What Are Schools For?

What are Schools For?

by Thomas
B. Farquhar

for New
and Ethical
in the 21st

All education
is religious education.”

In 1926,
when Alfred North
wrote these words in his essay “On Education,” the ideas that
would shape U.S. education in the 20th century were just beginning to
gather momentum. They were not religious ideas, however. They were drawn
from extravagantly successful developments in the management of industrial
production and from the metaphors of military organization.

In the 1920s,
the IQ test had just become widely available for use in elementary schools,
after massive experimentation on US army recruits during World War I.
New industrial theories like the assembly line, economy of scale, and
standardization of parts were not only revolutionizing the organization
of factories, they also became guiding metaphors for the reorganization
of social institutions. Schools were full of men who had fought — and
boys who would fight — in the most massive military operations the
world has ever known. Command and control, objective measurement, and
efficiency became the central metaphors in a project to reinvent schooling
as a manufacturing process or a military campaign: each new generation
of students would march out of the factory-school in rank and file,
ready to become, in society, the means of future production.

Westtown SchoolIn
these ideas lurk seeds of our destruction. They are hostile to human
freedom, motivation, creativity, and solidarity. Much that is wrong
with US schools today, from colleges to preschools, public schools and,
yes, even in our Friends schools, can be traced to the power and influence
of these metaphors. Early in the 20th century, new technologies of industrial
production were misapplied to education, and as a society we are still
in recovery from this abuse.

As we contemplate
our contemporary situation, we find ourselves in the midst of another
massive technological change. It should not surprise us that new technologies
of information and communication are heralded as central to the salvation
of US schools. Notions like distance learning, electronic connectivity,
and the “virtual school” compete to become the mantra of educational
reform, and the marketplace has set its sights on schools as prime targets
for advancing its commercial interests.

Courtesy of Westtown SchoolCan
we save ourselves and our schools from another century of misapplied
technological metaphors? A sage once said that history repeats itself
until someone listens. We must listen now. Our planet may not survive
another century of schools adrift in morally irrelevant technological
metaphors. We must demand that schools focus the attention of students,
teachers, and parents on real problems like how to reduce militarization
and violence, respond to ethnic hatred, control population, and revere
and care for the natural environment that sustains life.

Friends know
they are called to play a role in bringing about this transformation
in schools. Whether their primary interest is public education, higher
education, Friends schools, or home schooling, Friends know that our
deep belief in the power of education to elevate and liberate the human
spirit is a vital resource in a society that, to survive, must move
beyond schooling that views children as the means of material production.
In this, we stand apart as peculiar people. Contemporary themes in the
national discourse on educational policy focus on the need for the United
States to prepare students for global economic competitiveness by means
of more testing and “accountability,” “merit pay”
for teachers, and “school choice” for parents. In schools
that are too large, too impersonal, too preoccupied with control, and
lack an inspiring vision for the future of society, these policy initiatives
undermine student and teacher motivation for all but a few high-flyers,
even as they threaten schools and teachers with loss of students and
funding if we don’t drop everything and teach to those tests.

We are a
nation struggling to understand and support education, but without a
vision of how to do this and without the will to bring an entirely new
level of financial resources to bear on the problem. At the same time,
we are a nation that is undergoing rapid changes in social institutions
like the family and the Church. Our lives and minds are being changed
by new technologies of communication and transportation. Our very survival
is threatened by the 21st century’s potential for violence between nations
and ethnic groups, violence in schools and neighborhoods, destruction
of the life-sustaining natural environment, and a variety of new threats
to our physical and mental health. It seems that there has never been
a time when the world so desperately needed a vision for education that
is adequate to the challenges we face. How are we to develop a common
vision in a society that is increasingly pluralistic and diverse?

need to start with the question,
“What are schools for?”

Moorestown Friends SchoolAfter
decades of public rhetoric about a purported crisis in education, we
can expect a variety of responses to this question: they are for the
preparation of young people to achieve financial success as adults;
they are for ensuring a good supply of skilled workers into the US economy;
they are for securing US economic success in competition with other
nations; they are for preparing young people to fit into the consumer
culture of today and tomorrow; they are for the supervision of children
during the day when parents are at work.

When I was
attending public schools, in the 1950s and 1960s, the answers would
have been different. Back then the goals were civic virtues of citizenship
and, after Sputnik, the study of science leading to new technologies
related to military defense. We believed that big was better, and huge
projects in atomic energy and space exploration confirmed the power
of big enterprises to solve big problems. And young people were being
prepared to conform, to become small pieces that fit into that huge
system. At my school, they taught printing, mechanical drawing, auto
shop, hairdressing, home economics, and business math, in addition to
band, chorus, and college preparatory academics.

Moorestown Friends SchoolEducation
in the ’50s was partly about the celebration of a US victory in World
War II and partly about the need to prepare to defeat the Soviet Union
in ideological, political, and military struggle. This was a Humpty
Dumpty, propped up to motivate teachers and students, and with the Vietnam
War, Humpty Dumpty fell hard.

When the
Vietnam War came along, many young people said, “No, we won’t go.”
This was a radical departure from the aims of their education and of
their culture. The two themes of prime-time television were guys with
guns and the material comfort of suburban families. That was part of
the program. Society was preparing young people to carry guns in defense
of an economic and political system dedicated to personal consumption.
Then young people balked.

we have a vision for the future?

As a society,
we are still trying to put together a vision that will inspire us, and
the decaying fragments of the midcentury vision will not serve. With
the disappearance of spiritual language from public schools, beginning
in the early 1960s, it became more difficult to develop a shared vision
for the goals of education. Religious language, at its best, has the
virtue of calling forth the ultimate worth and dignity of human beings.
At its worst, it excludes minorities and closes off the search for meaning.
In an increasingly pluralistic society, it may be necessary to bar sectarian
agendas from public school classrooms.

Westtown SchoolToday
we must reexamine the practice of teaching specific job skills to future
workers. Technology is changing too fast. If you don’t know how to read
complex material with good comprehension, you will not be able to work
in a modern computerized print shop or high-tech repair facility.

And we know
(the Vietnam War taught us this) that an uncritical acceptance of the
plans and theories of government officials is no service to our democracy.
Today, one might even ask if the pendulum has swung too far. Suspicion
and contempt for elected officials is widespread, and doubts about the
value and importance of government’s role are expressed every day not
only on radio talk shows but also in our nation’s classrooms.

It should
not surprise us that teachers tell their students to be critical of
those in positions of power. A great many classroom teachers of today
were the young people who challenged the establishment 35 years ago.
Soon a vast cohort of older teachers will be retiring, and the resulting
teacher shortage will prove to be one of the first great shocks to US
education in the 21st century. But with their retirement will come an
even greater shock. When teachers of that generation retire, and take
with them the ethic of individual responsibility and individual resistance
to authority that has given so many of them a passion to work with young
people, who will be there to take their place?

What beliefs
will the next generation of teachers bring to the classroom? This is
the real crisis in education, and it is a crisis of values. Some have
argued that the prevailing secular value among that next generation
is to maximize income. Will we face, with greater force even than we
do today, the idea that human value is measured in dollars? Theories
of education based on economic utility are rooted in a lack of spiritual
vision. Scripture says that where there is no vision, the people perish,
and the goal of acquiring more material stuff than the next guy is no

What alternative
vision could serve to orient us, to motivate us and our children, to
inspire us to learn for the right reasons, for enduring and meaningful
reasons? Need it be more complex than to state the obvious? The reason
for human beings to learn is so that we can live and so that we can
serve. Whatever human life is about — and we Friends claim to have
no final answer — without life and survival we will not have the opportunity
to continue the search. We know, at the very least, that the search
for truth and meaning has value.

So education
is for survival. And not just our own survival. More important than
the survival of the self is the survival of the family, of the community,
of the society, the culture, the whole human community, and the ecosystem
of the world that supports all life on Earth. An education for our survival
(broadly defined in this way) is a worthy aim, and a potentially inspiring
aim, for education anywhere and everywhere. A few years ago the idea
would have been considered silly. Americans began the 20th century with
the overly optimistic notion that our survival was beyond doubt. Experts
argued that the problems of survival for our species and for our society
had been solved.

What a difference
100 years can make! Now we know that over the next several centuries
we stand a good chance of wiping ourselves from the face of the Earth
because of insensitivity to our impact on the environment, because of
our insistence on seeking ever larger destructive capabilities as we
expand national interests and national defense, and because our habits
of ever increasing population and per capita consumption place us on
a collision course with the welfare of all species on this living planet,
including ourselves.

for our species requires a new kind of environmental sensitivity and
understanding. Our culture revolves around consumption, and this must
change. Somehow, schools must become primary agents for this change.

And education
is for service. Psychologists tell us that adult psychological health
is rooted in relationships that help one to feel useful, effective,
needed by others, cared for, and able to feel and express caring for
others. On some level we all know that the motivation to do something
for others is even stronger than the motivation to do something for
oneself. Education is really to prepare us to serve. Obviously this
overlaps with the common notion that you learn in order to get ahead.
People who have skills that permit them to serve the needs of society
will be very much in demand in the society and the economy of the future.

But what
a difference that shift in emphasis can make! We learn in order to serve
others, and if we succeed, our happiness, our welfare, our success in
what matters most in life will become more likely. The opposite formulation
— we learn to advance our own standing, to achieve personal material
rewards — simply doesn’t work. The record shows that this path seldom
leads to adult lives of fulfillment and happiness, and there is now
reason to believe that it is a direct route to environmental destruction.

can schools be reoriented to focus
on these more fruitful goals and motivations?

As one who
works, teaches, and lives in a Friends school community, I know that
our Quaker traditions offer a framework for action on an agenda of reshaping
schools as agents of human survival and human service. Ours is a tradition
that traces back through generations of Friends devoted to service.
It traces back though Lucretia Mott, John Woolman, William Penn, Margaret
Fell, and George Fox. All these people lived lives that were models
of serving the will of God as they and their meetings imperfectly discerned

School District of PhiladelphiaOur
tradition traces back through Jesus, who said love not only your neighbor,
but love your enemy. And he said to live modestly. Today, we can imagine
Jesus reminding us that whether by warfare or by excesses in population
and consumption, we have the potential to destroy our planet. He might
tell a parable in which archaeologists from some distant world might
one day visit a barren rock orbiting the sun and say “there was
a group of mammals that were too smart and too unwise.”

How can our
schools help to make kids both smart and wise? In a Friends school,
we can turn to the principle of peace as the bedrock of our educational
philosophy and our educational motivations. All schools could exist
to advance the cause of peace. All schools could prepare the minds and
hearts of young people to serve others, care for the planet, and seek
nonviolent solutions to human problems.

Most schools
in this country cannot openly recite the teachings of Jesus on love,
yet concern for others is a fundamental principle in virtually all religions.
We must make caring a pillar of our secular ethic and build it into
the curriculum of all schools.

the love of peace is a fundamental principle in virtually all religions.
We must make peace and nonviolence a pillar of our secular ethic. Quakers
can offer leadership in this area.

The love
of the planet, concern for its care, and devotion to the new forms of
knowledge that will permit us to care for it responsibly must be the
third pillar of a new American secular ethic.

Note that
the national or global economy are nowhere mentioned among the three
pillars of caring, peace, and environmental stewardship. Can we imagine
an ethical foundation for US education that doesn’t mention the almighty
economy? This stark question points to a fundamental problem with the
current discussion about education. The economy has become an end, and
it is not an end. In a well-ordered society, economic measures are not
an end but rather serve as the means to achieve human aspirations for
as many of the people as possible. In a vacuum of public discourse about
our true ends, and with a divergence of values in an increasingly culturally
diverse society, the economy has become the lowest common denominator,
and policy advisors advance the economy as if it’s the only thing we

Not so. We
all share a planet. We need to take care of it, and the economy needs
to be our servant in that work. We all share an interest in settling
differences without war, and the economy must be our servant in that
work. We all share a deep need for connection with others, for love
received and love given in the context of community. What joy awaits
us if we can keep our vision on these pillars of human authenticity
rather than on the economic factors that allow a few to pile up treasure
on Earth! Students in school, at any age, know the difference between
goals that are self-serving and aspirations to serve a larger good.

A school
built on this foundation will be a smaller school than most schools
are today, and it will have smaller classes so that adults and children
can come to know one another more deeply. It will be a community, “a
loving neighborhood,” to borrow a phrase from William Penn.

sensitivity will be taught and practiced in such a school. Nonviolent
responses to conflict will be taught and practiced. And service to others
— at school and in a succession of larger social frames, will be a
guiding principle in the development of the school program.

With a vision
for authentic schooling in mind, Friends pray for the courage and the
wisdom to make a contribution to the larger societal discourse on education.
Seeking to be adequate to the challenges of the 21st century, we stress
survival, not superiority; we strive for peace rather than sharpen new
tools for military advantage; we teach caring, sharing, and community
rather than competitive hoarding. In advancing these reforms, we can
squarely meet the challenges faced by school and society in the 21st

In 1701 William
Penn established new laws to protect Pennsylvania colonists from government
abuses. The terms of this pioneering reforming of the relationship between
the government and the governed were laid out in a document called the
Charter of Privileges. That bell in Philadelphia, we call it the Liberty
Bell, was dedicated in 1751 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary
of Penn’s Charter of Privileges. Later, that bell became the symbol
of a nation, and the principles laid out in the charter became the model
for the constitution of that new nation. Three centuries later, democracies
across the globe continue to borrow from these notions to secure enduring
and fruitful arrangements between governments and citizens.

The time
has come once again for our Religious Society to offer, from our position
as a marginal minority, a framework for the reorganization of political
and moral assumptions in schools and in public life. We need to be developing
and sharing a vision, for all people, of a world in which love, peace,
and environmental stewardship are the three pillars on which we build
the hopes and aspirations of our human community.

Photos, top to bottom, courtesy of: Westtown School; Westtown School; Moorestown Friends School; Moorestown Friends School; Westtown School; School District of Philadelphia.

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