Those of us who value education, especially public education, are faced with overcoming the very successful rhetoric of the reform movement that like an insidious virus has invaded our understanding of what it means to be educated, rapidly replicating itself to the point where many cannot remember or do not know that education was once about more than training for a job or college entrance.
My elementary schooling taught me to read, write and do some math, but it was about so much more. It was there that I learned about classical music, not a staple in my childhood home. I learned folk music too, songs of social protest, labor songs. So much of what we did in school was directed at citizenship, at our responsibilities to others. Excellent copies of great art works hung on the school walls, works that our teachers would talk to us about. There were weekly assemblies, often focused on guests who had come to talk to us. I vividly remember a family of refugees from the Korean War coming to speak to us about the plight of their country. I remember too the Korean folksong they taught. There was time for crafts of all kinds, from making a covered wagon out of strawberry boxes to woven bookmarks. There was time for fun. The best of the teachers I had told us stories of their own lives. Our music teacher even brought her French husband to school one day to talk to us about growing up in France and what France was like under the Nazi occupation. Or Miss Levy who had a travel itch and who told us wonderful stories of her experience of the midnight sun in Spitsbergen and spending a summer in India.
My teachers did so much to make us aware of the world beyond our Brooklyn community and helped us to understand our place in it. They had time to do these things. There were no pacing charts, no high stakes tests, no psycho-babble about twentieth skills, no making us anxious about gaining acceptance to college or our need to know what we wanted to work at as adults. We didn’t go home to hours of homework. The little homework that we had didn’t require the assistance of our parents. Home was for good time without parents, listening to the radio, watching television, reading and dinner conversations. My school was about getting educated. It was not about what I could take from the world but about what I might be able to give. It wasn’t aimed at preparing me for global economic competition but rather for citizenship and an enriched cultural life. Above all else it got me thinking about social justice and human freedom.
Some of my readers will respond that the world has changed. It surely has but in ways that make real education even more important than it was in my youth.