Few values are so universal as education. Education is often seen as the solution to a number of societal ills, and the lack thereof as the blame, and this belief is so widely held to have ensured the survival of free primary and secondary education in the United States despite America’s fear of socialism. But while we all might agree on the importance of education, the meaning of education has been in a constant state of flux. An education by definition involves learning, but learning what?
In 1787, in the wake of mass immigration of Germans to North America, Thomas Jefferson warned that immigrants would “bring with them the principles of the governments they leave, imbibed in their early youth; or, if able to throw them off, it will be in exchange for an unbridled licentiousness…. These principles, with their language, they will transmit to their children.” This fear was echoed and amplified in 1836 by Calvin Stowe, one of the fathers of the American public school system: “Unless we educate our immigrants, they will be our ruin…. The intellectual and religious training of our foreign population has become essential to our own safety.” In fact, the practice of pledging allegiance to the flag, which continues today, was in part inspired by a fear of immigrant children identifying too strongly with their home countries. Like a daily affirmation that, when repeated frequently enough, becomes true, the Pledge of Allegiance was implemented as a psychological tool to inspire U.S. nationalism through the one social structure that nearly every citizen and immigrant in the United States participated in: the education system.
Immigrants who made efforts to organize their own schools rather than integrate into the American school system were viewed as refusing to embrace American values, and given their numbers, this was considered a threat to national security. And so the formal educational system in the United States began not only as a place for children to learn basic academic skills, but also as a method for the systematic dissemination of American nationalism, and the erasure of the values of foreigners.
Fast forward to 1957: the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 and revealed how advanced their technology was, and therefore, their military capacity. A U.S. response was necessary. An act of Congress called the National Defense Education Act, passed in 1958, provided a large amount of federal funding to academic institutions that promised to improve their science, math, and foreign language programs, with the aim of ensuring that America would be equipped to compete with the Soviet Union and meet the country’s national security needs. In addition to kicking off the emphasis on STEM subjects that continues today, this was also one of the first major interventions into education by the U.S. federal government, and so we can once again trace the involvement of government in education, the link between politics and the values imparted onto youth, and how education has been shaped over time to reflect the needs of the state rather than the needs of children.
During the Cold War, public education in the United States also assumed the role of ensuring that young people developed “correct” ideas about communism, which is to say, recognizing communism as a flawed form of government and a threat to the United States. Many public school teachers were required to sign oaths of loyalty to the state, while education in the Soviet Union provided the counter effort for its own students, teaching children the virtues of communist ideology and the threats of capitalism. This type of ideological education was arguably even more central to the defense efforts of each superpower than their respective investments in science and technology — after all, few people would willingly devote their lives to a cause they don’t firmly believe in, and what better way to generate a fervent and loyal populous ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice than to teach them from childhood that their government’s pursuits are not only intellectually and morally sound, but the best of all possible options?
It makes sense, then, that the world’s most powerful countries would have a vested interest in educating not only their own populations, but citizens of other countries as well. The U.S. Department of State invests billions of dollars each year in programs that aim to bring the brightest and most promising students of other countries a proper American education. As China steadily ramps up its appeals to international students, becoming the United States’ main competitor in international education, U.S. officials respond with even greater determination to attract the most foreign students. This is done under the guise of humanitarianism, and to be fair, there are many ways in which bringing students to the United States, particularly from poor countries without many higher education options or where an American diploma would make a world of difference, genuinely is a game-changer for people’s lives. However, the political and economic value of investing in foreign students cannot be overlooked, and it’s highly doubtful that the United States government would make financial investments of this scale solely on the grounds of altruism.
Even if we remove politics and nationalism from all school curriculum, there remain certain values and skills that have been taught in schools over the years that served the function of socializing individuals in ways that were desirous in their particular time and place. From domestic skills, to agricultural, to financial, automotive, and tech, the substance of school lessons have changed over time in response to evolving cultural values and economic needs. Over the course of its existence, the schoolhouse has worn a multitude of hats: a daycare for children whose parents needed to work or tend to other domestic needs; a way to capitalize off of women’s labor while providing minimal financial compensation; a socialization system that prepared youth for future household roles; and a mass manufacturing machine that has filled salient industries with employable people.
In Ghosts in the Schoolyard, an investigation into Chicago’s public school closures in 2013, Eve L. Ewing poses the question: “What does it mean to be a good school in a black neighborhood in Chicago in the first half of the twenty-first century?” The question comes in response to a multitude of public schools being closed down due to their “underperformance.” These were schools whose student populations were almost one hundred percent black, and almost one hundred percent on free or reduced lunch , and whose enrollment rates didn’t differ significantly from their wealthier and whiter counterparts. It’s hard to understand why the solution to whatever underperformance was being measured was closure rather than reinvestment, unless we consider the possibility that our school system wasn’t designed to serve the social, intellectual, and psychological needs of students at all. When we instead accept the view that schools were designed to serve the needs of the state, it’s much easier to understand why poor minority communities that have been kept on the margins of nearly every social, political, and economic space there is would continue to be marginalized in their own communities by one of the few social structures whose free access is ensured for most of the public.
But let’s return to the question of the meaning of education, disregard historical trends and consider the possibilities of what an education could be. If our education system were designed to serve the needs of students, to be the proverbial village that helps raise each child, what would that look like? What emotional and social skills might be imparted in a more deliberate and formal manner, what histories might be taught that have been ignored by most textbooks, and what hopes and dreams might be nurtured if given a world where they were seen as possible? What working conditions and financial compensations would be offered to the teachers and administrators with whom we entrust to shape the individuals who will create our society’s future?
Thanks to those passionate schoolteachers who work tirelessly to provide their students with the kinds of social and educational spaces they deserve, our society’s concept of education may be moving in the right direction; however, the state is still guilty of exploiting their (overwhelmingly female) time, emotional labor, and psychological health. Teachers who decide to pursue fairer pay and conditions take the increasingly popular route of private schools, which drains public school systems of their most valuable assets and places a quality education, like so many other social services, behind a paywall — available to those born into the right circumstances, and denied to the rest.
Originally published at http://www.kimproc.com on October 5, 2019.