Panel Discussion: What is the Purpose of School?


The first keynote of the conference was a panel discussion Friday night. It was held at the Franklin Insitute and moderated by Frederic Bertley.

There were seven panel speakers, whose bios you can read on the EduCon 2.1 wiki — with the exception of Diane whats-her-name (a legislator), who each gave a spiel on what they thought school ought to be about and then answered questions as a group from the audience.

Kendall Croilus, the business consultant, began by saying that the corporate world would like lifelong learners, specifically those who had:

  • Creativity: the ability to innovate
  • Collaboration, especially the ability to appreciate — and not just tolerate — cultural diversity, whether that diversity is expressed in race, class, geography, silos of expertise, or personality
  • Courage, or confidence — especially in embracing change and challenging the status quo

I noted to myself that none of these things are explicitly in my curriculum objectives, although they are all things I value and wish I could teach better.

Jeff Han, the engineer, added two more C’s:

  • Communication: the ability to articulate concepts and teach others
  • Calibration, or being able to discern what is do-able, interesting, or valuable to pursue

Jeff was the least revolutionary person on the panel. He liked school growing up.

Joel Arquillos, the afterschool nonprofit dude, stressed another C:

  • Community — both within the classroom itself and reaching out and inviting in the surrounding community at-large

Dr. Stephen Squyres, the scientist, stressed the potential for school to open students’ eyes to what was possible (the old “broaden horizons” bit) and allow people to understand how things really work. For the latter, he gave the example of the true nature of science being dynamic, incremental, self-adjusting, and mundane. He mentioned in passing that such understanding is necessary for an informed citizenry (the old “enlightened democracy” bit).

Dr. Molefi Asante, the academic, gave the most open/vague answer of all: that school is meant to provoke inquiry. His point was that the purpose of school may shift with the context of the age. He may have also been suggesting (it wasn’t entirely clear) that school should be guided by the interests of its students.

Diane whats-her-name (will the wiki just get updated and put up her name already?), the legislator, said that school ought to be “the great equalizer,” that it should level the playing field to allow for a true meritocracy.

I left Prakash Nair, the architect, for last because I found him to be the most radical, passionate, and specific advocate for reform. He suggested that the school of the future ought to serve the following functions (and that these functions should be evident in everything from its building architecture to its curriculum):

  1. Social anchor: or the hub of community life, open 24/7, available not only to kids but to adults
  2. Technology showcase: a place the purchases, tests, and introduces cutting-edge technology so that the innovation and change from such tools would disseminate throughout the community
  3. Idea generator: a place to invent, create, and engage in blue-sky thinking
  4. Idea harvester: a place to prototype, test, and develop those very ideas into reality
  5. Player in the community’s economic network: and then a place to make those ideas marketable and valuable and available to the larger community
  6. Builder of social capital: a place to become socialized into the shared culture of the larger community

I’ve always thought that the idea of the community school was a good one, but I wonder if Mr. Nair realizes that his idea for a school sounds like an Apple sweatshop. (I did dig the article he referenced, 30 Strategies for Education Innovation {pdf}).

Now you might realize by now that I was largely unimpressed with the discussion of the evening. It was a lot of the same warmed-over moaning that everyone’s heard for decades now. It was not surprising, then, that most of the Q&A discussion afterwards was filled with managerial bromides like “be true to your mission,” “think outside the box,” and “just do it” along with the occasional educational bromide thrown in for good measure: “it takes a village,” “educators are saints.”

When I thought about why I was so bothered, I gradually realized what I thought needed to be acknowledged: that school has been required to become the Swiss-Army knife of institutional influence for American minors — that it has been made to be the surrogate parent, church, and workplace for most people under 18.

As adults take on 40- to 80-hour workweeks away from their kids, as apprenticeships to trades vanish, as pews shrink and empty (or turn into spectator stadiums), as neighbors shutter themselves up into their homes and let local economies languish, as social clubs and civic organizations become passé, as libraries and museums lose their funding, more and more gets shoveled onto the plate of schools. We’re to handle the whole hierarchy of Maslow’s needs. Food? Safety? Shelter? Discipline? Socialization? Work? Values? Counsel? Community? Mentorship? Inspiration? Preparation for life as an employee, citizen, well-rounded human being?

Oh, and let’s not forget an education. There was hardly any mention of the ever-enormous amount of content we’re expected to cram in as we do all this. Not crap. Stuff anyone arguing in a bar should know (but likely doesn’t).

My point is this: modern society has been twisting and turning in ways profound to the development of kids into adults. The go-to guy for adjusting to all these changes is always the school. Not many people seem to question this. Educators are taking on the increasingly solitary duty of countering the default impulses of a first-world existence: conformity, distraction, cowardice, materialism, ignorance. As other institutions fall to the wayside or abandon their post, we’re the ones who have to hump their bags.

No doubt the educational system needs reform, but it’s not the only piece of the puzzle, and if you have a panel of really smart people from all walks of life, maybe you should ask them to think about that before they tell us what schools should do. That is a much more interesting discussion to me.


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