The politics of education

Jul 1, 2014 by

The image often differs from reality. Our image of schools and schooling is often premised on a measure of innocence. We envision schools serving to shelter students (and teachers) from the nefarious societal (read: ideological and political) forces that tend to both undermine and compromise this innocence. Yet Peter McLaren reminds us that schools are – and have always been – contested spaces. Schools are not neutral and are often shaped by a slew of forces that, for better or worse, impact what happens in the classroom.

From school boards to corporate boards, from Capital Hill to state Capitols, from parents to politicians, it seems that everyone has a say in what happens in our public schools.

With a tinge of cynicism, we can argue that “involvement,” if you will, in our public schools often comes with strings attached. Everyone has an agenda – either overt or covert—and such an agenda is often self-serving.

 

Conversely, such external forces can ultimately lead to responsive and lasting educational reform. The more support given to public education, by any and all factions, can only enhance teaching and learning. The more hands on deck, the better.

Yet, for better or for worse, public education is a public entity. And the fundamental concept of a public entity is that it is accessible to and for all. It is a shared good and a shared concern. It transcends the multiple boundaries that often divide.

 

But if a public entity is supposed to galvanize rather than divide, why then is public education so contentious? Are there too many cooks in the kitchen vying for their share of the collective pot? Or are there too few cooks in the kitchen whereby apathy leads to inaction? Is public education in fact stymied by the endless peddling of rhetoric and influence? Or does the diversity of opinion make public education more responsive?

 

Through the fog of ideology comes the ubiquitous mantra “the desire to improve public education.” And, at face value, this is a hard ideal to refute. Every politician, every parent naturally wants “what’s best.” Yet consensus is elusive. Common ground devolves into “stand my ground.” The sabers rattle. The loudest voices carry. The deepest pockets dig just a little bit deeper. And the innocence of a public education is hijacked by the swirl of factionalism.

 

And lost in this swirl are our students.

 

Thomas Jefferson called on an enlightened and engaged citizenry to invest in this ideal called the common, public good. And it is in this spirit of investment that we engage in conversations surrounding public education. And, though spirited as they may be, such conversations are important if not essential to civic participation.

 

Yet when the cacophony of voices overshadows and overwhelms what is truly at the core of any public education – structuring meaningful and engaging learning opportunities for all students – then maybe, just maybe, the political rhetoric has taken precedence over our most precious and enduring common good, our students.

 

Tim Lintner is a professor of Social Studies Education in the School of Education at the University of South Carolina Aiken.

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via Column: The politics of education | Aiken Standard.

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