The name of the 2012 Olympic mascot, Wenlock, refers to the town Much Wenlock in Shropshire, England, where the idea of the modern games began. A physician, William Penny Brookes, instituted sports competitions for the area lads in 1850 to ensure that the British Navy remained tough and agile — and thus the British Empire prosperous. The growth of public education, spread worldwide by the British fleet, thereby took form around the idea of market competition then maxing out in Victorian England. The first official Olympic Games, in 1896, was the culminating expression of an educational model that had trained students to think of themselves as competitors. The games and terms of play agreed upon, a new level of educational hype and standardization was reached.
As I listened to a GADOE representative talk to our faculty about the “all important question” of “the way we’ll do business” in DCSS this year, I grew uncomfortable. Like many humanities teachers, I hope that my students use academics to reflectively withdraw from the climate of commercialism. This representative’s presentation made very clear that the designers of the new Common Core curriculum (adopted by 45 states this school year), which includes state standardized test components and classroom structures, have much less in mind the formation of a national body of students whose critical reflection will benefit from a common background knowledge and instructional experience, and much more in mind data processing and streamlining to help the bureaucracy of education operate. The world of education is (unintentionally?) creating a product — a student and faculty — that is unlikely to become a future critical competitor. It fulfills the old maxim: “The first responsibility of the citizen is to be calm.”
I think the embarrassing last year of DCSS moots a deeper question than How do we reconfigure the business of education? I think we should ask On what other models than business can we build teaching communities?
In the DCSS brochure for the upcoming school year, Dr. Joshua Murfree’s letter extols the way “WE DO education,” namely “collectively as a community.” Community leaders have been invited to “get the word out,” and he invites everyone in the “family” to join “the battle for the future of all children.” This homegrown rhetoric that enshrouds education in competitive glory has Brookes and the birth of the Olympics as its forerunner. Dr. Murfree’s language implicitly points to business models for “DOing” education and makes US critics look po-faced, unspirited and “not on board.” I affirm wholeheartedly a free education for all youth. I do not accept the team metaphor as a good model for education.
In teams, every member has to be “on board.” Building academic, inquisitive communities, however, is an essentially different project. Our use of the word “education” vis-à-vis a community should not belie the fact that teaching and learning rest on dialogical tensions, as does democracy.
I think we have failed our duty as an independently thinking electorate if we allow “the real world” only to be defined by top-drawer official life. Institutional practice should never override critical autonomy, especially not in our schools where young minds take shape. Yes, students need to be prepared for the real world and need to be shown order. Sometimes this may mean “business” is the order of the day. This does not justify state-mandated instructional frameworks and district classroom ordinances across every period of the day.
When I waited tables in college, I had to put up with a lot of guffaws when friendly patrons found out I was a humanities major. One talkative fellow said, “All y’all are good for is making more like your own.” It’s a familiar commentary — the artistic/professorial type withdraws from the community and passes the laurel wreath on to his children and so on. It seems that the same old story now applies to a generation of officials who are making a family business of education, leaving those with serious concerns to join some other team.
Justin Willson is an English teacher at Dougherty High School in Albany.