A Philosophy of Education for the Year 2000

Article excerpt

A conception of school as a moral equivalent of home is as responsive to societal conditions at the end of the 20th century as the factory model of schooling is unresponsive to them, Ms. Martin points out.

AT THE TURN of this century -- in 1899, to be exact -- John Dewey started off a series of lectures in Chicago with a description of the changes in American society wrought by the Industrial Revolution. "It is radical conditions which have changed, and only an equally radical change in education suffices," he said.(1) One of those radical conditions was the removal of manufacture from households into factories and shops. It was Dewey's genius to see that the work that in the relatively recent past had been done at home had offered genuine educational benefits, which had become endangered. It was his great insight that some other educational agent could and should take over what had previously been one of the responsibilities of the home.

I draw attention to Dewey's analysis because in the United States today home and family have once more been transformed. The critical factor now is the removal of parents from the household. With many households headed by a single parent, usually a mother, and most families in need of two salaries just to maintain a home, for many hours each day there is simply no one at home.

If nothing more were at stake than a child's misgivings about being home alone or a mother's exhaustion after working a double shift, educators might be justified in ignoring our changed reality.(2) But there are the three brothers, ages 12 to 15, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, who were arrested in February of 1994 for stealing their mother's jewelry to pay drug dealers for crack cocaine. "They looked like three little old men," said the police officer.(3) There are also the juveniles who were arrested two weeks before this incident for entering a roller rink in Boston and shooting seven children. "The police should have been there to take the gun away from my son before he went inside," said one mother.(4) And then there is the 4-year-old who, even as I was writing this, was discovered in unspeakable conditions in his own home. In tomorrow's newspaper, as on yesterday's television screen, there will be accounts of teenage shoot-outs, 5-year-olds toting guns, children in the drug trade.

I have no quarrel with those who point out that science and math and literacy education in the U.S. are not what they should be. I am as thoroughly convinced as anyone that the country's vocational education system needs overhauling. But this nation's political and educational leaders talk repeatedly about setting higher standards in the teaching of literacy, math, and science and about the schools' failure to develop a highly skilled work force -- without ever seeming to notice that our changed social reality makes correspondingly radical changes in schools imperative. To put it starkly, there is now a great domestic vacuum in the lives of children from all walks of life. In light of this radical change in conditions, once again the pressing question has become, What radical changes in school will suffice?

Needed: A Moral Equivalent Of Home

In the U.S., as in other industrialized societies, home has traditionally been the agency responsible for turning infants who are "barely human and utterly unsocialized" into "full-fledged members of the culture."(5) Sherry Ortner's words bring to mind the "Wild Boy" of Aveyron. Until he emerged from the woods, Victor had no exposure to the curriculum that inducts our young into human culture -- not even to wearing clothes, eating food other than nuts and potatoes, hearing sounds, sleeping in a bed, distinguishing between hot and cold, or walking rather than running.(6) He had to be taught the things that people -- other than parents of the very young and teachers of differently abled children -- assume human beings instinctively know.

Shattering the illusion that what is called "second nature" is innate, Victor's case dramatically illustrates that what we adults learned at home as young children is far more basic than the school studies we call the basics. …