“ … A common murderer, possibly, but a very uncommon cook.”
— Saki, “The Blind Spot”
A few years ago, an eminent author-educator – let us call him or her “X” – renounced a short-lived flirtation with and promotion of school choice. X returned in remorse to a preceding career as supporter of the compulsory assignment of the children of not-so-well-off families to their local common school. Such mothers and fathers, like most parents, value their legal authority over just where, and from whom, their own flesh and blood will learn what’s what; sadly, they can’t afford to exercise it.
Now, X clearly knew this, and was, I think, in that brief defection to school choice, a would-be friend of the poor, yet, like too many of our pedagogical elite, was wedged in an intellectual bunker. That specific dark hole featured, and does yet, a set of empirical assumptions about government schools that picture their world as sufficiently uniform in method and message to serve as the common experience for both rich and poor – for every child.
Hence, justifiably, that same routine may be imposed, in whichever school, upon those families over whom the government holds sufficient economic (not legal) power. These, we see, are the poor who cannot escape by moving residence or by paying tuition at St. Athanasius. At the public school, everybody learns the same stuff anyway, so … no big problem.
This image of an education that is truly “common” may have been comforting to professional minds like that of X who longed to behold and be part of some “one best system.” And, by extension, the news of this reality lulled, and does yet, much of the American public conscience by its appearance as a happy truth coming from those who really know.
The mass of us thus can join X in the sedated apprehension of a school system truly common in its core mission and method. That ruling image quite logically encourages our widespread assurance that any “public” school serves as a proper place to teach successfully those young citizens who can be trusted to maintain our civic ideals (and, especially, that child of the poor whom it rescues from family ignorance).
Prudently, the apologist concedes that, human nature being what it is, this intended civic and intellectual payoff will be not quite universal; it is simply the best that the mind of man can deliver short of Plato’s recommendation that elite society snatch all babies permanently from their parents’ corruptive influence.
Furthermore, this flourishing homogeneity among the product of the common school would be insurance against those forms of civic and social division ever threatened by the disharmony of content method – and even civic purpose – represented in our motley-minded private schools. This image of an ideal and extant order of truly common state schools versus another of incoherence just could have nagged serious minds like that of X even during his/her season of pro-choice.
The would-be altruist was, and remained, in a personal vocation to the poor; but only for that one brief season did he/she suppose that even these have-nots could be trusted to choose from a broad private menu whatever would be best for their own child and society.
Soon, and to X’s dismay, in what now could seem the real world, he/she witnessed a near monopoly of the pro-choice conversation by apostles of a “pure” unregulated market in schooling, made as it had been imagined by the late Milton Friedman. That is, roughly, every child, whether rich or poor, would receive a voucher of equal dollar amount; government would leave the seller (school) free to charge whatever extra it could lure from the buyer (parent). If low-income families found themselves clustered in cheap and chancy private schools, such is life; there were to be no rules that would encourage their admission by the seller.
If in fact it was that cruel image of school choice which drove X (and many another) back to the support of our military-style draft of the poor, that could be understandable. X’s decision would then have been consistent with the popular conception that public schools all at least try to teach the same stuff in the same way. X went for what seemed the lesser of evils; and the poor would thus learn the same as the rich.
For better of worse, that picture of symmetry appears to me untrue, even among schools of the same district – even from room to room in the same school. It was untrue of our own family experience with five children who spent a bit over half their semesters enrolled in public schools. Our story is confirmed today, not only in professional media and tattle but, more directly, in the tales of today’s school parents – some in appreciation of such rich variety, more in disappointment.
Teachers, it would appear, are still free humans with their own world views, personalities and talents; they assign their own students ideas of history and civics quite incompatible with the classroom down the hall. Next year, some will feature the anomalous and discredited 1619 Project, others the profound scholarship of James Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”
This jungle of minds could be taken as the pride rather than the scandal of the “public” school, in part a happy, if paradoxical, effect of their very status as public – a governmental entity. Even our courts have shown concern for the (limited) “right” of the public teacher to speak her own mind. And, much more important, is the intellectual umbrella provided the off-beat instructor (ironically) by the hungry domination of the system by the teachers union which effectively shelters all teacher performance but extreme ideology or factual quackery.
The message of the “public” schoolroom is neither uniform nor predictable. And that would be fine, if only the parent were empowered to choose, experience, switch – to be a parent.