School isn’t school.
It is the birthplace of the citizen ideal.
It’s where we learn to live a life of selfless service on behalf of the community; it’s where we find the path to virtue, subordinating innate self-interest as individuals to the interests of the community, the good of the whole. And where, on graduation day, the highest possible title in a free society is conferred upon us: citizen.
To become a citizen, one must learn how to live and participate in a community — the most attractive ideal for any society, in religious or secular terms. It is one of the pillars of civilization. We cannot hope to endure without it.
School, then, is the place where we’re inspired to forget ourselves and become aware of the hopes and needs of somebody else—our neighbors, other citizens.
It’s where we begin active, deliberate and rational participation in a citizen community; and learn how to use the instrument of citizenship to manage, if not eradicate, our inner selfishness, our petty private passions, our personal interests. It’s where we feed and nurture the better part of our natures by channeling the collective efforts toward a higher, nobler purpose: the common weal.
But, somewhere along the way, school became school…
…a diurnal detention camp where children are framed up as human capital, livestock actually, not human beings. School, where bitter, resentful educators — who are almost always underpaid and, as a result, incented only to underperform — shy away from teaching any form of critical thinking; and indoctrinate students through rote memorization with the most basic, backward-looking knowledge, reconstituted as trivia and delivered through canned lesson plans. It’s a place where an education is still measured by a test score; and future success is defined only by the placement of the decimal point on a paystub.
Far from developing necessary skills and natural talents, this kind of school prepares students only for one possible future: college — school by another name. A pricey, pointless weigh station where students, future members of the work force, are scouted and sized-up with the wrong metrics; and where successful students, model students, acquire the knack, often times accidentally, to package and sell their skills in the form of labor to the highest bidder in a free market economy, which helps to maximize consumption among the lower and middle classes, while increasing the capital of the upper class, shielding the present establishment from ruin, protecting the economic wealth of the one percenters, and perpetuating the cycle of school.
Somewhere along the way, we detected a problem. Former students, now adults, became gainfully employed, living and working the way their parents lived and worked. They worked hard to make it big by doing something, anything in the world but not anything for the world. By and large, these former students were ambitious to be sure, but also unhappy and depressed and unfulfilled.
Communities fell apart.
“Enlightened” self-interest led to self-destruction.
We began to think that maybe the problem wasn’t school itself; maybe it was the school building. Naturally, we thought the answer was a sustainable school, an environmentally friendly school, a Green school, retooled and refitted for LEED certification, tricked out with ergonomic chairs and desks made from recycled materials. A different, healthier skin for a fetid, festering form.
But school remained school…
…It’s still “all about the kids” who are still learning old lessons the old way. It’s still school, that prepares young, choice-conscious consumers for a Market, not citizens for a Society; it shows students the old path to an old idea of prosperity, only now under energy saving bulbs in a cost-efficient, climate-controlled building.
The problem persists. It won’t go away until school stops being school.
It won’t stop until we start designing for school as a community-wide resource; it won’t stop until we start creating school as a dynamic social engine for entire towns and cities that drive every citizen toward a higher, greater good: the public interest.
It’s a platform that enables children to self-actualize not only as individuals but also as citizens; who learn and live and thrive by thinking and doing, not just for themselves, but for the entire community, for all citizens.
The logic that we must solve for, then, is neither fiscal nor physical, but moral:
No schools without citizens. No citizens without schools.