“Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it.”
G.B. Shaw, Maxims for Revolutionists
Shaw’s wit suggests the primary harvest of our “public” school systems for children of the poor and for their parents. We have only recently learned of its relatively dim outcome as measured by standard tests of basic learning.
This monolith of 19th century design is, at last, damned by professional media for its dimming effect upon the intellectual, economic and social prospects for these children of poverty who are collected by the state with a warrant for their presence in a certain “public” school of the city. Like criminal suspects who can’t afford bail, these kids will stay here for rehabilitation.
The evidence of student learning today consists mostly of comparative test scores and their relation to parental social types. This much is no longer in doubt: Those lucky kids whom a lottery has delivered to mom’s chosen charter school learn more of whatever is taught; and this holds true whether the parent has any particular mindset or sophistication.
I am no statistician; I merely read the conclusions of these respected scholars of numbers and their significance. What I can hope to contribute comes only as a conviction of a long observer of this scene that the civic effects at stake in our wars over parental choice count more than any puff or decline in test scores.
These social consequences would be important even were chosen schools merely equal or even trailing in their scores. Our literature on this subject wants for insight that numbers alone can’t give – a sense of the long-term effect upon the souls and minds of those humans who experience intellectual and moral exit from the dignity and civic responsibility so dear to the luckier among us.
Shaw’s ambiguous tweet make us ponder.
For 59 years, I have written and/or taught the structures of schooling here and abroad and the roles of parent and child as I and others perceive them. Yet my experience as a middle-class human with five children, plus now their descendants, is still my best claim to insight.
It is limited and often flawed, but I trust it to be as reliable as that of other patriarchs who hail from the 1920s and claim some insight from experience. And, further, I can even imagine my message as common sense for old and young.
It is essentially this: There are two profoundly corruptive symbolisms in our making the poor family be the servant of the state, as we do. The device encourages a mindset in both parent and child that is (in manner, not content) faintly suggestive of that which Beijing seeks to secure among the Uighurs. Their child is to be made happy with a life of moral and intellectual suppression.
The American child of the poor shall, by contrast, be made happy by the state with no clear moral suppression at all; they will be assured that the good life is whatever one chooses for his or herself – but, of course, just so long as you remain good.
“Good?” But you just told me to choose the way I want; now you tell me always to be good to my neighbor. Just why must I do that when it gets in the way of my own plan?
Yes, okay, I’ll obey the law; one must. Is that all you mean? Outside of that, who is there to tell me what’s “good?”
In our public school, the mind of the American child of the poor could be, but is never allowed a clear portrayal of the crucial relation between human freedom and an authentic moral good. I will not here review what I think to be the necessary structure of that relation. My bibliography is full of the particular version of it which I would trust.
The second poisonous implication, and at least as corruptive of the social order, is the unsubtle message of the school system to the non-rich parent and her child regarding the role that each is being assigned to play in this society.
“Here is your status as parent: You produce the child whom you then shall feed, clothe and care for until we call upon you to deliver him or her to a school which the state shall identify, there to learn this truth that it teaches. You shall continue to provide for the physical needs of the child until high school graduation; up to a point, the state will leave you free to express to the child your own view of the good life.”
This reality is corruptive of the civic order through its enduring effects upon the minds and hearts of both child and parent. Watching their loving but decommissioned parents, the child grasps that “Mom and Dad must surrender without alternative; being a parent is a form of intellectual and moral vassalage to some higher order called ‘the state,’ which makes P.S. 22 the vehicle for its message to me. At dinner, my folks may fret at my report of the day’s lessons or classroom events, but they can do nothing such as finding another school.”
Parenting and marriage itself gradually appear as downside experience with very little independence and authority, and lots of grief. “Who needs it? Will I ever want to lose my own freedom to such a trap? Not as long as I can hang with a gang – and probably never.”
The parents’ own experience of impotence in the shaping of their own child’s mind has its equally poisonous effect upon both their personal and civic visions. To strip them of authority is a clear invitation to reassess their own identify.
“This society wants me helpless to shape the mind of my own child in the manner so precious to the rich. Oh well, at least it has spared me responsibility for whatever happens in the streets and the civic order. It’s not all bad; I will just stop worrying about it and enjoy whatever government has to offer poor people like me.”
Shaw has his point. This corruption of the civic souls of child and parent is the poisoning of society.