Monday, December 14, 2020

I See It Every Day in Preschool

Former Federal Reserve Chair and Joe Biden's nominee for Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has expressed the opinion that it's okay for the US to add trillions to our nation debt in order to improve education. 

Yellen is an impressive person. She is respected on both sides of the political aisle, having served at high levels under both Democrats and Republicans and she has been talking about the importance of education for most of her career. One can use your favorite search engine to go back and time to find her regularly saying things like this from a 2016 speech to graduates of the University of Baltimore:

"Economists are not certain about many things. But we are quite certain that a college diploma or an advanced degree is a key to economic success."

And from a talk to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition:

"Probably the most important workforce development strategy is improving the quality of general education."

She's said similar things about education from preschool through high school, touting spending on schools as a way to close the wealth gap in our country, addressing poverty as well as to stimulate the economy overall. Her elevation is a reason to celebrate, right? Our schools have long been underfunded. Finally, someone in high office is speaking our language. And best of all, she seems to have the ear of both sides, which means that maybe, just maybe, we can make education funding one of those rarest of birds in the political aviary: a bipartisan issue.

The truth, however, is that education, in my lifetime, has always been a bipartisan issue. Both sides are equally wrong. I've been listening to public officials talk about education for decades, and whatever their political stripe, none of them speak of education without connecting it to the economy. "We have to out educate the Chinese!" "We must prepare our children for the jobs of tomorrow!" "We need to emphasize STEM education because that's where the jobs will be." They talk about education, but only as a "workforce development strategy." It's as if our children exist to serve the economy rather than the other way around. 

In this relentless, bipartisan support for education as vocational training, we lose sight of the real purpose of public education, which is not to produce good little workers, but rather to educate good citizens. Self-governance stands at the heart of democracy and the skills required to succeed in the workplace are in many ways the exact opposite of those required to be a good citizen. For one thing, a good citizen is someone who thinks for themself, who is a critical thinker, and who questions authority. Those traits don't go over too well in a corporate hierarchy. Insubordination gets you fired. A good citizen speaks up for what they believe even when those around them disagree. A good citizen knows that they contribute to society in ways far beyond the merely economic. A good citizen rabble rouses, holds leaders feet to the fire, and knows that there is more to life than earning a greasy buck. Democracy can't work without educated citizens, which is why we publicly fund education in the first place. If it's just about job training, then I say we save the taxpayers' money and let the corporations train their own damn workers.

I respect Janet Yellen and I join her in calling for increased spending on education, but our children are more than workers, they are citizens. We are all counting on every "next" generation to have the skills required to join us in this project of self-governance. We won't get there with top-down job training. We won't get there with economists running our schools. We won't get there as long as we attempt to manufacture children the way we manufacture widgets.

Our schools need more money, but even more importantly we need transformation, one that puts the children and their curiosity at the center, one that sees them as fully formed human beings, capable and self-motivated. Our schools must become laboratories of democracy, places where children are free to challenge, think, and explore, to ask and answer their own questions, where they learn to work together cooperatively, to come to decisions through discussion, debate and agreement. Our schools must understand that in a democratic society, authority requires the permission of the governed and that obedience has no place. It's a transformation that flies in the face of everything today's political leaders believe about education.

It's easy to become cynical. There are too many of us who want to just blow the whole thing up. That, I believe, is one of the products of our current system of "workforce development" that stands in for education. We are producing citizens who feel hopeless because they are lacking the traits, knowledge, and skills necessary to fully embrace self-governance. We don't know how to engage with one another cooperatively, in the spirit of democracy, because we spend the first 18 years of our lives being trained to keep our noses to the grindstone, laboring in the test score coal mines, rather than engaged with one another on self-selected projects, learning to create our community together.

I'm often criticized for getting out of my lane when I discuss politics and other social matters, but to me that merely points out how far we've strayed from our ideals. There are no lanes in democracy. We are all responsible for what happens, which is why Yellen is not out of her lane to discuss education. We need each and every one of us to speak our minds, to listen to one another, and to work together toward agreements. And we must do that over and over again. That's how transformation happens among the self-governed. I see it every day in preschool.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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