October 18, 2022

John Warner: What is school for?

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The New York Times asked several individuals to answer the question about the purpose of schools. John Warner read the answers, and while he agreed with many of them, he felt the need to add his own answer.

Just about every essay framed school as something that would deliver some kind of positive future benefit. The reason to go to school is because it will pay off someday in terms of economic prospects, or being an informed citizen, or having an appreciation of nature.

This views the result of school as a product, an outcome. I would rather we look at school as a process, an ongoing experience. For that reason, my answer to the question “What is school for?” is:

To be engaged.

Surveys show that pre-pandemic we had something of an “engagement crisis” with fewer than 50% of students saying they were engaged in school and nearly one-quarter saying they were actively disengaged. Engagement declines with each successive year of schooling. This problem has been significantly exacerbated by the disruption of the Covid pandemic.

By framing school as something that will only have benefit in an indefinite future, we ignore the importance of living in the present. As I say in my book Why They Can’t Write, “Life is to be lived, including the years between 5 and 22 years old. A world that suggests those years are merely preparation for the real stuff, and the real stuff is almost entirely defined by your college and/or career, is an awfully impoverished place.”

If we first think of school as a place for students to be engaged, lots of other parts of the equation will fall into place. Engaged students will find reading necessary and fascinating. Engaged students will want to learn what they need to know to become informed citizens.

It’s a great answer. We may think about school as just a holding pen for people who are waiting for their lives to begin in the future, but in fact their lives are going on right now, and that’s the context in which we should be dealing with them.

Read the full essay here. 

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