National Public Education

A Country or a Colony?

Whenever I bring up the idea of a national school system, one of the first critiques is always that this would result in more emphasis on the “dominant culture” in our country, and that this is not a good thing.  The argument is that by centralizing our school system, so that there would be only one source for the curriculum and methods, instead of the 50 states, we would have to make the schools more homogeneous and less diverse.  A recent gallop poll notes that 80% of Americans do not want the schools to emphasize “one dominant culture.”  Our diversity and openness has always been seen as one of our essential strengths.  Wouldn’t a national system weaken or even do away with these attributes?
But is it possible to have a strong school system that does not represent a certain point of view?  A teacher has to teach something; he can’t teach everything.  Can we really teach all the different points of view possible?  Wouldn’t it be better just to teach the best ones?  Of course a weak school system can be said to not teach any one dominant culture, since it doesn’t really teach anything, but can a strong one?  It may be that diversity is a cardinal concept in our culture, but that does not mean that the teaching itself has to be diverse.
These arguments against any strong central beliefs seem to me to be part of a nostalgia for our past rather than any clear thinking about our future.  In the past we were intent on filling up this country and needed all the new people we could find.  On the frontier it had to be that all were welcome, all were equal, all were left to their own devices to come up with as many solutions to a problem as possible.  Any centralized culture would work against the kind of varied and energetic immigrants we needed.    We wanted everyone to feel at home, so it was essential that there was only a very loose definition of what was our dominant culture.
But what of the future?  What will this country be remembered for a millennium hence?  What have we done that others haven’t?  Were we a refuge for the “tired and poor” of the rest of the world?  But the statue of liberty faces away from our shores.  It is a monument for the rest of the world, not for us.  We helped them solve their problems; what have we ourselves done?  Innovations?  Yes, but these, by definition, come and go quickly.  Who still honors the inventor of the tape recorder?  Democracy?  But most of the world now does this, and many better than we do.  Wealth and power; is anyone remembered for this?  Personal freedom; which the most backward, violent, countries have more of than we do?
We haven’t accomplished much that is lasting because we have never settled on who we are.  We have not yet agreed on what makes us unique.  In a sense, we still think of ourselves as a young, evolving country; teenagers in a world of adults.  We haven’t grown up into the kind of mature stable country that we should be.  Adults have to choose the one thing they want to be; you can’t be both the physicist and concert pianist that you hoped to be when young.
In many ways, what we have done is kept the characteristics of a colony: a place where anyone can arrive and feel at home, no matter what their beliefs; where money is to be made, and innovations, and stunning achievements in technology and science, but little of lasting value.  A colony is a service to the rest of the world; a refuge, a land of new opportunity.  All are welcome; all have a chance to succeed.  But the whole operation is based on change; little is done that is ever remembered.
Nor is a colony a good place for our young.  A child needs a stable society, one where the ideals of the culture are clear and will remain so on into the future; where work today on those ideals will lead to success tomorrow.  A colony, where the adults all think of themselves as young, is hard on those who actually are young.  Children need some real adults around to guide them.   We need to consider how we might educate our own, interior, newcomers, the ones we have produced ourselves, our children.  They can be just as valuable to us.  They can be our future.
So I am not worried that a national school system would run counter to who we really are.  We don’t know who we are.  We have chosen to ignore that question so that we may continue to attract outsiders.  It is time, though, to grow up into the mature country we ought to be.  This means starting the process of deciding on stable and consistent ideals.  That process would be aided by a national school system, not hurt by it.

Peter Dodington

August 7, 2013



Hidden in Plain Sight

When I first started teaching in New York City, in the early 90’s, I worked at what used to be Andrew Jackson High School in Jamaica, Queens.  The school had been converted to a collection of magnet schools that summer, but there were still remnants of the old arrangement around, including the bulletin boards put up by the last of the Jackson students.   (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had been a Jackson graduate—her name was still engraved on the permanent honor role in the front hall.)

One of these bulletin boards was about a letter-writing project in which the students had proposed that we adopt a national education system.  I forget the details, but I think they had written to various senators and congressmen to argue the case for converting to a fully national school system.  They simply pointed out that a federal system would work better than the current state one.

In the years that followed I have often thought of those students and their project.   In a way, what I am doing now on this blog is a continuation of their work.  I just want to point out, perhaps naively, that a national school system would work well, and leave it at that.  Like those kids, I want to focus on the simple question of how to make the schools better.  If that is the only question under discussion, one has to eventually get to the topic of national public education.

A fully national school system, with the educational tax money that we currently send to the states going instead to the federal government, (but the local school district staying the same) is not a topic that many take seriously.  I suppose everyone thinks that it would be too difficult to make such a fundamental change, and too scary.  That fact alone, however, does not make it any less logical.  No one can deny that trying to improve all the schools in this country with 50 different, autonomous, groups in charge is not the best arrangement.  Just on the face of it, without going into all the complex arguments for state or national control, one can see that having 50 leaders of school reform will tend to bring about the kind of permanent mediocrity that we have come to know so well.  It is not that our state system cannot work; it is that it can never work well.

I realize that there are many people out there who are at best lukewarm on the topic of improving public education.  These are not my audience.  But there are also many who truly believe that public education is the best way to educate our children, and are seriously searching for ways to improve it.  To these I want to suggest that one answer has been there all along, hidden in plain sight: a national school system.  It is time that we started talking about it.