As the School Board considers the future leadership of DCSS, we can hope that a discussion of the long-term use of public education will guide the process. Uninformed district leadership has ended in more state involvement which, in my experience, has meant more inane banter in meetings and one state official telling me, "I don't like to read." She volunteered an example: "My middle school girl keeps asking me to pass out a survey at work. 'Now Momma, you got to do this and this etc.,' and I told her just find a Youtube video on the study you want."
I'm hardly comfortable with educational officials trading in the public eloquence of their own children for the media world of Youtube. Our students' generation has perhaps as much need for a thoughtful and well-articulated public spirit to handle its major problems--of environmental health and human health, to name a couple -- as the generations of Americans who had to reach a consensus about public duty when they faced WWII or the crisis in the early Republic.
When the state overall has begun approaching education like the drunk looking for his keys under the light pole because that's where he can see, it becomes the responsibility of the district to challenge this operation with increased support and investment in autonomous leadership. I believe there is parity here. It is unfortunate that within education we have left our students to believe that the determination of useful ideas, and their restructuring, inexorably comes from the top down. It sets in place a feedback cycle which zaps local morale and idiomorphic problem-solving.
In his work Notes on the State of Virginia, in which, among many other ends, Thomas Jefferson sought to amend the state constitution to establish public education, he makes it clear that of all the views one could take of the proposed law, "none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty." The foundation of liberty was, in his view and the Enlightenment's, an active, historically-informed mind. More particularly, it was a mind suspicious of patterns of paternalism, critiquing everything "over" it. It is a crucial question how much habitat loss that critique has suffered in today's industry of public education. Yet it could be that this is the mind's finest, and most naturally public, use.
My own understanding of the public spirit grew recently when I walked into a drug store and saw a young man whom I have unsuccessfully mentored for several years wearing a dress shirt of mine. I hadn't made a gift of it. My house had been burglarized a couple of times the previous week, and as I told the police officer about my hospitality towards the boy, he just shook his head and said, "There goes your case, man."
"But here's the shirt. He willingly took it off and handed it over in the store," I said. When I further explained my reasons for not reporting the crime until that day -- that it was an unrepaired window, nothing important was taken -- but that I had verbally warned him that if he did anything else I would make a report, he repeated that we were just too "close" for there to be a case. I'd welcomed him in too many times, and maybe I had in fact given it to him. And so I learned that my occasional invocation of law enforcement really couldn't fit easily into the long-term, familial commitment I had made to this young man.
The DCSS leadership discussions really must be long-term "family planning," centered on the cultivation of liberty, especially since a lot of our kids come from short-term biological families and cycles of ignorance and poverty in which they feel trapped. We desperately need strong, serious, and intelligent leadership, not opportunism and not occasional "help" from the state. It is probably wise in such a divisive discussion as educational leadership not to make too many specific ends of the matter and to focus on nurturing a deep consensus about the good of our students. I, for one, have gotten a couple of new neighborhood mentees and don't know where we're headed.
I think an old Tao proverb explains where we are quite nicely. A carpenter and his young apprentice were walking in the woods one morning. They stopped at a giant oak tree in the middle of the forest and sat down to have lunch. The master asked his apprentice, "Do you know why this tree has grown so tall?"
"No," replied the apprentice.
"Because it is useless," said the master. "If it had been useful, it would have been cut down long ago and fashioned into furniture and equipment. But because it is useless, it has been able to grow tall and provide a service which it had never intended."
Justin Willson is an English teacher at Dougherty High School in Albany.