Redefining the Value of School

Redefining the Value of School
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, May 16, 2010

When I heard Robert Bobb’s proposal for a K-14 school, I couldn’t help thinking that the arrogance of Governor Granholm’s appointee is exceeded only by his ignorance. Is this man, who has assumed the right to make so many educational decisions, aware of the Small Schools movement? Does he even know that, because big schools have so obviously failed our children, parents and educators in Chicago and other cities have struggled to break up big high schools and have succeeded in replacing them with small ones?

Bobb appears to have little or no knowledge of or concern for the enormous time and effort which educators have spent exploring solutions to the schools crisis over the last few decades. Among these one of my favorites is the late Neil Postman who for many years chaired the Department of Culture and Communications of New York University.

Postman wrote twenty (!) books on education. Their titles, e.g. Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1979), The Disappearance of Childhood (1982), Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992), The End of Education (1993), give a sense of his breadth and depth.

In the 1960s, as part of the Black Power movement in Detroit, I was deeply involved in the movement for Community Control of schools. Then in 1969 I read Postman’s first book Teaching as a Subversive Activity (written with Charles Weingartner) and learned from it that our challenge in this period is not just to change the color of those in control of schools but to redefine education and the role of schools.

“Redefining the Value of School” is the subtitle of The End of Education. Postman redefines the purpose of schools by explaining that in the 19th century U.S. public schools and education were valued primarily for promoting civic participation and citizenship. Before the 20th century rise of mass production and large corporations, the idea that getting a job was the main purpose of education, or viewing schools in terms of dollars and cents as Bobb does, would have been inconceivable.

In The End of Education Postman names the five stories our children need to learn to become responsible citizens:

  • We are the crew and stewards of Spaceship Earth.
  • It is human nature to make mistakes and to correct them.
  • Since our country is far from perfect, our responsibility is to keep struggling to make it into one that we will all be proud to call our own.
  • Our country is multicultural; diversity is our strength.
  • We know reality through the words we use, through language.

For each of these stories there is a practical school activity:

  • Children need to be involved in solving neighborhood and city problems as part of the school curriculum.
  • We should get rid of textbooks which purport to be The Truth.
  • We should study, appreciate and support the never-ending human rights struggle of workers, women, blacks, other people of color, and of all Americans, which is at the heart of U.S. history.
  • We need multicultural, not segregated, schools.
  • We honor language and reality by asking questions, using metaphors and learning to use words appropriately.

The high-handed efforts of Bing, Bobb and non-profit corporations to downsize Detroit by demolishing neighborhood schools have created the opportunity for we, the people of Detroit, to revisit and redefine the “why” of schools. In the process we will be creating a new 21st century democracy that connects the generations, is more participatory, grounded in neighborhoods and community, and can be practiced not only on Election Day but year-round.

It is an idea whose time has come. We must seize the time.

To further explore this historic opportunity, I recommend reading and discussing Jimmy Boggs 1976 speech, “The Next Development in Education.”



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