Reclaim public education

/ 26 March 2021

Caitlin Flanagan writes, in the Atlantic:

“In a just society, there wouldn’t be a need for these expensive schools, or for private wealth to subsidize something as fundamental as an education. We wouldn’t give rich kids and a tiny number of lottery winners an outstanding education while so many poor kids attend failing schools. In a just society, an education wouldn’t be a luxury item.”

I have to start by noting that all of my degrees come from elite private universities. I know something of what it means to be in that space. Back in 1980, when I was applying to college, you could be a kid from a single parent household who went to public schools, and you could still get admitted to Yale. Public education in Wisconsin really meant something (it still does, in some spaces), and I graduated from high school with a deep commitment to learning, and with a love of reading and writing that continues to sustain me.

Four years of elite university later, I knew that my sisters who went to public universities had gotten at least as good an education as I had. In some ways even better.

Nowadays, far too many of our public schools and universities are crumbling around us, and the opportunities to learn an instrument, to participate in art classes, to argue philosophy, even simply to play outside in recess (prior to the pandemic), are disappearing.

According to this article (and certainly I’ve heard enough from this generation of college students to confirm it), nowadays the competition for a “good education” begins back in preschool, and continues through ever increasing parental anxiety in K12 settings all the way to college and graduate school. And it’s all about wealth. When elite education becomes solely about getting — or keeping — access to wealth, we have lost what really matters and it is not surprising that polarization and ugly dynamics grow ever more rapidly around us.

This author is writing about elite private education, but I want to note that at heart the article is trying to help us to reclaim a deep sense of the public, of a shared commitment to learning that is about engagement with the whole of society.

In the midst of our drastically unequal society, in the midst of the devastation wrought by pandemic and racial injustice, we need to grasp onto Amanda Gordon’s words, and believe there is light, “if only we are brave enough to see it.”

An article like this sheds light on a set of practices that only magnify inequality, and further erode our sense of ourselves as a people, diverse but united. The headline on this article names elite private education of this sort obscene. That’s a strong word, but it is warranted.

Imagine what we could do if we focused our attention back to the roots of learning as a civic enterprise, and poured money into public education. Rather than grasping after a very selfish kind of elite private education, what if the children of our leaders were immersed in contexts and relationships where they were all leaning into building just relationships, and a form of learning that lifts up each child’s unique gifts? Imagine!

A couple of years ago this podcast explored the pressures facing white families to choose the “right” public school here in the Cities. I resonated deeply with the conversation, because these leaders were asking — what if every school was a great school? Instead of the anxieties that were provoked by having to search out and find just the right school (because the assumption was that there were many bad schools), what if every school in every neighborhood was excellent?

The podcast speakers were interrogating the white privilege that had become the air so many of us breathe. Instead they asked, and we need to ask: why can’t we ensure that every school is a great school? That would be an achievement worth celebrating.

Read Flanagan’s article, and think about it.