct 9, 2009


What is the actual role of education? Is it to actually educate and teach people how to think critically? Or is education all about creating obedient citizens who work within a given socio-economic system? Or, is "education" something that is differential across the United States, something that can be one thing in one place, and something completely different in another?

Is our education system fair? Is it even consistent? Why are some communities so resistant and frustrated with public education? Why do they feel that it's a waste to use taxpayer money for public education. Right about now, I think it's time for my favorite Paulo Freire quote:

Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world (1970).

Is the education system here in the US about freedom, or about control? Or, is it about apathy? Paul Krugman recently wrote a piece on his blog called "The Uneducated American." Here is a small excerpt:

If you had to explain America’s economic success with one word, that word would be “education.” In the 19th century, America led the way in universal basic education. Then, as other nations followed suit, the “high school revolution” of the early 20th century took us to a whole new level. And in the years after World War II, America established a commanding position in higher education.

But that was then. The rise of American education was, overwhelmingly, the rise of public education — and for the past 30 years our political scene has been dominated by the view that any and all government spending is a waste of taxpayer dollars. Education, as one of the largest components of public spending, has inevitably suffered.

For me, this only brings up more questions. What is the role of education here in the US? And what are the realities of our education system? What purpose does it really serve? This conversation is not something that should simply be brushed off. I think that paying attention to the complaints about public education (from various social and political positions) is important here. What is it about our public education system that is creating so much tension for so many groups of people? And, on the other hand, why are some groups of people fairly content with certain ideals and realities about public education?



  1. Wow, lots of questions! :) "Or is 'education' something that is differential across the United States." -- This one, because so much is handled at the state and local levels.

    Even WITHIN schools education can be differential, e.g. in tracking. I don't know if they still do this, but where I went to school, they divided students into groups by an IQ test at early ages. I remember going to a special "Target" building once a week starting in 3rd grade (age 9), where we'd do creative activities and brain teasers. We broke into groups and built toothpick bridges, each person having different roles in the project and having to stay within a certain budget of materials. At the end we had a competition to see who's bridge held the most weight. We learned the greek alphabet, dissected squid, etc. In 5th grade, they separated out the better math students to learn the basics of algebra, readying for pre-Algebra in 6th grade, Algebra in 7th, and Geometry in 8th, along with "gifted" classes in science and social studies/geography, reading, etc. By high school this put us on-track for "honors" and "advanced placement (AP) courses," which, of course, means "college-prep." It looks like they were developing us as a workforce to fill math and science jobs, broadly conceived. And it all started in 3rd grade.... Honestly, I have no conception of what public education is like outside the "target/honors" track, but I can imagine it's probably very different. Get held back in the first grade for not being able to cut with scissors and you may be doomed...

    ... or maybe I'm the doomed one... What EXACTLY is education teaching students? That's a tough question. I wish I knew more about the brain and learning/memory. I was a big math person, and loved it, but it taught me to focus on numbers and mathematical/spatial/geometric problems rather than people. That's one reason I decided on anthropology the summer before college... complex rationale: it studied "people." Ironically, even though nurturing creativity was a goal of gifted education, I don't consider myself creative, just bitter/sarcastic, pessimistic, and too analytical with too much angst. Is that nature or how I was educated? I've learned more about creativity and vision working with people OUTSIDE academia and with other students, a few teachers as exceptions. Even most college literature classes are more about "analyzing" and "critiquing" the literature rather than writing your own, except in creative writing classes. I don't know what the huge focus on analysis means in the broader scheme, esp. political. The focus on ideas over actions might be leading to apathy/inaction. Interestingly, analysis is also a math and science term, focused on picking apart a topic into its parts, dissecting it. Maybe that's why my math and science background came in useful. That anthropologists are dissecting human culture? Making it as non-human as a math problem or dead frog in science lab? Making a research subject non-human pretty much takes ethics out of the picture. Maybe that's why it's so easy for some anthropologists to nonchalantly lay out all the sides to an issue without feeling they need to take sides, especially if the "analytic" status helps them feel somehow "removed", an "impartial observer".

  2. Another interesting theorist/commentator on public education in the US is John Taylor Gatto. His book Dumbing Us Down is a good place to start. I used to be extremely critical of public education and even the higher education system, but that was when I saw things as distinctly black or white - my time in college has taught me to see the subtle nuances and shades of grey that are everywhere.
    I like the Friere quote you used because it shows that education can have two sides, but I'd argue that you don't find them discretely separated. There are differences within the broader school system, differences within schools, even differences within a particular teacher.
    I used to be a strong advocate for a freer education system in which students would take the lead and creativity would be emphasized. The problem with that is that the student may miss out on important ideas that they would only encounter through some kind of required reading. Now I think there has to be some kind of balance.


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