Out of Our Minds: Putting the Public Back in Public Schooling

Public schoolteachers (and even many administrators) are in defensive mode—now even more than ever. They are under attack.

Arguably, the public itself is what’s under attack. So for those who value the public—democracy as shared work for the common good—there’s an alternative, to be described shortly. But first, let’s say clearly what’s wrong with public education at present (after 30 years of neo-liberal reform). It seems that a narrow anti-intellectualism, fueled by and in service to the wealthy elite, has reinforced the sorting function of schooling while simultaneously converting public funding of schools into a source of corporate profit. As a consequence…

  • American schooling is inequitable from top to bottom. The most in need get the least and the most privileged get the most. The poor and darker-skinned get the worst buildings, the worst curricula, the worst teachers, the worst pedagogy, and the harshest discipline.  
  • American schooling is anti-intellectual for everyone. Getting ahead is what’s most important. But because of stringent inequity in the getting-ahead scheme of things, the devil will take the hindmost—that is, poor and darker-skinned children. 
  • Such a system is bad for the public interest and it will eventually victimize everyone. At base, everyone suffers because the current institutional arrangements fail to propagate and sustain the essential tools with which minds function: the capacity to doubt claims, to gather and examine evidence, to sequence thoughts logically, and to act ethically. 

In education (as in healthcare, the military, and the judicial system), the one-percenters are pushing privatization. What rightly belongs to all is being misappropriated. But the rest of us—the 99 percent—can do a lot better. The realm of our interests, after all, is where the common good can and must exist. It’s not private property.

Here’s the idea behind the alternative: Instead of working only to foil the latest predations of schooling enterprisers, progressives should fight to extend the public dominion of education—all of it from preschool through doctoral programs. All of it should be of the public, by the public, and for the public.

Make every school in the US a public school. Nationalize the Ivy League and all the rest.

Provide exactly the same levels of per-pupil support for all elementary schools and all post-elementary enterprises. In other words, disassociate funding level for schooling from the wealth or income of families or the property wealth in communities, and take tuition payments by families out of the equation altogether.

Make all elementary schools (PK-8) small, but staff them well—perhaps with 10 teachers for every 50 students; and create instructional teams by having professionals and community helpers join forces. Test widely to ensure the equity of the K-8 system.

Get rid of all high schools. Even the best are dysfunctional in our experience. After all, there’s a lot of complaint about high school grads not being able to do much. And the same is said more often now of college graduates. We tackle that problem next.

Establish many, many more apprenticeship programs.  They teach things that need doing and provide those who do them a good living.

Force fewer kids to go to college. The current push to require everyone to attend college is misguided. Not all meaningful contributions depend on an academic education that extends beyond early adolescence.

At the same time, however, let everyone go to college! Admit students on the basis of examination. Let anyone take the examination at any time and at state expense: however long it takes.

Provide students of any age subsistence stipends. People should be able to choose to study whatever and whenever they like, at public expense. If the economy changes, people can stop working and go to school. If they are laid off, they can go to school instead of being “unemployed.”

Guarantee employment to graduating apprentices, but not to university graduates. Apprentices get good jobs—maybe at the age of 16-20. University graduates, by contrast, are well placed to take their chances on professional jobs in the open market. And, if they like, they can complete an apprenticeship program, with its guaranteed employment, at any time.

Create exams for everything, which can be taken anytime by anyone. University entrance and graduation. Apprenticeship entrance and graduation. Graduate and professional training. Courses in schools. Some might be multiple-choice exams, but many will probably be performance exams.

Two things make educational sense to a broad spectrum of Americans: (1) education and training options that are economically feasible for everyone at any stage of life and (2) practical training that leads to employment. The alternative does both, but it does so by (1) substantially expanding the public realm for American schooling and (2) organizing institutions to pay much better attention to the intellectual development of ordinary people.

The concept of intellect in play here has little to do with the work of a select group of intellectuals, an elite that mostly serves the interests of the one-percenters. Instead, it refers to the intellectual commons—the written and otherwise recorded products of intellect—which ought to be the legacy of everyone alive.  Intellect, in this sense, connects to a realm of meaning that exists beyond each of us but belongs to us all. It is a common human heritage enacted on behalf of the common good. So a true education engages intellect, bringing individuals across all of humanity into an ongoing conversation with the ideas, insights, and works of art that belong to us all and to which we all contribute.

Radical though it seems, every part of the alternative has antecedents in the US and other countries. The full background for the alternative appears in Out of Our Minds.

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Craig Howley

Dr. Craig Howley is retired from Ohio University and previously directed an NSF research effort and an ERIC clearinghouse (Rural Education and Small Schools). He has a B.A. in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia College, an M.A. in Gifted Education from Marshall University Graduate College, and an Ed.D. in Education Administration...