What follows is an analysis of the major themes of the 85 comments made on the manifesto. Commenters are identified only by the name they used on the site. Spelling and grammar errors in quotes have not been corrected.
The comments are grouped around four major themes: Rules for Radicals (arguments for and against radical reform in education); The Self and the State (concerns over whether schools as described in the manifesto would lead to political repression or indoctrination); Citizens, Skills and Communities (comments that address learning in a social context); Not My Job (comments that question whether schools are the appropriate place to create community values).
Rules for Radicals
The intent of the manifesto was to learn more about how to articulate ideas for radical education reform, and a superficial examination of the comments suggests that support for such a change is strong. Whether they agreed with the idea of the manifesto or not, commenters tended to applaud it for suggesting a need for major changes. "I think part of this idea is genius and part of it is, well, idiotic," wrote M.A. in a typical comment. "On the other hand, I totally agree that what we teach and how we teach it is broken."
Before exploring what this apparent support for radical reform means, we should visit the few comments that questioned it. A few commenters expressed a general contentment with the system and students' experience of it. "My kids LOVE school," wrote Christine B. "They love their teachers, the experience of being at school, and the community the school fosters." Commenter Angelo Loumbas also argued that schools already do a sufficient job at creating citizens, even if they are not making the grade in giving students knowledge and skills. Of his children's public school, he wrote: "The school has the kids collect canned goods for the poor; they’ve learned about how to recycle and how important the environment is; and what I’ve come to realize is that they have a community at the school in which they are involved and within which they are learning to interact and contribute."
Commenter Joan Gallagher-Bolos, a high school teacher, responded to the manifesto by rejecting the narrative of a fundamental crisis in American education or a one-size-fits-all approach to combat it. "Sweeping, national education reform is not appropriate or doable," she wrote. "The complexities of education reform require much deeper investigations and a wooly-mammoth-level paradigm shift on the part of society." Gallagher-Boos also linked to an insightful article by Paul Farhi in American Journalism Review that critiques the "failing schools" narrative that predominates in mainstream education reportage.
Other respondents, while admiring the ambition of the manifesto and other new visions for education, cautioned against a radical approach to fixing the system. "The urgency of a re-think seems clear to me," wrote Graham Webster. But he also wrote that regardless of whether job preparation is the highest and best use of schools, these institutions are still connected with an economy that fails many vulnerable people in society. "The discussion above suggests that these moving parts in the community are tied to other moving parts—things like employment, the broader economy, and the necessary aggregation of resources for education," he wrote. "To move one part and not the other would be extremely difficult, and might only benefit those communities with the greatest resources to begin with."
Elementary school teacher Ben made another argument against radical, unilateral change. If the education system is underfunded or otherwise neglected, he wrote, then even the most brilliant proposal will prove ineffective. "I completely agree that massive reform is needed," he wrote. "I also agree that starting from scratch would be wonderful for reform. … However, such reform will be incredibly expensive to create and implement. While I know it’s worth it, I also know it will not happen. As such, we need to do our best to improve our teachers and administrators within the current system, making large changes as we can." He also argued that in many communities, problems unaddressed by existing schools or other institutions (such as drugs and violence) would equally hamper a re-imagined system.
Some commenters also feared that without better data, any major reform of the education system would be ill-advised. "The yardsticks by which we measure education today are outdated," wrote Eileen Bartholomew, Vice President of Prize Development at the X Prize Foundation and a participant in this Lab. "Subject proficiencies, standardized test scores and graduation rates no longer accurately define what it means to be 'educated.' Nor are these current metrics sufficient predictors or gauges for an individual’s or a society’s capability, happiness, or success." Still others pointed to the failure of the manifesto to account for changes in technology or the latest pedagogical techniques.
Given these many concerns, it may come as no surprise that some positive comments about the manifesto almost served as a rhetorical pat on the back for potential reformers. "The diffusion of constructive change (adoption of new, constructive ideas) is always slow," wrote Bruce Randolph Tizes of Galt Capital, also a Lab participant, before encouraging the authors to keep at it. But what do such concerns over radical reform mean for those pursuing changes in education?
As a tactical matter, it seems prudent for reformers to remember that a system as crucial as education cannot be altered independently of many other systems connected to it. Those who have taught in inner-city schools are all too familiar with the way that ideas that have proven effective in well-funded schools fail in less affluent areas because the system cannot bear the costs in a sustainable way. Yet at the same time, the empirical successes and failures of past reform efforts do not negate the need for fundamental, theoretical grappling with the system. If it is true that school ought to be something radically different than what students presently experience, it may be that some apparent victories are in fact failures, some liabilities are in fact assets, and some aspects of our existing system are entirely irrelevant.
"School Is Not School" was intended to ask such questions. But the vision of school it proposes is not utterly alien - indeed, the manifesto suggests that in the past that vision may have been better understood. This eye on the past turned off several commenters; Ryan B wrote, "I’d be interested in reading the case for school as a place to improve the community and create better citizens, but you don’t make that case here. You just reference some prior, nonexistent historical utopia." A rhetorical tactic designed to make a new theoretical basis for education feel familiar instead made it seem inaccessible.
It may be that a more fruitful strategy would be to rally allies to the cause by showing them how a different basis for schooling might make some activities more meaningful or render some obstacles less insurmountable. For example, in many schools problems like drugs and gangs are currently viewed mainly as impediments to the goal of cultivating students' knowledge and skills. Teachers who choose to address these problems may do so at the expense of the educational attainment of the classroom as a whole; indeed, many urban teachers are familiar with this kind of classroom triage. But if ending violence in a community were in fact the goal of a school, the time teachers spend working against the culture of gangs might be positively valued. Teachers who might have previously viewed such problems as limits on reform might be enlisted as supporters of the new paradigm.
Speaking of paradigms, it is also worth considering whether accepting a radically different raison d'être for schools necessitates the kind of top-down policy changes many readers inferred.The motion of the planets looked much the same from the perspectives of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein; it was the differences in their account of the very small that led to the atomic bomb. It may be that many activities currently undertaken by teachers would not be completely abandoned if schools viewed their purpose as making citizens rather than increasing human capital. But an improved sense of their purpose could lead to better decisions at the moments when it matters most. In any case, it makes sense for proponents of such reforms to portray the status quo in a way that recognizes the aspects that could become much more valuable following the shifts they propose.
The Self and the State
Perhaps the most common theme in responses to the manifesto was concern over how schools should balance students' development as individual thinkers and their roles as members of a community. This theme elicited a large number of positive and negative comments.
The key goal of the manifesto was to question an educational system that mainly seeks to increase human capital through the development of individuals' skills and knowledge; it was never meant to question individualism as such. Nevertheless, many readers saw in the document a creeping collectivism. Thomas Clemmons asked: "How long would it take in a world where schools are teaching students to be a better citizen for the good of the community to decide that the community no longer needs artists or musicians or writers but instead needs street sweepers and garbage men? How long would it take the community to override what makes a free world worth contributing to? How long before freedom takes a backseat to utilitarian conformity?" Tania Luna responded and raised the stakes: "Agreed, Thomas. I’m from the former Soviet Union, and this was essentially the thesis statement of our schools. … "
Some took the manifesto's criticism of the current way of developing human capital as a critique of capitalism itself. "I disagree with the author’s apparent distaste for market economies," wrote Tim C. "…[S]chool should not be a place that indoctrinates differently; school should not be a place that indoctrinates /at all/." Others feared that the manifesto would enable the machinations of the right instead of the left. "If the notion is that our schools should be 'community driven,'" wrote Johanna Berkson, "I am concerned the more religious areas would capitalize on that by assuming schools need only teach only about G-d — not expand the human mind as I believe is the intent of this article."
Aaron M. Renn spoke to the tension that underlay many of these comments: "[L]et’s be honest, schools are vehicles not just for education but indoctrination. … The ideal of citizenship is not a content free one for any of us. Our idea of what constitutes the 'selfless' citizen interested in the common weal no doubt includes many specific ideologies, methods of engagement, and even public policies. … It’s staggeringly dangerous to attempt to instill some 'public interest' criterion in the educational content of children by the state since as a society we don’t have anything remotely like consensus on what the public interest consists of. … I think public schools should take a fairly minimalist stance towards this, in which citizenship is the basics of our government and civic society and how to engage in a diverse society, while the main focus is on basic skills and knowledge."
Renn argues that enshrining any notion of the common good at the center of education is potentially dangerous because we are unlikely to agree completely on what "the good" means; therefore, many students and parents would feel alienated no matter what community goals the school pursued. Yet he also suggests that all schools inevitably do this to some extent. This tendency is to be "minimized" in the same way that a reporter is supposed to minimize bias in news coverage. This would be good advice to, say, a high school government teacher trying to treat liberal and conservative students fairly. One can teach the concept of limited government or the social contract without letting on that one believes the sitting president is betraying it.
Yet it is also difficult to see how one would build an educational system without some notion of the common good. The system we have now seems to be predicated on the notion that adding to individuals' skills and knowledge will eventually help everyone through increased economic productivity. We are so used to this idea of the common good that we assume it is natural; hence the insistence by Renn and other commenters that schools stick to the "basics."
But "basics" could mean something radically different depending on the notion of the common good that is built into the school and the society in which it exists. If the ideal were religious obedience, "the basics" might be prayer and meditation; if it were teamwork, it might be the ability to form relationships (with the ability to do math as a fortunate byproduct). Those who hope to argue against whatever social good informs the education system's paradigm must remember that the link between that good and school has likely been deeply naturalized. Opponents will inevitably argue that schools should just do whatever in their essence without admitting that that essence is something human beings decided upon.
That being said, the concerns many commenters expressed about "indoctrination" may point to a weakness of the manifesto's rhetoric. The ideal of the citizen is key to the document's argument. While the word's origin suggests membership in a relatively small community (the city), today the word is almost inevitably associated with loyalty to the state. Many readers naturally assumed that the endurance of the state must necessarily be the common good that the manifesto's re-imagined schools would serve, and as Tania Luna observed, "that didn't go so well" in the Soviet Union. It may have been more effective to specifically state that the community in which students learned to become members is not the same as the state or national government; it would likely be much more local. Whether even these local polities can agree on a notion of a common good (Renn's concern) is another question.
In contrast to those who feared indoctrination, many commenters were encouraged by what they saw as the manifesto's call to build a system in which students are called to be less selfish. "Right on!" wrote Tasneem Goodman. "What a wonder schools could do if they taught people to be other-centered, generous and passionate–both for students and for our world."
But even commenters who endorsed the goal of reducing students' selfishness still worried that the kind of system suggested by the manifesto would fail to serve students as individual people. Kim Storeygard worried that unity of purpose would lead to uniformity of methods. "Not all children learn the same way at the same pace, and not all of them want the same things for their futures," she wrote. "Communities are made up on individuals and we must allow those individuals to develop along their own paths…" Andrew Benedict-Nelson feared the loss of school as a safe place in which each child feels individually valued. He asked, "If love and respect for each individual child is not included as a design principle, is there a chance we will lose some of them in the cracks?" but also argued that this same risk exists in the current system.
A commenter going by the name Brooklyn Parent pointed out that even if serving the community is the goal of schools, communities are still made of individuals. "I think that neglecting the individual needs of each person does not only do a disservice to community building, it destroys community building," the commenter wrote. "There ARE schools that create democratic citizens while embracing the individuality of each citizen: Democratic Free Schools like the Brooklyn Free School, Sudbury Valley Free School, and the Albany Free School. If it weren’t for high stakes testing and the phenomenal destruction of real ideals of learning, these schools could be public schools."
Citizens, Skills, and Communities
Brooklyn Parent's comments point toward another common theme among readers of the manifesto: the potential compatibility of cultivating skills and making students into members of a community. In this view, creating citizens is the "natural state" schools would return to if freed from restrains like standardized testing.
Andie Thomalla was one of several commenters who endorsed this point of view, arguing that schools that serve the moral needs of citizens rather than the market needs of consumers would preserve all the learning happening in the existing system, then add to it: "The question for me is not the kind of citizen our schools should be aiming to produce, but rather the foundation they should be laying to understanding the meaning citizenship in a democracy. (And by the way, under skillful teaching, laser-focused on these concerns, the 'basics' of education — the reading, writing, reasoning — are seamlessly addressed, because they are the critical tools to achieving and articulating deep reflection.)"
Other commenters echoed Thomalla's idea that learning best takes place in a community. But they disagreed that "citizenry" was the best way to think about that community. "Citizenry for me is not specific enough," wrote Jim Gerry. Instead, he argued for a learning community whose form would be informed by brain science and developmental psychology. "Our new system of learning must emulate systems found in nature," he wrote. "These living systems learn and adapt based on what is going on around them. Yet, they are deeply rooted and cannot flourish without these roots…"
Others imagined the ideal school community in more personal or spiritual terms. Johanna Berkson invoked the metaphor of "a circle of trust … A place to push, challenge, and learn from each other." Patrick O'Connell wrote: "Some may dismiss the notion of community. But the fact is human beings are naturally inclined toward community and we need each other to be fully human. … Perhaps we need to dream school again. Perhaps we need to dream that school become the place where one learns to be fully human by understanding the concept of self in the context of community. And this means much more than finding and training for the right career." Lennon Flowers imagined a system in which these skills add up to a sense of personal empowerment: "It’s about having the knowledge, wisdom, and sense of agency to recognize a problem and do something about it. It’s about recognizing that in a deeply interconnected world, there is no 'my interest' and 'your interest'."
Carolyn Chandler also argued for such a balanced approach between treating students as individuals and as members of a group. Furthermore, she suggested that teaching students how to balance their self-interest with the needs of the community could in fact be the new paradigmatic educational goal the manifesto was searching for. "The hardest thing, which a truly self-actualized person attains, is handling that gray area between the individual and the community in a way that leads to the betterment of both," she wrote. "I think this is the heart of ethics, something that’s rarely part of a school’s teaching plan."
The optimistic spirit of many of these comments suggests that while suspicion of collectivism, the state, and "citizenry" may abound, the notion of a school community is also a fertile source of ideas for reform. While they have many different ideas of what a proper learning community might look like, there seems to be broad support for the idea that learning has more meaning when it takes place in such a context. The trick may be figuring out how to discuss "community" in such a way that is not so specific that it suggests some particular set of policies, but not so broad as to be meaningless. Striking that balance could earn an education reform movement many allies among the diverse groups who see community as key to education.
Indeed, even commenters who generally rejected the manifesto responded to the idea of a community of learners. "I will agree with one key point in the essay," wrote Chuck Vecoli. "We are a species who live in a society, selfishness is not in one’s best interest and learning to work among the others in our society is a learned skill that does get further development in the classroom environment. … When I look at the public school system of today vs. the one that I experienced as a child, it is not the building that has changed, nor is it the capability of the students, but it is the value system of the society that supports the schools that has changed."
But Vecoli's comments point to another frequent concern expressed why those who read the manifesto: what if school is not the proper place to teach children how to live in society?
Not My Job
Several teachers and parents who read the manifesto approved of the goal of teaching students to become good citizens, but felt that schools were not the most appropriate nor the most effective site for this learning to take place. "You seem to indicate that school is the only and most appropriate place to learn civic values," wrote Paul Lamb. "Shouldn’t this also be taught by parents, spiritual communities, and civil society organizations – and who is to say the greater responsibility shouldn’t lie with them?"
Many of these commenters argued that the success of schools, whatever their purpose, would depend on greater investment in early childhood health and education outside of schools. Wrote Eric Patnoudes: "It seems so obvious that the potential of a child’s education is based on the foundation that is built in the early years of life. Again a calling to parents to to spend time with their children, read with them, teach them how to play and interact with others." Lindsay Benedict, a high school teacher and administrator, also argued that students' character could not be altered without also altering the society that shapes their values before they enter the classroom: "By the time a student makes their way to us they are already imprinted with all the information they need to know in how to behave and operate in the world. They are what their parents show them. They are what MTV shows them. They live in a society where celebrity is celebrated for the sake of celebrity, where education is sneered at, where values are old fashioned, where empathy is weak."
However, other commenters who viewed parents as the source of the values of citizenship and also endorsed the manifesto's message. Courtney S. wrote that the document gave her hope that schools could be better partners with parents in the shaping of children's character: "I view my role as a parent to shepherd my children in discovering and nurturing their God-given gifts and modeling a way of living and believing that will inspire and guide them into their roles as citizens, friends, leaders, etc. I do not expect schools to play that role, but I will do everything in my power to be co-collaborators with them in the process of helping my children develop critical skills and grow into their unique gifts and callings."
Commenter Jason viewed schools as playing a complementary role to religious institutions and parents. "School is where you memorize your multiplication tables," he wrote. "Church is where you learn to be selfless. Home is where you are given the freedom to be yourself. Mix all those together and you have a chance at becoming a worthy citizen." But Tanarra Schneider disagreed, pointing out that children spend so much time in school that it is bound to influence their ideas about society. "I think that our environments – all of our environments, especially at that age – shape who we are and who we become," she wrote.
Other commenters felt that the kind of educational experience described in the manifesto is valuable, but cannot be meaningfully paired with an institution such as "school": "Maybe we ask too much of 'school' and not enough of ourselves to create a learning society," wrote Kristina. "Learning should be continuous — formal, informal– throughout our lives." A commenter going by the name "Edu Widget" went further, calling the ideals of schooling and citizenship totally incompatible: "…what led to the transformation of these mythical citizen schools into worker-in-a-box schools? Surely, this transfiguration did not occur because we at-some-point-in-time forgot the purpose of school! Perhaps school has always been a tool, used by schoolmasters to indoctrinate and control. Then a 'citizen school,' is – in fact, an oxymoron. … Education is necessary, but school is not."
Commenters who were primarily concerned with the issue of where values ought to be learned were also concerned about how exactly schools would be re-designed around a citizenship ideal when they are also complex institutions that serve multiple social purposes. High school teacher Joan Gallagher-Bolos pointed out that "being a 'good citizen' (which has as many definitions as there are communities) might be the welcomed consequence to a positive formal education, but cannot be the only goal. And the assumption is made that because a child does not turn out to be a good citizen, s/he must not have been taught how to be a good citizen in school…Not true."
Lindsay Benedict felt that it would be difficult to teach students to be citizens when many schools are struggling just to keep them alive. The rest of society also needs to step up in order to realize meaningful results: "In a world where students and teachers are beaten, stabbed, and shot on school property, where students are bullied into suicide, where teachers are lucky to wrangle a student into a classroom, let alone with completed homework, because they could not find a babysitter for the baby, they had to hitchhike to school, or mom told them they had to stay home and sell drugs-you cannot tell me that it is the main responsibility of schools to grow a citizen.
Do not blame schools for the downfall of society. Blame society for the downfall of our schools."
Of course, many of these comments again make the assumption that there is something natural about schools developing individuals' knowledge and skills; it is too simple to argue that schools should simply be left alone to be what they "ought" to be. But they also draw attention to the fact that if schools were to be re-tooled for community purposes, the nature of those communities cannot be ignored. Such re-imagined schools would not be built in distant laboratories; they would inevitably require a sophisticated understanding of the resources and values of the families and institutions that make up the community the school would serve. This would suggest that the institutions we now call "schools" might not be the appropriate target for reformers at all; it may in fact be the surrounding community where most of the reform needs to take place.
Indeed, a commenter named Adrian Acosta argued that no educational success is possible without teachers addressing the classroom and the community in which it resides: "To me, a community cannot advance if it is not part of the plan. Education is the answer to many of our problems, but we need the support of the people if we are actually going to make change. … I was in the classroom for 5 years and knew very little about the community I served. I have come to realize I was doing a disservice to my children(students) … Now as I’ve learned to work within the community, I am able to see all the resources available to children in the community that NEVER made it to my campus. I now see that by considering the community separate from the school, I was creating more challenges for my kids to navigate through without giving them the appropriate support. There wasn’t a support network, just individuals pushing the kid different ways, making it harder for them in the long run. We need to unite for our children. The gap between schools and the community needs to close…"