School’s Cool

If we are to revive American schools, we must stop dwelling on despair and celebrate the power of learning, a new book argues.

Eve Ewing

At the public eye: Citizens check out a 30-foot-tall sculpture by artist Tony Tasset in Pritzker Park on July 7, in Chicago, Il.

The October 26 issue of Newsweek featured a cover story on the three-year solution,” the belief of Robert Zemsky, a University of Pennsylvania professor, that the nation’s universities should shorten their undergraduate degree programs from four years to three. 

Rose advocates for a discussion that appreciates the good things about schools, arguing that the pessimism of the dominant discourse helps perpetuate failure.

In a video on Newsweeks website, Zemsky calls the youth currently entering higher education mallrats,” who are accustomed to making decisions by running from one end to the other, trying to compare… They think that’s what life is – you run from one end of the mall to the other.”

By shortening the track toward a bachelor’s degree, Zemsky aims to rescue the mallrats from the Sisyphean burden of consumer decision; currently, he says, they are petrified by the level of choice.” The thesis of the article, penned by former Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, is that the archetypal American university risks following in the accursed footsteps of the American car company. The assertion that schools must heed the warnings of the automobile industry is a bewildering one. The business of business,” goes Milton Friedman’s legendary statement, is business.” Why, too, must the business of education be business?

Mike Rose’s new book, Why School? Reclaiming Education for All of Us (The New Press, September), explores the school-as-business model that has become so prevalent this decade, as well as other topics in contemporary education. Rose invites parents, community members and other stakeholders to join the conversation orbiting our educational system, and to reclaim it in the name of democracy and equity. 

Rose advocates for a discussion that appreciates the good things about schools, arguing that the pessimism of the dominant discourse helps perpetuate failure, or at least does little to advance success. To that end, he profiles remarkable teachers, engaged students and blossoming schools. His descriptions of each are underlined by his conviction that learning, as a human endeavor, is the exact opposite of business. It is magnificent. It is wondrous. 

Rose encourages us to conceptualize education not as the dissemination of facts, or the completion of standards – a checklist we must move methodically along, from the age of 3 until we have finished it – but as the mysterious beauty of learning itself. Rather than blurring our vision over statistics on the facts students can or cannot recite, we should rejoice at the beauty of true learning that happens every day, all across the country: the thrill of a science experiment, the sublimity of a poem well-written or the dynamism of a classroom debate. More importantly, we should do whatever we can to perpetuate access to these experiences, and to protect our children’s right to the timeless human phenomenon of discovery.

The obvious counterpoint to Rose’s call for appreciation is that the optimism is unwarranted. As long as we continue to see statistical chasms between how poorly students of color are served by schools when compared to their white counterparts, and how few resources are afforded to the 13 million American children living in poverty, it is difficult to shower our nation’s schools with accolades.

Yet, no matter how sorry – at least in quantified terms – the state of our schools may be, Rose argues convincingly against dwelling on despair. He shares an anecdote about a caller responding to his ideas on a California radio show: 

He said it was patently absurd’ to say the schools were doing anything right. He claimed that he didn’t know one seventeen-year-old who could make correct change.’ What stayed with me from that call – for it was instructive – was the quality of the anger, the rush and the snap of it, and its sweep. It had a tremendous energy to it – it felt assaultive, a bludgeon – and it did not, in any way, invite engagement, or mutual analysis, or thinking through a problem together.

In the conclusion of that chapter, Rose writes, Public education demands a capacious critique.” Alas – in what arena of policy have we successfully cultivated productive modes of public discussion? When our attempts to grapple with healthcare and race remain mired in the realm of the juvenile, can education be the vanguard in driving civil discourse? Like the tenuous pathway that begins on a child’s first day of school – in some cities, a path as likely to end with a dropout as it is with a graduate–Why School can’t guarantee the realization of our dreams.

But, like that first day of promise, it’s an anxious start.

Get 10 issues for $19.95

Subscribe to the print magazine.