Response to Education and the “State”: An Alternative Viewing, Carol Wintermute

Two days ago I heard on the radio a brief portion of a John Gardner talk in which he delivered the following quote. He said that children are our greatest source of adults. That phrase stuck in my head as I realized that it gives a jolt to the American myth that we are a family-centered society and that children are our greatest resource. Both political parties are vying for the title of protector of the family. In reality it points to the fact that we are really an adult-oriented society that uses children as an excuse to perpetuate a particular value system. But even if our motives are selfish in this vein, we should be warned that due to our increasing longevity on this planet, there is time to watch several generations of children join our ranks as adults. We should be darn concerned to see what kind of people we are creating that will affect our lives as they become participants in the decisions of the adult population.

It is in the realm of education that our children become the products of society. And it is a problem in education today because there is no clear, commonly held belief about what it is supposed to produce. Does this institution exist to equip our children for productive employment in the new technological age, or is the purpose of education to create an informed and responsible citizenry?

Like all well-meaning liberals, I opt for a public education system that aims for the protection of freedom. As Maxine Greene points out, that freedom is equivalent to an unpredictable and unfolding becoming. Specific educational goals and objectives necessarily limit such growth possibilities by defining and prescribing the outcome. To educate children and young people for the expansion and protection of freedom is a risky business because it opens the way for all kinds of developments beyond our control.

The issue of control seems central to understanding the liberal and conservative positions on education. Conservatives want local control of our educational institutions. They advocate separate but equal schooling, which is a liberal no-no. But cultural diversity is a definite in proposition for us.  Yet local control, whether it is in the hands of the family unit or special interest groups does enhance the possibility for cultural retention. Catholics, Hispanics, the Muong or Native Americans can retain their cultural identity in separate schools without fear of assimilation.

Liberals find themselves in the uncomfortable position of advocating equality of educational opportunity within a public education system while trying not to have equity synonymous with sameness, mediocrity or cultural distillation. We suspect that local control for the conservatives is not motivated by the desire for cultural diversity. Local control is the means of ensuring the authority of the family unit without influence from some larger societal body.