Last Friday, I attended an event hosted by the Washington Service Corps, which included a presentation by the Arts Corps. Because many of the AmeriCorps members serving in the state of Washington are doing so in education systems, or at least working with children in some capacity, the Arts Corps’ presentation focused itself primarily on ways to engage young students through art*.
During this presentation, one of the Arts Corps members off-handedly commented that, and I’m paraphrasing here, “98% of the time in our schools children are being told that they cannot do something.” In other words, public school students are epidemically discouraged from doing what interests or inspires them. This is no new criticism, to be sure; it has been leveled at America’s public schools at least since the Progressive Era and John Dewey. And it’s a fairly legitimate criticism, too – particularly today, when meeting state and federal standards is so important in many schools that little time and attention can be given to serving much of the needs and desires of students. Furthermore, I know from personal experience that there is no shortage of classrooms in which students are routinely discouraged, controlled, disheartened, and otherwise oppressed.
Yet, despite the fact that I might tend to agree with the critique that undergirds what this man said, I found myself resisting his comment in this instance. Why? Perhaps it was the matter-of-factness with which he said it, I first thought, or that he was addressing a lot of people (the Washington Conservation Corps, for instance) who, presumably, do not know much of the realities of public schools firsthand. I realize now that both of these reasons informed my internal resistance.
But there is something more, too, something that amplifies the (what I found to be) unfortunate implication of this remark: greater social context. The current political atmosphere has shifted the conversation about public education. Suddenly, the much-publicized conservative reaction to the Obama election and a slow economic recovery has led to a distrust of and frustration toward the public sector among “mainstream” Americans that has not been seen for quite some time. Add to this our students’ disappointing performance as compared to their peers worldwide, toss in a little anxiety about losing our global economic dominance to China, and the strong narrative has emerged that U.S. public schools are failing.
Advocates for neoliberal ‘solutions’ have seized the opportunity. They’ve made a hard push and the result has been a dramatic rightward turn in public thought and discourse. Those already on the right have gone further. For example, voters in California’s 11th Congressional District came just short of sending Tea Party-backed Republican candidate David Harmer to Washington. Harmer has called for the outright abolition of public schools. Yet perhaps more troubling is that those on the center-left, including some people who might’ve been outspoken defenders of equitable public education, have embraced aspects of neoliberal thinking.
Within the context of this conservative trend, progressives and others who believe free public education to be a key component of a just society must think more carefully about how they speak out about public schools. I believe this is why I cringed slightly when the Arts Corps member said what he did – not at the message itself, but at the realization that progressive criticisms of public schools ring differently right now. A statement like that one could find itself caught up in the tide of conservative anti-public school discourse. So while the intention of progressive criticism might be to envision better public schools – rather than a country of privatized education – intention can easily be ignored. Anyone familiar with American news media is fully aware that statements can be removed from their context in order to further a political message that is in opposition to the original intention of the speaker.
Having said all of this, I do not believe that progressives must hold inside their legitimate criticisms of public education. Rather, I think that they must balance such criticisms with an explicit indication of their support for public education, whose very existence has not seen such a threat for many, many decades.
* Indeed, that is the very mission of the Arts Corps program; and a noble and necessary mission it is, particularly as arts education continues to erode, for numerous reasons, in public school. But that’s another post for another time. For more information, visit their website.