I’m pretty cynical about politics because most political discussion is ignorant babbling. In a typical political discussion, everyone involved knows almost no facts about the subject at hand and they actually have zero influence on the broader society. Yet, they act really serious about everything as if the fate of the world depends on them clinging to the eternal truth captured in some ridiculous video or the punchline from a TV comedian. So, there are very few so-called “political” issues that I care about — but education is one of them. I grew up believing that education was important, but schools are not.
Schools seemed irrelevant to me because I attended a different school every one or two years from the age of 5 until I graduated at 18. It is difficult for me to imagine this thing that Americans call a “public school system,” because in my experience, it was not a single system at all. For example, some schools let above-average students just get A grades in everything; some schools let them take honors or advanced courses; some schools made them sit out in the hallway so they didn’t bother the normal kids; and some schools disciplined them (as in “inflicted corporal punishment”) for working ahead. Even schools in the same district that taught the same grade levels had completely different classes, rules, student demographics, and learning environments.
Lacking continuity in my schooling, I wasn’t trapped in the illusion that some people have about public education as a kind of communal effort to implant a common body of knowledge into children and prepare them for the special little slots waiting for them in the community of adults. I saw education more as a personal adventure in accumulating as many different skills as possible so that I could be successful on my own terms. As a result, I developed the outlook of a self-taught person, and totally ignored the social significance of schooling.
The point of public school in the US has always been to “educate” in the broader cultural sense, not in the narrow sense of learning a subject (or range of subjects) or learning how to do a particular job. From its earliest forms in the US up through its institutionalization and desegregation, it was always explicitly promoted as a method of integrating into “productive” society all the religious outsiders, immigrants, lower classes, Indians, Blacks — everyone who was not a middle-class, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
This is still an explicit objective of public school, except that now it also has a normative function for the middle class — in other words, it has become the de facto normal condition of the middle class to have had a public school experience. That is why the defenders of public schools nowadays go further and claim that without having had a public school experience, a child literally has no place in adult middle-class society and is incapable of functioning normally. This is the single most common public objection to homeschooling, even more than fears of child abuse, child neglect, or educational neglect. They are afraid of the possibility of a “parallel society” — suggesting that there should be only one monolithic society fed by one monolithic school system, neither of which can co-exist with diverse forms.
Ironically, as primary and secondary schools became public enterprises in the US and became more open to all students, they lost their original diversity of mission — to prepare students for integration into particular communities — and developed instead a uniform rationale of idealized, large-scale universality that is disconnected from organic communities, and more closely related to prisons and factories.
The traditional European and American models of education were nearly always directed toward the creation of a particular mindset that would fit in within a particular culture. Prior to the 19th century, however, this usually meant a subculture within the broader society, partly because schools were exclusive by design, not just because of geography. Even after US schools became nearly “universal” in the scope of their students, the notion that each needed to impart a specific cultural outlook and set of habits has remained. It isn’t so obvious in primary and secondary schools, unless they are charter schools or magnet schools. However, in post-secondary education, the cultural differences between different universities, campuses, schools, and departments have always been very clearly defined — mostly out of self-defense, as they competed against each other for funding, and even more as they have struggled against online schooling and free self-education opportunities.
Education has two different basic styles, an inner and an outer style. One style sees sociality as an exercise in formation, whereas the other sees sociality as an exercise in expansion. The first is narrow insofar as its purpose is to create a person with a certain worldview; the second is broad insofar as its purpose is to unburden a person of their existing worldview through cosmopolitan interactions that ideally leave them with no particular worldview at all.
Contrary to stereotype, social formation does not necessarily result in narrowness, and social expansion does not necessarily result in openness. A person with a carefully formed worldview could be inquisitive and open to changing unfounded prejudices. A person with no worldview at all could be hollowed-out enough to assimilate any pre-programmed ideology. The challenge for schools, at least for those that are not preparing children to live in a totalitarian prison state or a religious cult, is how to balance convergent and divergent educational objectives in order to help people develop themselves.
My early life was characterized by a divergent education that conditioned me to see schools and their communities as disconnected little way-stations on a wandering path. That point of view didn’t really change after I went to college. But by the time I was older, I started to notice the cultural differences in each higher education experience, the way each group of teachers had a different ideal end that they seemed to be trying to draw me towards.
After a couple of decades of college classes I started to see that an ideal end, the formation of a certain kind of person, was actually the only purpose of every formal educational framework, also known as a “school.” Their purpose was not to convey knowledge as such, obviously, since they were very inefficient at conveying knowledge, and anyway the details changed continually. Apart from those few who truly needed a structured format in order to learn a particular subject, most students acquired knowledge despite their schooling, not because of it.
Most importantly, everyone who is not in school full-time already knows this, and that is why most people don’t want to “go to school” ever again after they become adults. In real life, they are either told what to think or they discover something for themselves; knowledge is just a commodity, not the result of a process, for most people.
The result of an educational process is a set of habits of thought, and the habits acquired through socialization lead to identification with a characteristic ideal — what we like to call character. If those habits can be supported in real life, then we may be able to live according to our ideals outside of school — but only if the ideals modeled in school represent real life.