A Way Forward: Community as the Key Element

The "School Is Not School" manifesto was intended to provoke a discussion of how the American public education system might look if built for a radically different goal than it now serves. Many responses to the document highlight how difficult it is to dislodge the idea of human capital development that is currently seen as schools' natural purpose. Even when readers were sympathetic to a greater purpose for schools, they pointed to many obstacles that would prevent reform on this basis from occurring. Given these responses, what would be a logical next step toward imagining a public school system that could enjoy greater legitimacy and support? What would be the best way to articulate the vision of such a system?

The manifesto set up a strong dichotomy between schools that develop students as future economic producers and those that would serve community goals. This approach was chosen because of a fear that if the manifesto merely argued that schools should serve their communities, many readers would assume that this is what they already do through human capital development, failing to critically examine the assumptions built into the system. We also thought that many readers would feel that the piece was simply an argument for some program or policy that could be grafted on to the existing system. Indeed, some commenters made this assumption, taking the piece as a call for improved civics education or mandatory community service.

The manifesto aimed to go further, arguing for community life (rather than human capital development) as the primary goal of education. But it may be that it is more fruitful to argue for community as the critical element of school without arguing that it is school's exclusive purpose. As the comments make clear, people in our society expect schools to accomplish many different things. Still, there seems to be broad support for the idea that all these purposes, from teaching skills to inculcating values to simply making sure kids survive, are more effectively executed in a meaningful social context. Right now, even advocates for greater community involvement in schools tend to view community as a mere external resource that supports schools' essential activity of adding to students' skills and knowledge - this human capital development is seen as what the school "is." But the fact that so many commenters pointed toward the necessity of community involvement to accomplish this purpose would suggest that the key element of school is actually providing this social context for learning. In this model, the school is the community's collective efforts - human capital development would just be one of the many things that it does.

This notion of community as school's essential element has an intuitive appeal. It acknowledges that school is not the exclusive site for learning - toddlers constantly absorb new words from their parents, and many young people can acquire all the knowledge they would in school by reading on their own. School is simply the primary site to do this learning in a social context. Yet virtually none of our policy discussions of schools (whether it's about standardized testing or curriculum or teacher's unions) acknowledge that the social is education's constitutive element. A future iteration of the manifesto, then, might not take as its goal the proposal of a bold new system based on the social ideal, but draw attention to the fact that the social is being ignored in so many aspects of education. It could then ask how we might re-discover it and improve upon it.

Such an orientation toward the world would allow reformers to propose radical changes while also highlighting some of the best unacknowledged efforts of the status quo. It would insist that schools determine their relationship to the community's well-being without inviting charges of indoctrination. It would seek to supercharge learning by connecting it to a meaningful social context without insisting on what specific form that context would take. And it would provide a meaningful way to talk about how to simultaneously carry out reforms in schools and communities, since the real object under consideration would be the relationship between them.

In short, the “School Is Not School” experiment did not yield a specific answer of what schools ought to be. But it did teach us a great deal about the ways in which the subject of radically better schools ought to be approached. We remain persuaded that having that conversation about the fundamental purpose of our educational system is essential to building schools that are greater than anything we presently imagine.