Discussions of education make everything a question of economic efficiency as if the only reason to pay taxes for schools were to increase America’s international competitiveness and boost the GNP and the only reason to get an education is get a high paying job afterwards—“TV dinner by the pool, Gee I’m glad I finished school.” Here’s a novel thought. Education may be worth it because it increases the quality of people’s lives even if it doesn’t put another nickel in their bank accounts, and it may even be worthwhile to improve the experience of going to school just because the years spent in school are a precious time of life, one’s youth.
Turning schools into industrial test-taking facilities is probably counterproductive even from a narrowly vocational point of view. Many studies have shown that removing the enriching features of school—art, music, sports—actually degrades academic achievement; but even if it were somehow cost effective to turn public schools into minimum security prisons, why would you want to inflict such institutions on your fellow citizens? If governments exist to promote the well being of the citizens, doesn’t the well being of teenagers count?
Along with the other, mostly funny things I remember from the day I graduated from high school, one was astonishingly poignant: catching sight of some of my classmates weeping. It surprised me at the time. Unlike me and my close friends, they weren’t looking forward expectantly to college. What really was a commencement for us was an ending for them, but it wasn’t the imminent prospect of entering the job market and adult responsibilities that upset them—high school grads in 1963, at least the white ones, didn’t face anything like today’s job market and having a high school diploma still meant something. They were sad because of what they were leaving, a special and highly meaningful world. I wonder if graduates in 2016 have the same feelings.
People certainly grumbled about taxes in 1963, but I think most of the adults I knew then would have been astonished at the idea that public education should be narrowly focused on preparing students for work. A sign of this attitude was the way that art and music classes were taken for granted. Of course we want schools to provide such things and are willing to pay for them. They’re our kids, aren’t they? Well, the difference may be that while people still want such things for their kids, they aren’t interested in paying for fluff when it comes to their kids. After all, the books and flowers are wasted on the epsilons. If they get used to a rich and humane environment as children, they’re just going to expect it as adults and they aren’t entitled to that.
Maybe the fundamental problem with American education is a deficit in solidarity. The U.S. is not us.