Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Strangely Good Conversations: Part 1

Michelangelo, detail from The Libyan Sibyl, c.1511

IN THE little town of Redhook in upstate New York, at the Avalon Initiative’s April 30th “Enough Already” conference, the theme was "saving the soul" of education.  From what?  From a hostile takeover by politicians allied with self-interested technology- and testing companies.  That aspect of the conference was discussed in a previous post.  This post concerns a friendly conversation the writer chanced to strike up there with a young woman.  She works as a teacher in a public school (which in the United States means a state-run school).

In the course of the conversation, the teacher was asked why families that possess economic resources should be the only ones that have the option of choosing from among independent, non-government schools for their children? She seemed genuinely troubled by the question.

The book Compelling Belief: The Culture of American Schooling, by liberal legal scholar Stephen Arons of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, was then mentioned to her along with one of the main points Arons makes:  public schooling in the U.S. entails censorship of the educational preferences of various intellectual, cultural, scientific, spiritual, and racial minorities, because most public schools are controlled by political majorities.  In making decisions about curricula and teachers, for example, local school board majorities select some educational content and policies, and by the same token necessarily censor other educational content. Hearing this said, the teacher did not deny the point, and again seemed troubled.

Odilon Redon, Reflection, 1900-1905

In a hopeful tone, she asked whether somehow the situation was all for the best. Could it not be a good thing, she asked, that people are compelled into a common curriculum? And anyway, she continued, why must people vote on such things? Why cannot school boards work on the basis of consensus instead?

At times the tone of her questions made her sound almost as if she were begging God, and not just the people present, to provide some escape from the dilemma that had been presented to her. It appeared that ideals she valued and that she had been accustomed to link with public schooling were at stake.

Whether God answered or not, the teacher heard from her earthly conversation partner that it might indeed be wonderful if school boards could work on the basis of consensus rather than by voting, but that unfortunately, in practice people in most school districts and other political venues have strong disagreements about something as fundamental as educational content and methods, and thus end up voting on educational matters, not working by consensus. As for those who are intellectually, spiritually, or otherwise in the minority, escape from the majority-imposed educational culture is only possible if a family has the resources to move to another school district or pay for an independent school. (Among topics left undiscussed were problems with charter schools, such as the politically constrained kinds of educational choices they permit, or the corrupt behavior of some of the business interests involved.)

Van Gogh, Still Life with French Novels and a Rose, 1887

The teacher again wondered, with a hint of yearning in her voice, if it was not somehow for the best that people are kept within a unified system. In reply, she was asked why people then do not vote on which newspapers can be sold in a particular neighborhood, or which religions can be practiced.

It was then suggested to her that schooling is essentially like art, religion, science, and the media, and that it belongs, in other words, in the sphere of culture, where freedom and each family's individual choice should rule, but where political majorities (and business interests) should not. An image that Gary Lamb of the Avalon Initiative projected on a screen at the conference thus came into the conversation. In the image, culture appeared as a third social domain with its own boundary distinct from those of the polity and the economy, even as the three domains partly overlapped: 

Image from the Avalon Initiative website

There was not enough time during the conversation to consider how the independence of the three sectors needs to be there not merely for its own sake, but precisely so the three can influence one another: it is only their autonomy, if it has been sufficiently established, that can allow them to check, balance, and correct one another as they develop and change.  Insofar as any one of the three centers takes over and compromises the autonomy of one or both of the other two, however, the three domains begin to lose the capacity to mutually correct, conflicts of interest emerge, unhealthy social forms grow, and social evolution gets dammed up.

In thinking about cultural life, one could do worse than to remember what Stephen Arons pointed out a long time ago:  the U.S. First Amendment's freedom of expression of belief is significantly undermined if the formation of belief is controlled by political majorities.  Therefore neither the latter nor economic interests should organize or control education.

In the memory of the writer, the teacher's conscientious fair-mindedness during the conversation will live on as an example to live up to.  

Support Educational Freedom: Four Small Steps You Can Take
  • donate to the Avalon Initiative, here;
  • watch this thirty-second video by Martin Luther King, III in support of Florida's tax credit scholarship program:
  • watch the minute-and-a-half-long video explanation below.  It should be added that tax credit scholarship laws can be set up in such a way that corporations and individuals get their tax bills reduced by the amount those same corporations and individuals donate to non-profit scholarship organizations, which organizations then can enable poor and middle class families to have freedom of choice among independent schools for children K-12.
  • call your senator and representative, and if s/he is not available, ask for the staffer who handles educational issues. Say that you would like to see a generous scholarship tax credit policy become law in your state, so that poor and middle class families can have real educational freedom to choose among independent schools. 
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The next post might report briefly on a conversation that afforded the pleasure of listening to Michael Lapointe, an economics researcher with the Avalon Initiative. At times when he spoke, it felt in some ways a bit as if one had walked into the film My Dinner with Andre.

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