Saturday, October 15, 2011

The politics of public education

MIT Chapel Reflection

First Reading: Daniel 1:1-7

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.
Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.
Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.

I have no doubt that in subsequent weeks I will find myself in agreement with most every topic presented wishing I had chosen that topic. Or at the very least that maybe the answer I should be giving to the question, “If I could change one thing…” should qualify me for the Miss Universe pageant and be something like…world peace.

But, my answer to the question, at least as of 9/27/2011, is that if I could change anything, I would change the politics of public education in the US.

There has been a general narrative in our country that public education, especially in our urban centers, is suffering.

Just this past week, President Obama stated in his weekly address, “Today, our kids trail too many other countries in math, science, and reading. As many as a quarter of our students aren’t even finishing high school. And we’ve fallen to 16th in the proportion of our young people with a college degree, even though we know that sixty percent of new jobs in the coming decade will require more than a high school diploma. What this means is that if we’re serious about building an economy that lasts – an economy in which hard work pays off with the opportunity for solid middle class jobs – we had better be serious about education. We have to pick up our game and raise our standards.”

The passage from the book of Daniel reminds us that with the King’s best food and wine, also comes a selection of the stories and language that will give identity to a community and a nation.

The story reminds us that with the King’s food and wine, comes a change in the language and stories that define a culture, and when you change a communities language and stories, you change their names…you change their identity.

Inherent in our funding strategy of public education has always been a concretizing of the socio-economic stratification of our communities.

The question and politics of why we educate is increasingly more complex in our multi-cultural society.

What started as religious and even sectarian education in the 18th century, had turned toward the responsibility of raising up knowledgeable citizens for a democratic society into the 19th century.

The cold-war and nationalism provided key structures for our education narrative through the middle of the 20th century, but seems to have lost their uniting vision into the 21st.

It seems that the dominant vision of education emerging is one of prosperity. We educate not for the good of humanity, but we educate as an investment into the growth of the economy, as an investment into the potential of prosperity.

But, have we thought deeply about the human story this tells? What does this communicate to our children? Your future value and human worth will be determined by your ability to contribute to the GNP?

With the kings food and wine come the stories and language…and ultimately identity.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, basing their results on the 2010 census, more than 42% of children live in low-income families, and the total number of Americans living below the poverty line is the highest in 50 years.

And most research will show that emotional and psychological stress placed on a child living in poverty has a significant impact on a child’s ability to learn.

Consequently the gap grows wider between wealthier and poor neighborhood schools in many states during economic stress in spite of growing initiatives, financial investment and emerging alternatives.

I love teachers, and have a great respect for those who enter the field. Many of my family members are currently or have been educators.

In my last fifteen years as a college chaplain, I can recall dozens of students who have entered various teaching programs with the high-minded idealism of making a difference in the future of students caught in struggling systems.

Few remain. It is emotionally taxing and there are alternative places to work to see more immediate results. Many in the field of education research project he results of education reform could take as much as 10-15 years to bear tangible results.

Our reflections for chapel, “If I could change one thing…” as Dr. Randolph reminded us last week, causes us to examine and question the notion of change itself as much as the thing we would like to see change, as well as our own involvement in seeing change happen.

The politics and conversation of education has at its core the question, “Why we educate?” But most of the public conversation has little to do with wrestling as a society with this question.

And if we were going to change the conversation, change the politics of public education, I wonder how our children would answer this question, “Why do we educate?” I wonder what language and stories are forming their identity as we debate experiment with strategies, assessment and benchmarks for new contributors to a new economy.

Tim Hawkins, Chaplain with SojournMIT