Things have changed: the culture in which students are embedded; expectations for the future (and thus what and how people should be learning if they are to be prepared); and the technology of teaching, learning and communicating. The answers to all three questions are significantly different for most young people than they were ten years ago, and profoundly different than they were some decades ago when the liturgies of public high schools took shape. Honor Roll? Detention? Homecoming Week? Prom?
Schools have changed relatively little, mainly because of turf battles fought by the knot of organizations that we politely call “the education system”: teachers unions and school boards try to protect their monopolies, publishing companies try to reinterpret all new ideas back into the profitable forms of the past, various levels of government try to protect their relevance by getting in front of every new concern, pretending to lead while aggressively and often destructively following whatever trends they have the wit to perceive. The school reform movement has made schools very noisy and unstable in many ways, but they have had little impact of measures of learning.
Everyone knows we could do better, so lots of places are weary of intellectual mobilizations and deployments that lead only to more calls for mobilization and deployment. The Change Industry continues to spew forth buzzwords and workshops which administrators buy and roll out with the shallowest of understanding and the most flexible of commitments. Staffs are like the blind men trying to comprehend the elephant, each with different experiences and perceptions. Attempts to reach consensus with the cliched practices of small groups jotting phrases on big sheets of paper and then “reporting out” to the whole group facilitator, who jots on the whiteboard lists of cliches, the lowest common denominator of mindless phrases retained from the ideological propaganda that has replaced older forms of folklore.
In the fifties, everything was expected to be “efficient.” In the sixties, “natural” was good.
For a while everything was “interdisciplinary.” Then all good things were “authentic.” Now, the dominant adjectives are “diverse” and “inclusive”–all adding up to “respect.” But there’s no thought of collecting real knowledge to confirm or disconfirm anything. Data is collected sloppily and mindlessly to bolster Powerpoints to persaude someone or other that things are “being addressed.” As happened in ancient Rome when “success” and “appearances” drove out all weightier concerns, we now witness the rise of rhetoric and the decline of everything else.
And without intelligent adult guidance, many kids are pushed into useless post-secondary programs that guarantee nothing beyond unconscionable levels of debt.
It would be greatly energizing and considerable fun to seriously engage the real questions and to create new schools that used the enormous power of our new teaching tools to prepare kids for the real world which continues to flow into us and over us, changing everything except what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things” (which we can be sure will turn out to be what today’s youth most need to see and understand).