Educating or Exploiting?

Thinking with Marylinne Robinson about how America educates its children.

What are we doing hereA couple of weeks ago, over a late lunch of wings and fries, a member of our church pointed out to me that the community colleges that offer vocational training – food service, auto mechanics, etc. – are mostly located in our city’s black and brown neighborhoods. My friend, an African American man, noticed this as he was looking for a school to take paralegal classes; he found that they were all located miles away from his family’s home on the South Side.

I thought about this while reading “An American Scholar Now”, an essay in Marilynne Robinson’s new book, What Are We Doing Here? She writes, “The argument against our way of educating is that it does not produce workers who are equipped to compete in the globalized economy, the economy of the future.” The essay is a reflection on the turn away from liberal arts education toward something more pragmatic and technical. She goes on,

This has to be as blunt a statement as could be made about the urgency, currently felt in some regions and credulously received and echoed everywhere, that we should put our young to this use, to promote competitive adequacy at a national level, to whose profit or benefit we are never told. There is not suggestion that the gifts they might bring to the world as individuals stimulated by broad access to knowledge have place or value in this future world, only that we should provide in place of education what would better be called training.

There’s so much in these few sentences. For one, Robinson points to how some vague national competition shapes how we imagine educating our children. I don’t know how many times I’ve sat in rooms with committed teachers and principals listening to a bureaucrat drone on about the fact that these days our kids aren’t just competing with children in another city but with students across the world. (For some reason China is usually emblematic in these pep talks, evoked with a sense of impending dread.) It’s not that education itself is valuable or that educators have a role in helping students discover “the gifts they might bring to the world.” No, the metaphor is almost always competitive- education as a means to an end where some win and others loose.

Robinson is thinking about higher education but, from my vantage point, the same assumptions have overtaken our public education system. And this is where my friend’s lunchtime observation is more acute. In the same way that, in Robinson’s terminology, training rather than education is more accessible in black and brown neighborhoods, so this pragmatic and competitive approach is more likely to be foisted upon lower income communities than their wealthier equivalents. While private schools and affluent suburban public schools tout small class sizes and low student-to-teacher ratios, our public schools are evaluated by whether they maximize efficiency through standardized testing and highly disciplined classrooms that can be managed with the bare minimum of adult instruction. Students who might otherwise be suspended are kept in school so that the precious federal dollars which are tied to attendance will keep flowing.

I suppose none of this is surprising. Elsewhere in her essay Robinson writes that in America, “The Citizen has become the Taxpayer.” She’s thinking about how we consider our responsibilities toward one another, but the images can extend to how we think about our children. Are they future citizens, capable of contributing their gifts to a world that wants and needs them, or simply tax payers into a system built to maximize efficiency and productivity? Are they people or resources? The answers should matter to all of us, but as my friend points out, they will carry far more significance to the children whose communities have generally been viewed as resources to exploit rather than people to cultivate.

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