In this interesting essay, University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky discusses the expectations placed on public schools. He raises an issue that I see often — people want public schools to right whatever they feel is wrong with America or Americans. Smagorinsky addresses a call for public schools to eradicate sexism.
By Peter Smagorinsky
The following letter appeared very recently in the New York Times:
To the Editor:
Re “Along With Class Photos, Political Views Find a Place in High School Yearbooks” (news article, May 22): An unidentified male student was quoted in the article as saying, “I don’t want a girl president.” These six words speak to so many issues that should have been addressed in this student’s secondary education and are indicative of the failure of that education.
For those of us who have worked for decades and continue to work for women’s rights, this comment is a sad statement. It would appear that misogyny is alive and well in some sectors of the youth of our country.
Perhaps it is our educators who need a reminder that every day in class is an opportunity to reinforce equality in all its forms.
MARY JANE RANGE
First, I agree in general with the Ms. Range’s belief that U.S. society is structured to favor men, going back to the founding documents that stated that “All men are created equal.” Black men were only worth 60 percent of White men, and only men were allowed to hold land and vote, much less run for president. My own mother was born into a world in which women were denied basic voting rights. If discrimination against and limitations upon women are characteristic of misogyny, then it’s hard to dispute Ms. Range’s premise.
But I really must wonder about her belief that if misogyny and other civil rights discrimination remain present in U.S. society, then it is the result of “the failure of that [secondary] education.” If kids don’t want a woman to be president, there is a single cause: failed public education.
I find this reasoning to be questionable on many levels. When Joel Taxel and I conducted a study of U.S. character education programs, one resounding, pervasive assumption behind the school programs was that parents, not schools, provide a child’s primary moral education.
To quote from that study:
One curriculum from the Deep South recognizes “the primary role of the home in character development”; the other reports extensively on a model curriculum in an elementary school in which “Central to character education … is the belief that the family is the primary influence on young children. Parents, therefore, are the most powerful role models.” Furthermore, parents should teach “righteous ideas and ideals.” The document says later that “Parents are a child’s first and most important moral teachers. The school must do everything it can to support parents in this role.” Parents are involved “in setting expectations in terms of behavior” for children to follow.
This belief about the primacy of parental guidance is often found in the comment section of the AJC Get Schooled education blog, with participants asserting that parents and families, not schools, should be a child’s principal teachers of character and its values, often centering on such traits as respect for others. Only when families are dysfunctional or shattered should schools intervene with character, values, ethics, or morality education, according to this perspective.
I’m concerned with Ms. Range’s letter on several levels. First, she appears to have adopted the societal belief that if there’s a problem out there, then the schools are accountable for what has likely originated in society writ large. Attitudes like misogyny are surely available in schools. But blaming schools for what is endemic to society strikes me as scapegoating rather than seeking realistic solutions to entrenched problems found both in schools and in the culture broadly defined.
What, then, are schools for? It depends on whom you ask. To the technicians in charge of policy, they produce test-takers whose scores indicate career and college readiness, a process that some believe should start in kindergarten. To Ms. Range, schools should cultivate enlightened attitudes toward sexuality to the extent that misogyny is eliminated. To some, schools should teach “critical” skills that enable a critique of inequitable power in society. To others, developing students’ “cultural literacy” in the form of a shared body of uniquely American knowledge should be the mission of schools. And to many others, schools should take on the task of reforming society through education, although the meaning of “reform” and “education” vary from critic to critic.
In other words, schools, even with annual budget decreases and declining public support, are expected to add new responsibilities year after year. Now it’s eradicating misogyny, which should be about as successful as the efforts to eliminate racism, a goal of my own 1960s education. And, of course, schools are expected to teach a variety of disciplines, provide daycare for students’ own children, raise test scores, produce a generation of good citizens, engage students in a host of extracurricular activities, teach character, provide nutritious food, integrate new waves of immigrants into existing spaces and curricula, teach U.S. heritage while accommodating other cultures, sponsor sports teams and music programs, teach discipline, reduce students’ stress levels, provide community service, and do all manner of other things.
I’ve been an educator since shortly after graduating from college in 1974. Schools have always served as the hope of future generations, the institution through which their minds are cultivated, their citizenship founded, their skills developed. This value on serving the nation by teaching motivated me, and hosts of others, to enter this noble profession.
But the weight of ever-expanding demands in times of ever-declining resources has crushed many a teacher’s heart and soul. If an anonymous kid in a news article doesn’t want a woman president, blame the schools, not his family or community. Then blame the schools for being politically correct for seeking equity across sexuality. And then blame them for test scores of kids who are so hungry they can barely see the test items in front of them.
What is the purpose of education? The answer will vary depending on the speaker. What schools cannot be is all things to all people, all day, every day. That’s not realistic. Blaming schools for whatever you don’t like is very convenient. It just doesn’t help anything change the problems that originate in families and communities that refuse to accept responsibility for what they themselves have helped to create.