What is School For?

Yesterday I shared some tips for those unfortunate souls who might find themselves entering into our fine public education system. Today, I’m going to talk about my theory as to why it is as shitty as it is.

After racially profiling freshman tinkerer Ahmed Mohamed, the Irving, Texas school that locked the fourteen year old in an interrogation room alone with five police officers sent a truly offensive and self-important piece of excuse-making to parents on Monday.

Among other things, Principal Daniel Cummings insisted that the school’s main focus was on student safety, and took pains to give himself extra pats on the back for protecting his students against every kind of threat.

To someone who didn’t grow up in the era of school lock-downs and gunman drills, this may ring hollow. But to those of us who did, there’s something about the language that is both familiar and sad. Usually principals are sending a very differently intentioned, but similarly constructed letter about how they took every precaution, and how they will continue to take every precaution once the students return after the appropriate period of mourning and recovery that follows a school shooting.

Meanwhile, we all beat our breasts and blame each other for complacency about this issue, so distraught over yet another tragedy that we forget to actually do anything about it. Over and over, we see it coming, it comes, and we do nothing. As if we are all victims of some kind of cosmic inertia that will continue to have people die senselessly. If not in a school shooting, then in a rich man’s war, ostensibly for oil or drugs, but always for more money.

When Horace Mann became the Secretary of education in 1837, he worked to instill a Prussian model that he was particularly fond of. Depending on who you ask, the Prussian common schools were either mass-indoctrination centers where children learned to love their country and it’s intractable and undeserving elite more than their own parents, or they were bastions of enlightenment thought turned action where every white male child of a certain class could get the kind of horizon expanding education previously reserved for those at least twice as rich as they were. Equality!

Out of the Mann system came standardized courses, grades, and mandatory attendance. School systems throughout the ensuing decades have done a lot to ensure attendance and verify performance based on this standardized model. That brings us up to today where school funding is at least in part determined by attendance and test scores.

So children who may have avoided school for whatever reason before these two things became so important to our educational system, are now compelled to attend. Sometimes with legal means. Students who would antagonize other students to violence, or students who would appreciate the opportunity to act violently are thrown together, and their only outlet is to study to the test to ensure continued funding.

Art has been cut. Music has been cut. Hell, they’re even cutting PE so that everybody has more time to get the test right. We teach to the test in order to secure the funding required to teach to the test.

Violence is bound to break out when you house volatile people closely together and refuse to stimulate them in any way that’s meaningful to them.

So a school has three priorities: Ensure attendance. Secure test scores. Protect the population.

If a student isn’t at risk of leaving, failing, or becoming violent, then they are a non-entity and can be ignored. If a student has created something brilliant or beautiful, the kind of thing that makes you believe in the human race, even just a little bit, then they are a nonentity and can be ignored.

Because the statistically anomalous event where you have a genius in your class is nowhere near as potentially life-ruining as the far more statistically anomalous event where you have a murderer in your class.

If you let 10 geniuses get taken away in handcuffs, or if you take 35 students a class for six classes a day and shovel them into the endlessly hungry maw of an educational machine that teaches them nothing about living and everything about the vast and powerful emptiness of a futile system where they are not valuable; hey, at least nobody got shot.

That’s the gold standard by which we are educating the next generation of… what is it America makes again?