Remaking a public education

Remaking a public education

Chris Carlsson on the education system.

Public schooling has become the current line of defense against dismantling the public sphere. Defending public school as we know it requires re-legitimizing the notion of a public good to be provided or at least guaranteed by the state. The past decade of Reaganism enshrined privatization, which shrank the entitlements and rights associated with the public sphere. Besides schools, what else does the public have anymore except some poorly tended parks, a few cash-starved museums and libraries, and rapidly deteriorating roads, rails and bridges? Were public schools eliminated, the state's functionson behalf of the public would be reduced to taxation and repression, and subsidizing business.

No one can defend public education without serious qualification, but such a defense must include an unqualified endorsement of the public. For all its flaws and mystifications, what is democracy if not a public process of politics and decision-making? A social institution that is self-consciously public and subject to political/popular control, however compromised, is important to a radical agenda that hopes to extend democratic social control over the whole of public life.

But instead of pouring our efforts into defending the few public institutions that still exist, we have to re-create and re-animate a public life that goes considerably beyond existing institutions. Our goal is not simply to reclaim public education, but to establish a new way of life in which public control over social matters (including economic ones) is understood as a political process subject to democratic norms (norms which are themselves determined by social processes). To do this we need to educate people to self-confidently participate. Public education's role looms large, not because specific curricula lead to specific results, but because school is where we most intensively interact with and learn about others outside of the family, neighborhood or work. Public schools, at their best, bring together people of widely different cultural, ethnic, and linguistic backgrounds and socialize them to participate in cooperative activities, develop respect for others, and so on. The public schools could be the best arena for us to learn what public life is about, and how we can participate in it.

It is easy to criticize schools as institutions of social control that create unthinking zombies that will become the pliable workers and consumers of the future. But most of us who might make such a glib critique are living examples of the porous nature of schooling's social control agenda. For instance, almost everything of value that I learned in school resulted from social interactions and experiences that took place in spite of the twisted logic of the school system. Learning, for better or worse, goes on everwhere, not just at school. Television has at least as much influence as schooling in shaping our ideas about the world and ourselves and our sense of what's possible. Even if a zealous right-wing Christianity took over the public schools and instituted its narrow, authoritarian curriculum, there is no guarantee that it would reliably produce the kind of obedient, God-fearing, hard-working citizens they dream about. Similarly, a more left-leaning school curriculum may not predictably produce critical, self-motivated, responsible citizens ready to assert themselves as part of a wider public life.


Curriculum is not the most important educational issue. Rather, it is the people we meet, the relationships we establish, and whether or not we are encouraged to think for ourselves and to believe our own experiences, that finally have the greatest influence on what kind of people we are when we emerge from our education. Education's role in shaping our imagination is one compelling reason for school integration. Rising racial tension encourages even neo-liberals to see school desegregation as an ameliorative policy.Racial integration in public schools is a necessary foundation for a racially integrated public life. In spite of spasms of ethnic cleansing and chronic world-wide racism, a vibrant, ever-evolving, cross-pollinating multiculturalism is spreading across the globe. Some of the best things about living in San Francisco, New York, or other big cities, are the astounding possibilities for cross-cultural experience, unfortunately most often limited to our role as consumers. You can breakfast Chinese Dim Sum, tour a Modern Art Exhibit, lunch Italian, check out Latino murals in the afternoon, shop New Age White Professional Thrift Store, dine Thai or Indian, and dance the night away at a rap club, salsa disco, white kid rock club, whatever, and top it off at an Irish bar or a Salvadoran Taqueria. But it is considerably more rare to hang out at your white friend's house, then head over to Bayview to your black friend's house, and then to Chinatown and see your friends there, then everyone heads over to the Mission, and so on.

Luckily there are plenty of pockets of genuine cross-cultural interest and respect in big cities, which are (hopefully) sources of cultural dynamism and new thinking. Developing a respect and appreciation for other cultures may even help stem the erosion of cultural diversity caused by the market pressure to Americanize. (While environmentalists have been decrying shrinking biodiversity, an equally serious problem for human society is shrinking cultural diversity, with a majority of known languages falling into disuse, and astonishing reservoirs of knowledge disappearing as the inexorable march of progress squashes remaining pockets of indigenous culture worldwide.) Accommodating different cultures in public schools counters the push to embrace monocultural white-bread values, even if in adapting to a multi-ethnic society each individual subculture begins to change too. Moreover, multicultural education accurately reflects the real new world order, which will no longer have the U.S. and European culture as its imperial standard. In adapting to a multi-polar, multi-ethnic world, it's crucial to have the educational opportunities and intensity of social experience available in a city like San Francisco.

In 1993, though, segregated and unequal public education is the norm throughout the United States. The attempt to address a deeply racist, predominantly segregated society by integrating public schools (ignoring housing, wealth, etc.) has led to more open-mindedness and less overt racism. But that apparent achievement by progressive forces has proven to be a very limited--even empty--victory. School desegregation has been isolated and outflanked by white flight, privatization and anti-tax revolts (like the 1978 California Proposition 13). Compare almost any white suburban school to its non-white urban counterpart and the results are clear. Overall education spending has gone up, but the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. Many poor districts are spending less now than they were a decade ago. Rich school districts, which tax their local property at rates far below poverty stricken areas, spend as much as five to eight times as much as nearby poor districts. The result is sharp, self-perpetuating racial and class divisions.


Racial integration remains an important goal for public schools. But it is patently absurd to expect integrated public schools alone to overcome this society's deeply entrenched institutional and personal racism. School integration falls even farther short of the mark when the goal is equality What is theequal education integrated schools are supposed to deliver? Shall we measure equality of opportunity or equality of results? How do you measure equality of opportunity? In dollars per pupil? By holding everyone accountable to some national standards for spending, facilities, and classroom size? By evaluating teachers and determining teacher/student ratios? Certainly equal education mandates national standards regarding equalized resource allocation.

But even if resource distribution were equalized, how could we know that it led to equality? Can test results help us assess equal education? One of my earliest lessons in critical thinking came in the 10th grade when we engaged in a lengthy analysis of the stupidity of grades and tests as meaningful measurements of anything. Grades are obviously highly subjective, and after a brief analysis even the most objective test turns out to be laden with racial and class biases that taint any results it may provide.

Does equal education mean giving specific subcultural communities control over curriculum and assessment? Or does equality imply instead that subcultures should be subsumed within the larger community, and everyone evaluated on some objective national norms? If so, what constitutes the dominant cultural norm, and what makes us so sure it is sufficiently fixed that we can evaluate whether or not people have been adequately trained to meet it?

Is there some new way of understanding and appreciating the role of education, independent of measurable results? If we can recreate an animated public life, the entry and participation of students and young adults may be a better gauge of good education than any test results.

"Equality," whether with respect to educational opportunity or outcome, or even citizenship, is one of the ambiguous concepts that permanently undergird our equally vague notions of democracy. Democracy remains an all-purpose, utterly malleable expression that encompasses radical egalitarianism, middle-class desires for an honest meritocracy, and the reality of a violent, oligarchical class- and race-divided society in which we are allowed an occasional vote for pre-selected candidates, representing minor differences in emphasis rather than a true political alternative. The concept of democracy is elastic enough to accommodate even the brutal liquidation of minorities in foreign lands under the auspices of U.S. intelligence agencies promoting "majority rule." Whatever definition of "equality" or "democracy" one might choose to embrace, there will surely be several dozen others embraced just as passionately.

If there are no objective standards for evaluating educational success or failure, what are the subjective standards and whose interests do they represent? When you hear someone addressing the failure of education, what is their vision of educational success and what social values does that vision embody? How do such educational goals affect the creation of a democracy? How does a democratic society shape its public sphere without being coercive? In other words, what are the limits of individual freedom in a real democracy?


From its Jeffersonian roots in the one-room schoolhouse of mid-19th century rural America to its expansion into assimilation factories during the great waves of immigration at the turn of the last century, public schooling has always been an arena of conflicting desires and social interests. The US ruling class greatly feared generalized literacy for many generations, and the fight for public education was a popular, democratizing opposition to those interests. But even in its most progressive forms, education's structure kept it well within the limits of capitalist society.

In fact, for most of this century, mandatory public schooling primarily served to create useful workers at public expense to be exploited in the marketplace for private gain. Of course, the educators assumed they were serving society at large and generally gave little thought to how they were directly filling the needs of business. Now, as the economy has become increasingly automated, the need for workers in general has diminished while the demand for (fewer) new workers with different skills has grown.

An equally important purpose of education is pacification. Keep the kids unwaged and safely within institutions as long as possible. Adapt them to passive, isolated lives of alienated consumption at best, and if they are sufficiently connected or hard-working, give them a repetitive, essentially meaningless job. For the tiniest select minority, upscale private schools lead to expensive private universities and a slot in the policy- and profit-making professions.

In the new world market, the proletarianizing and pacifying model of school and work no longer holds much promise. In the old economic model, whether workers thought or what they thought about was irrelevant so long as they did their jobs and didn't cause too much trouble. Most of them failed at school in any case. With the drastic cheapening of manual and manufacturing labor in the expanding world market, the rhetoric of reform stresses that new, supposedly more intelligent workers are needed to compete successfully.

Congealed as computerized data as well as human capital, thinking itself is now a necessary prerequisite for accumulation as well as something to be accumulated. Economic competitiveness, we are told, now depends on the expansion of "knowledge work" and the creation of more flexible "knowledge workers." Therefore, educational reform must facilitate colonizing the mind in new ways. Education reformers seek a new style of schooling that will turn more human thinking into work, which in turn will lead to further capital accumulation (the real measurement of health in our society). For this project to succeed, students must, at a higher level and more comprehensively than before, accept their role as trainees in search of scarce niches on the projects of transnational capital.

The extension of capitalist discipline from the muscle to the brain has been underway for decades in the restructuring of work and leisure and the amazing expansion of merchandising and mass media (this is sometimes referred to theoretically as the change from the formal to the real domination of capital). To ensure its control of our imaginations, modern capitalism requires more than the threat of unemployment or even homelessness. We must be sold on active and enthusiastic participation. Everyone must work for a healthy economy! We must do a good job! The problem for capitalist education planners is producing enthusiastic workers with extremely narrow competence.

President Clinton promises great reforms in education to ensure U.S. competitiveness in the world market. Robert Reich, his labor secretary, wrote recently: "There is no simple way to enlarge upon the number of Americans eligible for the high-wage jobs of the future. More money for education and training is necessary, but is hardly sufficient. The money...must be focused on building two key capacities in the workforce: First, the ability to engage in lifelong learning, and second, the opportunity to engage in it on the job. The most important intellectual (and economic) asset which a new entrant into the workforce can possess is the knowledge of how to learn."S.F. Chronicle Dec. 1992]

Clinton, a man firmly within the mainstream of the ruling class in his allegiance to the marketplace as the source of human improvement, sold educational reform as Governor of Arkansas by pitching it as the basis for economic renewal. "...the plain evidence in every state in this country is that you must have a higher threshold of people with college degrees if you want low unemployment" not because most of the new jobs in the economy will require college degrees; most of 'em won't. But because most of them will be created by entrepreneurs who have that kind of education." American Educator, Fall 1992

But what about the majority who will be forced into the bottom tier of our 2-tiered society, left to fight for those jobs that don't require college degrees? Clearly work has been restructured to the point where most jobs do not need much prior training. As long as you know how to learn, you can become an efficient worker in a matter of minutes, or at most, days. Schooling as it is now prepares one adequately for long hours of repetitive, uncreative labor. Will the reformers extend academic tracking even further to try to prevent the bottom-tier from becoming too critical and aware? If not, how can the system survive if most of the people who are condemned to such part-time and precarious temporary work are able to think critically about their situation? The ideological hegemony of the capitalist way of life may erode rapidly if educational reforms actually produce more thoughtful citizens.

A more realistic forecast is that schools won't change that much. New books, curriculum, and tests will be announced with much to-do, while the underlying reality of education won't budge. Fortunately, learning is more about experiences than curriculum. Whatever reforms are implemented, the real education will come from the relationships formed in and around each classroom. The increase in parent-participation in public schools gives us all an opportunity to bring the experiences we think are important into our kids' education. The focus and scope of learning is always being contested, and we can intimately affect them if we want to.


I have a daughter in the 3rd grade who attends an alternative public school. The school retains some of the spirit of its founding in the early '70s, with faculty and parents who are strongly committed not only to parent participation, but to alternative pedagogy, integrated cultures, ages, and grades, and conflict resolution as well. Rather than serving under a principal, the school's faculty elects a "head teacher," a job that rotates. It's very racially balanced, with no group over 30%. This year the school has been a pilot test site for an alternative approach to curriculum in which kids select special interdisciplinary projects (beginning oceanography, farmers' market calendar, multicultural cookbook, kids' guide to Bay Area Transit, pre-Colombian ocean kayaks, etc.) that they work on intensively for 3-6 weeks. By any standard, this school is a gem.

Having listed its rosy attributes, I have to say that it is still a public school. The building is cramped and awful, surrounded by a big asphalt yard. Parents chip in up to $300 to pay a Phys Ed instructor's salary, for which there is no public funding. The library is a large closet, and the nearby city library only allows classes to visit once a year! My child is often bored. I don't think she is very challenged by a lot of what she does all day, but I don't really blame the school or the teacher because I think both are good.

The frustration comes when you begin to imagine how different schooling could be if it were more integrated into the web of daily life. Children are curious and infrequently satisfied by the knowledge gained through school. But if you let them help do a real job that needs doing, the experience is much more meaningful, and teaches the child to believe in her own experiences rather than representations of other people's experiences. Practical knowledge of mechanics, gardening, computers, transportation, and so on, are all more thoroughly and interestingly absorbed from being out in the world, not from sitting around listening to lectures, watching videos, or even reading books (although they have their place). But life is not organized to accommodate groups of children participating usefully. And we know that it is not education's goal to produce active, inquisitive, resourceful people. Even alternative schools foster socially-approved attitudes and behaviors.

It's a cop-out to blame everything on the institutions that constrain our lives. Because the really great things that happened to me in the educational environment were nearly always social, I recognize my responsibility to enter the educational swamp. Unless I opt for homeschooling, I will continue sharing my daughter's development with public schools. The least I can do, which is unfortunately usually all that I do, is to go on camping and field trips and get involved with the kids and other adults. I bring a different perspective to the school environment, and I love meeting people from other walks of life, which always leads to interesting exchanges.Of course, most parents have to work all day and don't have time to make up for the inadequacies of public schooling by spending hours at the school, or volunteering for extracurricular activities. Hinging improved schooling on such participation endorses the generalized speed-up and intensification of labor that is already exhausting most working people. While admirable, the incredible number of hours parents spend raising money through thankless garage and bake sales, raffles, and carnivals, passes a public cost ontotheir backs and extends their work week. Yet somehow, we who are committed to radical change must find the extra energy, time and effort to participate in arenas such as public school, even if in the short term it just feels like more (unrewarded) work.

My daughter's entire school takes a camping trip to nearby San Bruno Mountain every October. I've participated three times now. When I showed up at San Bruno Mountain this year, two boys with whom I'd shared a cabin nearly a year and a half earlier came running up to me, excitedly yelling my name. I suddenly realized how much the time I'd spent playing and talking with them meant to them. During that earlier trip, I had felt rather overwhelmed. I did my best to treat the boys well and show them respect, but at the time I was struck by how fundamentally impossible the public school teacher's job is. How can one adult give 30-odd kids the enormous emotional and intellectual energy and discipline they need? A lot of kids don't get much of this at home, and when they get to school, they need a lot.

Although the problems children face are not going to be solved by any one relationship, you cannot underestimate the importance of honest friendship. This society is a very cold place, and many kids never experience other people's trust and confidence, or get to discuss things with someone interested in their opinion. Even a brief encounter with someone who helps you understand why things are as crazy as they are can make a huge difference in surviving this absurd society.

Helping to dispell children's confusion has everything to do with the shape and content of any future social movements. A child's way of thinking and relating to others is inculcated early. A culture enriched by difficult questions and dialogue could help spawn a 21st-century generation of revolutionaries worthy of the name. We all have a lot to contribute in making that culture a living reality. But this means reinhabiting public life, creating and participating in public events, and challenging the fatigue and passivity that keeps so many of us home watching TV instead of out among our friends, neighbors, and strangers. Can we rise to the occasion?

--Chris Carlsson