Kremmling " The paradoxes of compulsory education
August 26, 2008
While visiting the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico several years ago, I took a tour of some ruins from the Maya civilization. I listened with fascination as the tour guide described many of the rituals which the Mayan people followed for what archaeologist believe to be about 2,000 years.
I was particularly intrigued by the ability of the ruling noble class and the priests to compel the farmers, merchants and slaves to devote most of their existence to a life of servitude and sacrifice. That sacrifice extended to human sacrifice as the people attempted to appease the deities in which they believed. What, I wondered, would cause a people to willingly give up to two-thirds of their produce and most of their time and effort? What, I wondered, would compel a people to sacrifice their own children?
I asked those questions of the tour guide and her answer was emphatic. The ruling class, which was significantly smaller, controlled the dispensation of information.
There is a temple at the Chichen Itza ruins that is aligned, by design, so perfectly that a very remarkable thing happens at sunset of every equinox. As the shadows recede, it appears for all the world like a serpent is moving up the steps of the pyramid. You and I understand that as something remarkable, as a marvelous understanding of astronomy coupled with clever engineering by a people whom we might describe as primitive.
However, if all you have known your entire life is exactly what the ruling class has told you, when you are told that a deity will make an appearance on a certain day, at a certain time and behave a certain way ” you are likely to be more than a little impressed. That explanation about the “captivity” of the vast majority of an extensive population was the most powerful illustration I have ever heard to explain the power of knowledge.
As mankind has developed, there have been efforts by many to demand compulsory education. I suppose the first thing to question is whether education equates to knowledge. Regardless of that thought, for many civilizations formalized education has been the answer to putting a damper on the type of tyranny and domination that has been illustrated by cultures like the Maya civilization. It has also been a means to give people the opportunity to pursue vocations of their desire.
Without a formalized education system, children would tend to go into the vocation of their parents. That isn’t necessarily bad, it just doesn’t provide a vehicle for pursuing a vocation outside the realm of your personal experience.
Compulsory education came first to North America in the state of Massachusetts. When Mississippi made public education mandatory in 1915, all the states had voted to require some form of education for its children. Since public education is free (we don’t charge admission at the door), we tax ourselves in some form or another to subsidize that service.
I will freely admit that the public education system is not perfect and it may even be in need of drastic overhaul. Any system devised by humans and run by humans will always be in need of tinkering, tune-ups and the need for replacement parts.
One solution that has been gaining momentum in Colorado is the institution of a voucher system, in which parents could use their allotment of state funding per child and forward that to a school of their choosing, public or private. I agree that a parent has the right to choose where their child goes to school. For some, those choices are based in philosophical differences, some in religious differences and some seek specialized educational opportunities.
From a fundamental perspective, I see value in the premise of a voucher system. In a free-market society, why should education be any different? If a parent wants to see Jimmy or Jane become an astronaut, they should be able to find a school that has a reputation for developing astronauts. If a parents want their child to be in a school with religious studies, they should be able to enroll in a school for which that is a requirement. A voucher system would make those choices easier to make from a financial perspective. Immediately, many parents would see their short term goals achieved.
My question is, “Is that really what we want?”
I will make the following assertion and you are certainly free to agree or disagree. As long as schools have human beings for staff members, human beings as students and those students have human beings for parents, almost every school will eventually come to reflect society as a whole. If you are going to let people into your system, the system will become a sum of those “people-parts.” I suppose the argument would be that if a person becomes dissatisfied with the first school of their choice, they would be free to take their state voucher money and choose a school that more accurately reflected their particular set of values.
My question then is still the same, “Is that what we really want?”
Part of the allure of this melting pot society of ours is that we have to learn how to coexist with people who are different. We have agreed as a nation to allow equal freedoms to all. We are going to constantly brush up against people who have different thoughts and beliefs. Over time, we all come to forge our own identities and value system and we interact with people from that framework.
I have religious beliefs that do not fit in with mainstream educational thought. When my children went through the public school system, I knew they would be with people who had different values and their parents would have different beliefs about how to raise children. I didn’t want to shield my children from those influences because I knew they would encounter them at some point in their lives.
What I wanted was for my wife and I to be there as a sounding board and source of advice when those encounters occurred. From our perspective there were times when corrections were needed, there were times when encouragement was needed and there were times when there were no immediate answers. The important thing for our family was for there to be a vehicle for discussion and thought. We wanted to be there to help our children process the variety of influences they encountered.
The provision of education is not an easy issue and the answers about how to do it best are not readily apparent. I suppose what I am saying is that we need to proceed with caution. At times, I really think we are asking our schools (public and private) to take over some of the responsibilities that are intended to be parental issues and fall under the role and responsibility of the family. I, for one, don’t want the school system (public or private) to assume that role.
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