I look back at public school and see myself
March 5, 1987
Yet another column in which I tried to look at public education in my era in the U.S. from a more elevated perspective—from high on my horse. The piece is actually a reminiscence in the guise of a critical essay. I see now that the Springfield public schools were not bad schools, by public education standards, even if they were bad for me.
I wish I could say that public education has improved since this was written, but reports from nieces and nephews and friends who are now parents of school-age children suggests that it is, if anything, worse. The ends of schooling had always been narrow, but since my day the means have narrowed too, thanks to the testing mania.
Nearing forty when I wrote this, I was old enough to grasp that my best teachers, here described, probably recognized in me a kid pretty much like they had been, before they were obliged to come to terms with the quotidian realities. More than thirty years on, my gratitude toward them has only deepened.
The issue of schooling is exercising my fellow baby-boomers as they settle somewhat tardily into the task of perpetuating the race—the rat race, that is. And during most discussions of the topic someone will sing out, in counterpoint to the general tone of complaint, "The public schools were good enough for me."
So they would be, for any parent whose ambitions for her children is to replicate themselves. There are other questions attached to the remark, however, including this one: To what extent is what we are, and aspire to, the result of how we were schooled? To us boomers, for whom the classroom was our cotton field, our sweat shop, our barracks, the question is crucial. Whether we embraced it or spurned it, school was the central social and intellectual experience in the lives of a great many of us.
It didn't use to be so important, although it often was just as insidious. Our careers were separated by more than half a century, but I recognized my own schools (and me) in Lewis Mumford's autobiographical descriptions from his boyhood. "If the business of education was to turn out people without imagination, without desire, without capacity for choice, without initiative or will," Mumford wrote, "this educational environment was well conceived."
I left twelve years in District 186 able to read and write and do simple calculations without embarrassment. Beyond that I learned little of what I needed to know, including some idea of how much I didn't know. At the turn of this century it was said by advanced thinkers that what mattered about education was not that people knew things but that they could do things. This they called power. (Hazlitt warned his son that the man who knows Latin and Greek may know more names of things, but his simpler cousins often are able to do more things.) By the 1960s the world had changed, and school boards realized that the power to do things required that students know things. It was knowledge prejudiced by utility, however; always the aim was to do, not to understand.
The power we were taught was intended to be put at the service of others. We weren't taught how to do so much as how to do as we were told. The priority was not pedagogical but explicitly political. The fact that this commonplace truth—the schools are run by the state after all—so often comes as a surprise is one proof of their success. Real power requires an independence of mind and spirit which was antithetical to the cowardly conformities of the fifties. The schools' job was to protect us from our own possibilities; we were there to be taught, not to learn.
We were not beaten or indoctrinated using the crude methods of the past. The process of adjustment was benevolent, but the life to which we were being adjusted was not a good one. The virtues the public schools instilled were not those of the free citizen but (as Mumford's complaint suggests) those of the dutiful and stupid employee—punctuality, obedience, a taste for group endeavor, ability to follow instructions.
A friend once explained his decision to send his own children to parochial rather than public or nonsectarian private schools by noting that, having gone through the same parochial system himself, he was able to anticipate and thus counter the propaganda his kids would receive there. Like most parents of their generation, my parents offered no such corrective at home. The cult of the professional educator had established itself by the early 1960s. In the post-Sputnik era the job of the schools was to teach children the things their parents didn't know. Schools in their day had taught the past; schools in my day were teaching the future.
The power to really do, of course, requires the power to think. An experienced teacher I know makes the point that a kid "deficient in math operational concepts" can always use a calculator to add or divide for him, with little harm done. If that kid must resort to using something (more likely someone) else to do his thinking and criticizing for him, there is very grave harm done indeed. Not just to him—toads can live very long and cozy lives, I hear—but to the rest of us.
Looking back, I see that the best education is one which equips a child to resist schooling. Reconsidered in those terms, my twelve years under the tutelage of District 186 were not entirely wasted. The profoundest lessons any teacher teaches, I suspect, are inadvertent. I received one such lesson at the hands of a physics teacher who docked me two letter grades for turning in a lab report—which he generously praised as work a college physics major might be proud of—because it was written in pencil rather than ink. (It was finished at 3 in the morning and I lacked the energy to copy it.) The priority was thus made clear: Obedience first, physics second. My work the rest of that term was tidy and uninspired; I did well.
I was judged to be a well-adjusted boy, at least until a tardy and muddled rebellion late in high school. A teacher I liked accused me at the time of being a cynic, a word I didn't then really understand. (A conformist could be described as one who believes in order to belong; a cynic might be described as a conformist who cannot believe.) I was familiar with the attitude, though. Cynicism was a vice rampant among my schoolmates. H. L. Mencken once observed that schools turned kids into actors who "know how to lie—perhaps the most valuable thing, to a citizen of Christendom, that they learn in school."
It wasn't until I had left school that I realized that some of my teachers shared many of my complaints. I had been given a lousy education by some very good teachers in twelve years. I was thought to be a clever boy and was always assigned to the fast track, taught by, if not always by the best teachers, at least by teachers who thus had a chance for once to teach the best they knew how.
An act, I hurry to add, which includes knowing when not to try to teach at all. A handful of my teachers were eccentric in their manner or method. Other students often disliked them for the same reasons machine pols can't get along with reform mayors. Being a stupid kid, I appreciated them mainly for their entertainment value, and was not fully alert to the broader lessons in their example. Mr. L. indulged my reading of Schopenhauer instead of his assigned fare. (My pretension, then even more than now, outraced my ability.) Mrs. R. exposed me to Shakespeare—she was being paid to do that—but she also exposed me to the possibilities of reading lesser poets for pleasure. Mrs. K. did not throw me out of class when I ignored her assigned topic for a sociology final end submitted instead a rambling essay whose details I forget but which probably brooded on the injustices of the world.
Each of these teachers gave me credit for competence I did not have for the sake of a future I did not possess, and did both in spite of the inconvenience my self-indulgence must have caused them both inside and outside the classroom. Their patience with me was to some extent a sign of their own disdain for the schools to which we had both been consigned. It is no accident that the most spirited teachers are usually pariahs among their colleagues—mine were—who are constantly either hassling or being hassled by the educational bureaucracy. Mine never preached rebellion openly. (What recourse did either of us have anyway, except to quit being students or teachers?) They taught it anyway, perhaps without quite meaning to. I prefer to think they knew exactly what they were doing, that they were trying to do what a good education always has done, and do it in spite of the times—give a kid an itch of dissatisfaction with what it knows and is, along with the means to scratch it someday. ●