George Packer cogently argues in the Atlantic this week that the purpose of school is preparing citizens who are capable of participating in a democracy.
“One reason we have a stake in the education of other people’s children is that they will grow up to be citizens. Education is a public interest, which explains why parents shouldn’t get to veto any book they think might upset their child, whether it’s To Kill a Mockingbird or Beloved… A functioning democracy needs citizens who know how to make decisions together.”
This is one of the most persistent arguments for public schools in particular but also schools in general. (Hirsch’s latest is a book-length version of this argument.) Packer’s article is worth reading, both for a good instance of this argument and for very good critiques of how the public school system is failing right now.
But, in my view, the argument is wrong. The purpose of education is to support an individual child in living her whole life to the fullest. Or, equivalently: the purpose of education is to support the development of a child such that they can joyously grow and flourish as an adult. Or: supporting the development of an individual’s virtue such that she can achieve happiness.
The focus is on individual needs, not social ones. I think this does mean supporting children in becoming the sorts of people who can participate in free societies as citizens, and that this is important. Human society is an irreplaceable value in an individual human life. It is not to be taken for granted, either in terms of the sowing—participating in a manner that ensures its continued existence and betterment—or the reaping—getting the maximum that one can out of living in such a society. So, yes, civilization matters, civics matters, loving and cooperating with other human beings matters.
But this is not a subtle difference in emphasis, or a simple waving away of a false alternative in favor of a “both-and”. It’s not that Packer, Hirsch, and countless others are sorta-wrong. They are wrong-wrong. It’s an issue of what is fundamental, and apparent isomorphisms between these positions are at best superficial. The ultimate aim of citizenship is starkly different as an ultimate aim than the ultimate aim of virtuous individuals.
Montessori herself is ambiguous on this topic; one can cite passages in favor of a more social telos, a “both-and” telos (probably her considered view), or an individualistic telos. So, without any pretense at arguing that this is also what Montessori thought, allow me to at least cite one of her more individualist passages (and also one of the only places where she clearly has Dewey in mind as a target of critique):
Education should not be limited by the democratic ideal or associated with any other ideal which is difficult to define. One wanders far from education when one begins to discuss the exact meaning of the democratic ideal.
Education should be a science and a help to life, a definite and exact study which following the previously discovered laws of life will become something exact and discernible. …
The preparation of the citizen of tomorrow depends entirely on the psychological foundations of man. Men are by nature social beings. They choose to live together, not as a herd but as independently functioning beings that associate together. (The Child, Society, and the World)
For Montessori, the individual’s virtue of independence is developmentally fundamental to achieving a functioning society, even if society is the aim. Only the independent human being, secure and happy in her competence and worth, can reliably help achieve a cohesive, freely associating society.
In my view, an independent human being is not just the fundamental developmental cause, but also the fundamental aim. Societies are created for and judged by their value to individuals, not vice versa. Likewise in education: the pro-citizenship, pro-civic-life aspects of education are to be created for and judged by reference to their value to the individual student.
Some good weekend reads:
Nafez Dakkak had a great piece last month—The Gameboy instead of the Metaverse of Education—arguing that non-cutting-edge technologies are the best to put on the center of the page in terms of thinking about ed tech. I’m actually bullish on the metaverse for education. But it’s definitely true that educators haven’t even learned how to leverage older technologies.
Nafez uses video games as his central example for this point. My favorite example of “underleveraged, dumb” ed tech is simply video recording of classrooms. Athletes, actors, and surgeons all improve their craft by having recordings that they can go back and review, can watch with a coach, can archive to better catch long-term patterns. Teachers should have this too—for these and other reasons. It’s simple, obvious—and still very hard to properly de-risk and pull off in practice.
As the world continues to phase out of remote learning, which has generally been a disaster, stories of cases where it continues to work and be popular are of particular interest. It’s important to not accidentally learn the wrong lessons from botched execution and bad pedagogy: homeschooling, often heavily supported by virtual resources or just virtual school, is growing, is often very good, and is likely the future. (We continue to invest in our offerings on this front.)
As of—*checks watch*—now, state-wide Covid K12 mask mandates have been dropped in the few remaining holdout states, such as California and Oregon. There is, though, one corner of education where mandates still linger: toddlers and preschool children. Emily Oster offers a cool-headed analysis of the insanity.