Anya Kamenetz: School Is For Everyone
The New York Times kicked off the month with a series of essays answering the question “What is school for?” Some of these were not exactly fabulous, like the one by economist Bryan Caplan, who said that schools are for “wasting time.” But Anya Kamenetz wrote a piece examining some of the effects of the pandemic shutdown, adapted from her new book “The Stolen Year.”
It opens with a reference to the fact that education was once a privilege, noting that only the only the Alexander the Greats of the world could hire Aristotle as a private tutor (which may or may not be a clap back at a Daily Wire interview with Betsy DeVos in which the former secretary suggested that with vouchers, everyone could have an Aristotle, somehow.
But she moves on quickly to look at Horace Mann’s work in establishing the idea of a public school:
An essential part of Mann’s vision was that public schools should be for everyone and that children of different class backgrounds should learn together.
And while we’ve never perfectly realized Mann’s vision, she says, that vision “is under particular threat right now.” In particular, because–
School closures threw our country back into the educational atomization that characterized the pre-Mann era. Wealthy parents hired tutors for their children; others opted for private and religious schools that reopened sooner; some had no choice but to leave their children alone in the house all day or send them to work for wages while the schoolhouse doors were closed.
And while public school is struggling and students are scattered, “a well-funded, decades-old movement that wants to do away with public school as we know it is in ascendance.”
You may disagree with Kamanetz’s analysis of the effects of the pandemic, but her analysis of that anti-public school movement is blunt, stark, and on point:
This movement rejects Mann’s vision that schools should be the common ground where a diverse society discovers how to live together. Instead, it believes families should educate their children however they wish, or however they can. It sees no problem with Republican schools for Republican students, Black schools for Black students, Christian schools for Christian students and so on, as long as those schools are freely chosen. Recent Supreme Court decisions open the door to both prayer in schools and public funding of religious education, breaking with Mann’s nonsectarian ideal.
And she is clear about the cost of such a movement’s success:
Without public education delivered as a public good, the asylum seeker in detention, the teenager in jail, not to mention millions of children growing up in poverty, will have no realistic way to get the instruction they need to participate in democracy or support themselves. And students of privilege will stay confined in their bubbles. Americans will lose the most powerful social innovation that helps us construct a common reality and try, imperfectly, to understand one another.
The cost, then, is the ability not just to serve the public, but to create a public that is unified in its American-ness, a quality that some in the anti-public school movement believe is reserved for only a chosen few.