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Wednesday, September 01, 2004

A State Education

Classes began here at Arkansas State last week. My oldest daughter began her third grade year at Hillcrest Elementary the Thursday previously. Her teacher is Mrs. Vanpelt, and as it turns out, one of her children is taking Introduction to American Government from me this semester. It's a cozy community, here in Jonesboro. Mrs. Vanpelt told her class that she doesn't hand out homework on Wednesdays, because that's Bible study night for so many of her pupils. Similarly, here at ASU, the Baptist Collegiate Ministry was the very first organization I saw with flyers up announcing activities, beating the local fraternities and other clubs by several days. You have to like a place and a local population that knows what it's all about.

I'm an agent of the state here, as my daughter is in the hands of one. There are many who look down on that choice, for many good reasons. As the years have gone by, my siblings and their families have become more and more non-traditional in their approach to education; most of them are outright dissenters from the public school system, and home school their children. My mother actually planted the seeds of this dissent, having long complained about how I was treated at school (justifiably, I think; I was a miserable kid), and not long after I graduated from high school taking the plunge and pulling my remaining brothers and sisters out. It didn't stick; Mom tried numerous different home schooling programs and experiments, and my younger siblings drifted in and out of the school system. At the time, my home state of Washington had pretty loose laws regarding home schooling, so this wasn't hard to pull off (things have since changed). It's hard to measure what the consequences of this scramble find alternatives to public schooling were, except that it must of been received well by most of them, because so far out of the seven Fox children who have children of their own of school age, only one puts them in the public schools--me. Everyone else makes use of home schooling, private schools, or some mix thereof. As for college, the sense that children should receive an education that primarily prepares them to earn high test scores, get into top-notch universities, and generally go forward in their highly-structured social-advancement oriented lives, is thankfully absent from my siblings' families, as far as I can tell. So in many, many ways, Melissa's and my choices, and my occupation, sets our family very much apart. But they let us attend family reunions anyway.

For the most part, they haven't become dissenters from the contemporary schooling regime and its expectations because they think they can improve upon it, or because they want to be part of the conservative religious counter-culture (which Harry Brighouse eloquently reflected upon a long time ago), or any such specific complaint. (Though given that they all are pretty consistent social conservatives, that possibility can't be discounted.) They all agree that schools aren't what they used to be, though like Timothy Burke they probably can't come up with a definitive accounting of that change. Basically, like my Mom, I think they just want to have their kids around them more, being more involved in their children's lives, have greater capacity to establish the bounds their children operate within, thus paradoxically allowing their children to live with, in some ways, in even less structure and more freedom. I'm completely sympathetic to that attitude, and so is Melissa, which begs the question as to why we aren't turning away from relying on and/or making use of the state in educating our kids as well. Part of it is, of course, simply a matter of time and temperament. But I think that even if we could organize our lives in such a way as to home school our children, we wouldn't. Why not?

Part of it is where we live. With the exception of my older sister, all of my siblings with kids live in relatively large metropolitan areas (Portland, OR; Salt Lake City, UT; Las Vegas); even my sister, who still lives in Spokane where my parents do, is confronted with a far larger and different school system than our admittedly parochial one here in Arkansas. This is not to say that if Melissa and I moved our family to a larger city that our thinking would automatically change; it's only that at the present moment, we don't feel as though the public school system, that the state educational regime, is such a monolith that one must either embrace it or reject it wholly. For us, it's not impossible to meet with teachers, attend school meetings, volunteer and be part of the whole general project in education--not to say it's necessarily impossible anywhere, but it definitely isn't impossible here. Not when simply by living in one's community you already share so much space with one another. (Melissa and I used to bump into Megan's kindergarten teacher and chat with her all the time at Wal-Mart. Yes, everyone shops at Wal-Mart here, but that's a different post.) It makes for a mixed approach, a shading of possibilities and perspectives on education, that frankly we've both come to appreciate very much.

Of course, one could theoretically have all this and more if one simply privatized education completely, so where does that leave our justification? Sharing room with another one, as the case may be. I like the idea of the state being a (partial) agent of education; insofar as the state is the reflection of the collective interest we all have in promoting and sharing certain civic goods with one another, especially the poor and marginalized, then it is an agency worth supporting. Not unthinkingly: the controversies surrounding the best way to administer and make accountable the performance of this responsibility are huge and likely never-ending. (Melissa and I are partial to various charter-school and school-choice innovations, which would preserve the collective civic investment in education but open up and diversify both its curricula and the available modes of participation, though obviously the case for such reforms is far from conclusive.) Jonathan Alter, back in 1995, wrote an essay titled "Cop-Out on Class," which thoughtfully compared the abandonment of the public school ideal with other class-derived gulfs in our society, such as the gap between those who serve in the military and those who don't. He wrote (and he was targeting private schools, but the basic concept applies across the board):

Children should not have to sacrifice their education to their parents' principles. If the public schools in our area fail--either generally or for out particular children--we'll be gone. But in the meantime we should stay awhile a fight....The single biggest reason for the decline of American public education is that so many capable and committed parents have opted out. That in itself is a bad lesson for their children.

I don't mean to criticize my siblings, because it's not at all hard to imagine myself in their shoes--and someday Melissa and I may well be. But for now, in the midst of a variety of sometimes conflicting needs, hopes, capabilities and desires, Megan's state education seems to be serving her and our family well. I hope it will remain so. Every system will have its weak points, its hang-ups, its own little advantages and quirks and limitations and opportunities, and Arkansas has plenty. None that overcome the basic legitimacy and worthiness of the project though. And to that degree, our assessment isn't too different from the assessment made by practically everyone who takes advantage of the public schools, which I suppose is exactly the (egalitarian) point.

As for after Megan completes her schooling...who knows? Perhaps by then, social and cultural and class divisions in American society will have become so entrenched that wholly separate educational and vocation ruts will have permanently worn into our civic fabric, so much so that someone who attends Jonesboro High School will be all but legally forbidden from even contemplating attending an elite institution, those having been long since reserved for the lucky genetically-proven few graduates of the finest pre-schools and prep schools of the nation. Perhaps, when that time comes, I'll see no other option left except to join the revolution. For the moment, fortunately, I don't see any reason to prize such a future for my kids over any number of comparable ones. I mean, if all else fails, she could attend Arkansas State, join all her middle- and lower-class classmates in receiving a solid education courtesy of the admittedly somewhat restricted and unimaginative but nonetheless responsive state, and go on from there. She could even take Introduction to American Government from me. I bet she'd get a good grade.

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