Saturday, July 7, 2007

A Philosophy of Education II (Things Schools Do Besides Teach. Safeguards for Society...)

Before a child is taught anything in school, the school system provides a service that is indispensable: it ensures that the child has been inoculated against diphtheria.

And tetanus. And whooping cough, measles, rubella, polio, and a few other things. Through the various carrots and sticks available to society from universal schooling, public health in America has been greatly advanced in the last century; I can't think of a more reasonable agency to carry out this service. The decline of child mortality in America that has resulted from every parent knowing that eventually they'll have to produce that shot record at the door of a school house may by itself be make the cost of schooling in America worthwhile.

Without establishing a timeline for what services (or mandates) entered the public school system at what point in time, I tend to just push the blame for all of them off on Lyndon Johnson. He started the modern trend, at least, of providing services that were not directly educational in nature. Among my favorite is free and reduced lunch. It serves society (and students) with a safeguard against poverty. Children are disproportionately impacted by poverty. The free and reduced lunch program has served to keep large parts of America turning into scenes from a Charles Dickens novel. And the school system has been the tool society used to achieve that.

meAnother example has to do with the treatment of people with disabilities in our society. Forty year ago America may have been far above much of the world in the treatment of disabled individuals; but families were still largely on their own in dealing with and supporting their disabled members. Today, disability laws in America require that children with disabilities be sought out early during the preschool years, and that services be provided under many circumstances to families with disabled children. This is part of the reason the life expectancy of a person with Down's Syndrome has more than doubled in the last few decades. And it is the public school system that at least seeks out identifies the children with disabilities and, often, provides the actual services. The quality of life for the retarded, the hearing impaired, the visually impaired, and those with other disabilities has been greatly improved as a result. That safeguard against neglect of the disabled is part of what makes us a civilized society.

Some socialization also takes place, and I would argue that much of the weight of socialization in American society falls upon the public school system. It is where kids learn to stand in line in the cafeteria the way they will have to sand in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles of the Post Office later in life. It is where they learn that you can't hit people just for what they say (even if your father says you can). It is where they learn not to steal, not to bite, how to act in groups, and how to relate to authority.

Of course, some of the safeguards provided by the school system are in fact educational, or academic, in nature. The school system should infuse a minimal level of literacy and math skills into all the children who come through its doors. And there are economic safeguards - the hope that schooling will provide employability skills at some minimal level to the majority of students. Society currently disagrees about what that minimal level of literacy is; perhaps there has never been a consensus - just an idea. And the employability skills need to survive in society are rapidly changing. It becomes easy to lose sight of the many other things the school system does when success with the educational goals becomes difficult to measure.

These things are as they should be in a society with our resources (in my philosophical view of education, or at least of schooling). Society should have an institution that ensures that public health measures are being instituted in small children. Society should have an institution that aids parents in socializing their children. Our society should have a mechanism for identifying individuals with disabilities early in life and ensuring that they receive services. The purposes of education should be multiple and complex in a society as complicated as ours. And individuals and their families should be able to avail themselves of the system for their own purposes while society still achieves its own in some measure. Educational institutions must resign themselves to the fact that those who come through their doors have their own motives and values. And in America that's allowed.

In my philosophy of education, the purpose of schooling is to serve multiple ends for both the learners and the providers. There is no singularly important or outstanding particular purpose for education in America that stands alone. And education, or more properly schooling, has become an institution that is central to the core of our society and legitimately serves a variety purposes.

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