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What, not Whether

Talk of education reform is in the air again, but it's mostly political.

Talk of education reform is in the air again, but it's mostly political. I doubt that anyone really wants to change the American public school system. As Nicholas Lemann pointed out ("Schoolwork," The New Yorker, Sept. 27, 2010), the system seems to be working just fine.

More kids are graduating from high school and going to college than ever before, and that in spite of the continuing upward spiral in college tuition. Unemployment is relatively low - the current recession notwithstanding - which means people seem to be finding jobs as a result of the education they are receiving.

New programs - charter schools, especially - are helping to lift all the boats in the education harbor, and, while many poor kids are stuck in schools that don't seem to be helping much, most young people appear to be doing just fine.

So before we go too far in clamoring for education reform, Mr. Lemann requests, we should make sure that we specify the precise changes we want to see. That's a reasonable suggestion.

So here's mine: Find a new overall objective, or find an alternative system. Is it really the primary task of public and higher education to fit young people to be responsible getters-and-spenders? Should what Charles Silberman called the paideia be devoted above all to helping students learn to be pragmatic so that they can be successful? Or is education about more than this?

If it's not, then we can probably leave well enough alone. But somehow that doesn't sit well with folks. Americans seem to know, intuitively, that something's wrong. It's not a question of whether the system is working. The question is more toward what ends is it working? Nearly a generation ago Charles Silberman wrote, "The weakness of American education is not that the paideia does not educate, but that it educates to the wrong ends."

I submit that this problem is unchanged and, given the materialistic and pragmatic bent of the culture - including that of most Christian parents - it's not likely to change, no matter how much money some politician promises to throw at it. This system is working fine.

What we need, it seems, is a better alternative.

T. M. Moore
T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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