"These things are old":

Teaching for democracy

posted by William Ayers

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Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

The power of rising expectations, of imagination unleashed, of hope for something better than the politics of division and war and fear—all of it is in the air and on the move. Combined with serious and abiding global crises—economic, financial, military, environmental—it announces a unique moment to re-imagine and reignite a push toward fundamental change. It’s a moment to shed some of the burdens and baggage of the past, a time to reach beyond the walls and entanglements we know too well, a time to restore the basic propositions and values of a more authentic, vibrant, and participatory democracy.

When Obama intoned, “This is our moment. This is our time…Yes we can,” we needed to ask, of course, “yes, we can…what?”

For me, the answer involves returning to my roots as an antiwar organizer and civil rights activist, my roots as a teacher who believes that schools and classrooms, at their best, are powered by the engines of enlightenment and freedom. The promise of education is always tied up with the radical proposition that we can change our lives right now, today, and that together we can change the world.  It is a promise with particular resonance and urgency in a democratic society, for democracy assumes the necessity of continual and dynamic revitalization, and demands, then, regeneration as its lifeblood.

Unfortunately, the dominant frames, controlling discourses, and common metaphors that have powerfully shaped our choices and set the terms and limits of our discussion about schools and reform for so long are narrowing and constraining. In the contested space of schools and education reform, and in this particular moment, educators, parents, theorists, and citizens should press to change the dominant discourse of education, a controlling metaphor that posits education as a commodity rather than a right and a journey, and imagines schools as little factories cranking out products. The metaphor leads rather easily to imagining school closings and privatizing the public space as natural, relentless standardized testing as sensible—this is, after all, what the true-believers call “reform.” Michelle Rhee, CEO of Washington D.C. schools (it’s a business, remember), warranted a cover story in Time in early December, called “How to Fix America’s Schools.” The pivotal paragraph praised her for making more changes in a year and a half on the job than other school leaders, “even reform-minded ones,” make in five: closing 21 schools (15 percent of the total), and firing 100 central office personnel, 270 teachers, and 36 principals. These are all policy moves that are held, on faith, to stand for improvement.  Not a word on kids’ learning or engagement with school, not even a nod at evidence that might connect these moves with student progress, not a mention of getting greater resources into this starving system, nor parent involvement, and so on.  But of course evidence is always the enemy of dogma, and this is faith-based, fact-free school policy at its purest.

In this metaphoric straightjacket, school learning becomes a commodity traded at the market like boots or hammers. Unlike boots or hammers, the value of which is inherently satisfying and understood directly, the value and use of school learning is elusive and indirect—hence, students are asked to accept its unspecified worth on faith and must always be motivated and rewarded externally. The value of school learning, we’re assured, has been calculated precisely by wise and accomplished people, and these masters know better than anyone what’s best for the kids and for the world. The payoff is way down the line, but it’s surely there, somewhere, over the rainbow. “Take this medicine,” students are told repeatedly, day after tedious day, “It’s good for you.” Refuse the bitter pill, and go stand in the corner—where all the other losers are assembled.

Schools serve society; society is reflected in its schools. And in the modern world we see some differences as well as interesting similarities and noteworthy overlapping goals across systems. School leaders in fascist Germany or communist Albania or medieval Saudi Arabia or apartheid South Africa, for example, all agreed that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, and master the subject matters, so those things don’t differentiate a democratic education from any other—we all want the kids to do well. Practically all schools want their students to study hard and do their homework. Furthermore, schools in the old Soviet Union and fascist Germany produced some excellent scientists and athletes and musicians and so on. They also produced obedience and conformity, moral blindness and easy agreement, obtuse patriotism and a willingness to follow orders right into the furnaces. In a democracy one would expect something different—and this takes us back to first principles: democracy is based on a common faith in the value of every human being, and that means that what the wisest and most privileged parents want for their kid is exactly what the community wants for all of its children.

Our schools too often teach indifference, emotional and intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and the need to submit to certified authority. What, after all, are the lessons of report cards, grades, and the endless batteries of tests that play the part of autopsies rather than diagnostics? Don’t trust yourself; seek approval from your betters. And what is the point of the established schedule and the set fifty-minute periods, the uniform desks all in a row, the exhaustive use of time with no room to breath and certainly no space to dream or wonder or wander or drift or reflect or imagine or just be bored? You are not important and unique; be only malleable and productive in terms established by a higher authority.

The school-as-factory metaphor is more than an outdated image; worse, it is a model that betrays the central demands of democracy. Those of us who want to work for a more robust and participatory democracy must struggle against this metaphor and reaffirm the basic proposition that in a democracy life is geared toward and powered by a particularly precious and fragile ideal: every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each the one and only who will ever tread the earth, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and creative force; each born free and equal in dignity and rights, each endowed with reason and conscience, each deserving, then, a community of solidarity, a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. This core value is the heart of the matter, and it must express itself explicitly and implicitly in education as in every other aspect of associative living.

A democracy, theoretically at least, would build schools to fit children, not the other way around. We would not bend and break children until they fit as cogs in a mindlessly menacing machine, automatons without the ability to think clearly or feel deeply. We would resist—because we do not want the schools to train a nation of sheep—the forceful imposition of standardized ways of seeing and knowing. In a robust and functional democracy we would expect schools to reflect the principle that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each, and conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.

This expectation has huge implications for educational policy: racial segregation is wrong, class separation unjust, disparate funding immoral. There is no justification in a democracy for casting students out of school, none for categorical thinking in terms of potential or performance. There is no rationale for the existence of a well-funded school for wealthy white kids and a dilapidated, poorly-resourced school for poor immigrant kids or the descendants of an enslaved people. That reality—this savage inequality—offends the foundational idea that each person is equal, and reflects instead the reactionary idea that some of us are more deserving and more valuable than others. It expresses, as well, a simple but cruel message we send to children through our social policy and priorities: Choose the Right Parents! If you choose parents with money, access, social connection, and privilege, your choices and your chances will expand; if not, sorry, you’re on your own.

The democratic injunction has big implications for curriculum and teaching as well, for what is taught and how. We want our students to be able to think for themselves in a democracy, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their own.  We want them to ask fundamental questions—who in the world am I?  How in the world did I get here, and where in the world am I going?  What in the world are my choices?  How in the world shall I proceed?—and to pursue the answers wherever they might take them.  We refuse obedience and conformity in favor of teaching initiative, courage, imagination, creativity, and more. These qualities cannot be delivered in top-down ways, but must be modeled and nourished, encouraged and defended.

Democratic teaching encourages students to develop the capacity to name the world for themselves, to identify the obstacles to their full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands.  This kind of education is characteristically eye-popping and mind-blowing—always about opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways into a wider, shared world. We must invite students to ask serious questions: What’s the evidence? How do we know? Whose viewpoint is privileged and whose is left out? What are the alternatives, the connections, the resistance, the patterns, the causes? Where are things headed? Why? Who cares?

Teaching and organizing—at their best—are each powered by a common faith: when I knock on the door of a stranger in a public housing project, when I look out at my students, I assume the full humanity of each. I see hopes and dreams, aspirations and needs, experiences and intentions that must somehow be accounted for and valued.  I encounter citizens, not consumers, unruly sparks of meaning-making energy, not a mess of deficits. This is the evidence of things not seen, the starting point for teachers and organizers in any democratic society.

We should focus our collective efforts on schooling for a participatory democracy, on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in our shared public life. Such a democracy requires that people actually make the decisions that affect their lives; such a democracy requires dialogue—each one speaking with the hope of being heard, and each one listening with the possibility of being changed. Such a democracy requires a democratic school that would be generously supported, abundant with resources and materials of all kinds; it would be small, numbering no more than a few hundred students. In this school, participatory democracy could be enacted, practiced, and embodied; it would be a workshop for discovery and surprise, a laboratory for inquiry and experimentation. And the curriculum would unfold in endless pursuit of an inexhaustible question: what knowledge and experience is of most value?

Education is where we decide whether we love the world enough to invite young people in as full participants and constructors and creators, and whether we love our children enough to give them the tools not only to participate but to change all that they find before them. Educators, students, and citizens might press now for an education worthy of a democracy, including an end to sorting people into winners and losers through expensive standardized tests which act as pseudo-scientific forms of surveillance, an end to starving schools of needed resources and then blaming teachers and their unions for dismal outcomes, and an end to “savage inequalities” and the rapidly accumulating “educational debt,” the resources due to communities historically segregated, under-funded and under-served.  All children and youth in a democracy, regardless of background or economic circumstance, deserve full access to richly-resourced classrooms led by caring, thoughtful, fully-qualified and generously compensated teachers.

This is our ongoing expression of and commitment to free inquiry and participation, access and equity, thought and independent judgment, and full recognition of the humanity of each in the company of all. The struggle continues.

[Editor's note: Portions of this essay appeared at the Huffington Post, and an extended version appears in the latest issue of the Harvard Educational Review.]

[See David Kyuman Kim's introduction to "These things are old," a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]

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12 Responses to “Teaching for democracy”

  1. avatar John Lofton says:

    We are NOT a “democracy,” Mr. Ayers. We are a REPRESENTATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL REPUBLIC, sir!

    John Lofton, Recovering Republican
    Communications Director
    Institute On The Constitution
    JLof@aol.com

  2. For me, the answer involves returning to my roots as an antiwar organizer and civil rights activist, my roots as a teacher who believes that schools and classrooms, at their best, are powered by the engines of enlightenment and freedom

    The Founding Fathers disagree with your assumption. They believed Civil Rights come from Natural Law, found in the Scriptures, and elucidated in the Protestant Reformation. Calvin and Luther beat the Enlightenment, or any liberal ideal by 150 years.

  3. avatar Jon Rowe says:

    Mr. Lofton does not understand that the concepts of “democracy” and “republic” are not mutually exclusive. America was founded to be a “democratic-republic.”

    Mr. Goswick, with whom I have spoken quite a bit, I think understands that the Founders had a far more expansive, enlightenment oriented concept of “civil rights” than what he credits here.

    Case in point Luther and Calvin didn’t believe men had an unalienable natural right to worship false gods and the FFs did.

  4. avatar Welbith Mota says:

    America needs to “reconnect with the energies of a deep democratic tradition … and reignite them.” We need to foster “democratic paideia—the cultivation of an active, informed citizens—in order to preserve and deepen our democratic experiment.”
    - Cornell West

    Defining democracy and its practices remains an illusive challenge. What exactly is it? What’s its relationship to public institutions, most importantly, to public education? Is America’s crusade to democratize the world just (or democratic!)? More critically, although some feel that it has the potential to exist, we should ask, as Whitman does, whether democracy has a life beyond theory? Whitman wrote that “We have frequently printed the word Democracy … yet … it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened…” In any case, these are some of the questions that continue to plague concerned Americans, citizens around the globe, philosophers, educators and democratic politicians.

    Nevertheless, I believe that the vast majority of Americans (and the globe’s democratic people) have an intuitive awareness about what makes a democratic society, about its foundational principles—justice, shared-responsibility, equality and equity, stability, security, critical citizenship, compassion, and a commitment to human rights—and this is the case, even if we cannot define it absolute, or claim it to be entirely real.

    I take the time to discuss the “meaning” of democracy because (given Mr. Lofton, Mr. Goswick and Mr. Rowe’s discussion about the necessity for the meaning of democracy and of American politics) I think it is important to point out that Mr. Ayers’s analysis of American education also works with a definition of democracy and of democratic education that is not perfect, but hopeful.

    The Brother has a vision of the future. Wherein our schools are committed to equality and equity, and to empowering students of all races, creeds, and class; where all students receive the necessary tools to be critical thinkers, and agents in the world; of educational spaces that promote diversity in its broadest sense, and invite dissension and non-conformism. In this future classroom, student-teacher power dynamics will not take precedence, neither will routine testing; indifference will be neither taught nor tolerated, and imagination will be fostered and encouraged. It is a vision. But environmentalist Susan Griffin aptly states, “Let us begin to imagine the worlds we would like to inhabit…”

    There is a prophetic tone to Mr. Ayers’s condemnation of American public education. On the one hand, he castigates America for not fulfilling its promise of equitable education to all, and points to future danger/a dangerous future for all our children and this nation; yet, on the other hand, there is a light named Hope. Ayers challenges and encourages us when he states: “The power of rising expectations, of imagination unleashed, of hope for something better than the politics of division and war and fear – all of it is in the air and on the move.” And this is why I agree with Mr. Ayers that as a nation we need a strong and committed to deconstructing our current system, and to a radical REconstruction of our public schools. If democracy is to persist, than this “re-imagining” of American education can and must take place.

  5. avatar Katharine McCain says:

    I have to say that though I think you have raised many important points regarding the ways in which students are educated, I can’t agree with all of your assumptions. I too believe that “a democracy… [should] build schools to fit children” and I have been privileged enough (or lucky enough) to have attended schools with similar beliefs. Growing up in small Quaker communities that encourage individuality and a love of learning, I haven’t experienced as many of the weakness in the education system as you have. However, I do still believe that you are looking at some things in too much of a black and white manner.

    You say for instance that schools teach us not to trust ourselves and that we should instead trust our “betters,” but I don’t believe that this is something that is taught. Take for instance a small child who has drawn a picture. That child will proceed to run to his parents and show them the picture he has created, seeking their praise and approval of his work. No one taught him to do this; it was a natural reaction. As humans we constantly seek approval and grades are merely an extension of this. I concede that grades should not have so much importance placed on them but at the same time they are useful tools. Good grades encourage a child to maintain that level of commitment and poor grades (alongside the correct teachers of course) should encourage a child to put more effort forward. This only becomes an issue when good grades seem next to impossible.

    Which brings me to my second point. You claim that schools “bend and break children until they fit as cogs in a mindlessly menacing machine” and a year ago I would have agreed with you. I myself have never had any talent in Mathematics, have never gotten great grades in the subject, and for a long time could not understand its importance. Why would a school try to force me (like a cog) to learn something I could not understand? However, it wasn’t until I came to college that I began to respect the need to learn this subject. Cut off from my parents I began to use math more in my everyday life, even if it was only the rudimentary skills I have been able to hold on to. While this knowledge may not be what I considering interesting, it is still useful enough that I am grateful to my teachers for giving me a little push, even if I wasn’t grateful at the time. Every school is going to give grades and have required subjects, that’s not going to change, but the way teachers, parents, and the students view these things are going to be what makes the difference.

  6. avatar Ali McKeigue says:

    Our lack of democracy in our school systems has become a major contributor to the competition and desire for approval of others that America has taken on as a trait and value. From about age five, children are observed, judged, ranked, and scored based on their ability to learn and perform. This process of judgment begins at an extremely young age, and continues throughout one’s life. School children are given letter grades, high schoolers are rejected or accepted into universities based on numbers, and adults are chosen for jobs based on the word on their résumés. This goes beyond schooling and job applications. People, and Americans in particular, place importance on material things that will be approved by others, such as overall appearance, style, and possessions. In general, our society has become materialistic, partially due to the importance of labels on report cards and the lack of democracy in our school systems.

    Although I understand that rankings and such are one of the only ways to make “fair” and standardized decisions, they lend to a stressful, competitive society with an emphasis on judgments. Our obsession with ranking will create a society of “products” and will also stress outcome as opposed to experience, placing importance on extrinsic work rather than intrinsic work. This emphasis on extrinsic motivation has now become a tradition that is hard to turn around.

    But without any systems of ranking, how would any decisions and necessary judgments be made? To rid America of rankings and standards, we would need a complete alteration to almost every aspect of our culture—a near impossibility. This shows that almost nothing can be truly and solely “democratic.” Ayers describes democracy as being “based on a common faith in the value of every human being,” and the idea that every single person is “born free and equal in dignity and rights.” However, inevitably, this isn’t true. Some are born into riches, while others are stuck in poverty; some are naturally more gifted in certain areas, while some are born with learning disabilities. Of course, it is ideal and only just that everyone is considered equal, and that democracy can be carried out to its fullest in every aspect of America life; however, it is essential to realize the reality that there are unavoidable categories, groups, levels, and rankings. It is human nature to group and rank. It even happens in evolution where the “best,” (or those at the top of the food chain or the “fittest”) survive and move forward.

    An alternative to and combination of an unrealistic completely democratic school system and the current ranking-based “school-as-factory” school system is possible, and appears to be in the making. Interviews are now important in the college selection and hiring processes, showing universities’ and companies’ interest in the individual and in different students and employees. But standards still must be set to create performance and outcome, so ranking and scoring must be incorporated; otherwise, people would most likely be highly unmotivated in this busy and uncontrollably demanding world. A happy medium between shaping people who are capable to perform through the use of ranking and the current school systems while still placing importance on unique individuals is necessary today to create a fairly democratic and functioning society.

  7. avatar Sarah Silverstein says:

    While I agree with Ayers when he states that the “controlling metaphor for education labels it a commodity rather than a right and a journey, and imagines schools as little factories cranking out products,” I cannot agree with his statement that modern education betrays the central demands of democracy. I full heartedly disagree that schools today preach that “you are not important and unique; be only malleable and productive in terms established by a higher authority.” Yes, schools might operate through established schedules and uniform policies and behaviors, however, they do in fact reaffirm the ideals of democracy including that “every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, deserving a community of solidarity, a sense of brotherhood, sisterhood and respect,” through teachers and the very will of the students to learn. Public schools provide equal opportunity for all the students that attend. In school, there is no class or race distinction. All students have the same possibility to achieve greatness. It is through their own unique actions that determines an honors student from one who is barley passing. While there may be a plethora of standardized tests that turn the students into nothing more than numbers, these tests serve the purpose of rating the ability of the teachers to teach the required material. While the students become statistics through these tests, they are still given the tools to ponder those fundamental questions of life that help develop their minds. The modern public school does not in fact force conformity and disregards courage, imagination and creativity as Ayers claims it to. Teachers at these schools do engage their students and challenge them to ask questions.

    It is in my opinion that these “democratic” schools that Ayers calls for would actually create more educational inequality. These privileged schools would in fact be more expensive and further isolate those who could not afford to attend. I look to the private high schools with similar progressive agendas fro evidence. While they pretend to stand for reform and open mindedness, the students who end up attending all fall under the same category. The vast majority of students, I assure you, will be middle to upper class white kids. These schools will not be a democratic haven as Ayers sees it. Instead they will create further distinctions and, in fact, bring us farther away from the democracy he yearns for. While they are a multitude of problems with our educational system, it is not my belief that one of these problems is lack of democracy.

  8. avatar Amanda Klay says:

    Call me idealistic, but I could not agree more with your post. The older I get and more life experience I gain, the more I take issue with the American public school system, and overall attitude towards education in general. While I had never thought to dub schools as central figures in the metaphor of “schools as little factories cranking out products,” I think that you are largely correct in your depiction of the direction in which the standard American education appears to be heading.

    I feel privileged to have experienced both ends of the American educational continuum in my life. I attended my local public elementary and middle schools before leaving my school system at the age of thirteen to attend a small private all-girls’ boarding school. I had a wonderful, though very different experience between the three schools, which enabled me to contrast public versus private education from a standpoint of personal experience in each. Though I had an enjoyable experience there, my years in public school could definitely be placed under the umbrella description of the American school system that includes “established schedule[s] and the set fifty-minute periods, the uniform desks all in a row, the exhaustive use of time with no room to breathe and certainly no space to dream or wonder or wander or drift or reflect or imagine.” I was an extremely obedient student who tried hard and complied with the rules set forth by the administration. I therefore found a great amount of success. Where my success became more meaningful and in my control was the boarding school I attended for high school. While the fifty-minute periods continued, the uniform desks were exchanged for round table discussions, the burnt out teachers substituted for some of the most dynamic educators I have ever met, and the stifling environment exchanged for room to try new things, explore new ideas, and set the foundation that inspires me to try and change the world for the better.

    If my high school experience is similar to that which you are describing as the sought after democratic education that creates the sort of social capital we need to seize our moment and our time to make a change in today’s educational system, I concur. I echo your belief that “all children and youth in a democracy, regardless of background or economic circumstance, deserve full access to richly-resourced classrooms led by caring, thoughtful, fully-qualified and generously compensated teachers.” After all, as clichéd as it has become, our children really are our future—they are the future innovators and bright minds that will work tirelessly to solve the problems plaguing citizens on a global level. Furthermore, it is the educators facilitating the important process of education. I cannot fathom how or why professional athletes and other superstars are making six and seven figure salaries, while our teachers are not receiving nearly the sort of compensation they deserve for such crucial and difficult work. However, that is a whole other debate for another day.

  9. avatar Brogan O'Connor says:

    I think that this metaphor that takes the school system and compares it to a factory is a very good representation of how the American school system works to date. Schools here in America are established and then they are taught what has been deemed important by a select group of people. I understand that children need to be taught a certain set of basics of education.That being said, children also do need to be allowed to express who they are and what they would like to learn. To continue to allow this country to remain a democracy and move forward successfully, the youth of this country need to be educated in certain fields that they want to learn and work upon. I fully agree with this article as America needs to take action and not just say what needs to happen. As time continues to tick, more and more children are not taking advantage of education. Drop out rates are high and schools everywhere are continuing to make cuts left and right. With limited help and sources wide varieties of classes are being cut and only those classes which only teach the basics. This is a very dangerous situation for America. If this trend continues and the school systems continue to fail, the youth of this country cannot continue on a legacy of democracy that this country has become to be known for. America like any country depends on the youth that it fosters and teaches. Without the youth, the country would not be able to function in the future. This problem is something that needs to be fixed in the very near future.

  10. avatar Nicole Smalley says:

    Despite seeing myself as an extremely optimistic person, I completely agree with Ayers’ post although I’m not sure I see the light at the end of the tunnel in this argument. My schooling career definitely fit into the mold of the school-as-a-factory metaphor and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Throughout my pre-collegiate educational career, the only was I felt as though I could succeed was if I fit into a certain mold of a successful student. Rubrics on what was expected were handed out with every assignment and the only way to do well on these assignments was to effectively complete every aspect of the rubric and fit inside this mold. I wouldn’t say that creativity wasn’t encouraged, because it was in some areas, but the administration put many constraints on what we could do in order to be successful.

    Those that were commended were only well received because they fit inside the box of success by achieving high standardized test scores and receiving good grades. I feel as though this emphasis on testing in the American schooling system is one of the worst ways that students are not always encouraged to think creatively. In my opinion this issue stems from the emphasis on having kids learn only what they need in order to succeed on these standardized tests. Material is simply taught because it pertains to what students will be tested on and will absolutely need to known. Nothing is taught to open the student’s minds, everything is taught according to the curriculum.

    Schools now are more of a tool to keep kids out of trouble and teach them how to obey rules and stick to guidelines. In my experience, teachers and administrations often times focus more on disciplining students and putting constraints on everything they do as opposed to helping flourish our thoughts on the world. Granted, this wasn’t the case with all of my teachers and administrators, but I saw a pattern in the years of my early education in which each year at every level more and more rules were added and constraints were put on the student body.

    However, now that I’m in a collegiate learning setting, I have found that while rules still apply, subject material is taught in order to enhance our overall knowledge as opposed to simply following the curriculum, those who succeed are the ones who think outside of the box and assert their new ideas as opposed to simply sticking to the rubric, and students are encouraged to influence the way in which the administration works with the student body. This is how I feel all schooling should be at every level and students shouldn’t have to wait until they are finally in college to experience this rewarding kind of education, however I’m not exactly sure how this will happen. With all of the financial issues going on in our country I truly can’t see this complete reshaping of the American educational system to occur anytime soon, but I truly hope that it happens eventually.

  11. avatar Taylor Larosa says:

    In William Ayers’s post called Teaching for Democracy, many strong claims are made against school systems today, stating that there is a huge lack of democracy that is essentially ruining our youth and preventing them to become “fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives.” This theme is something I have to wholeheartedly disagree with for a number of reasons. To begin, Ayers asserts that schools have become “little factories cranking out products.” A factory is a building that manufactures a uniform product, and to claim schools are manufacturing uniform products is just plain mistaken. Schools obviously gradate their classes with students of mass diversity and individuality. Yes, the students are all taught the same thing, but that has nothing to do with who exactly that student becomes. Each student is their own individual, with their own interests, ideas and ambitions. Each student plays a different role in their high school and they can make what they want with what they learn.

    Additional comments by Ayers are doused with similar inaccuracy. For example, Ayers sarcastically claims that “the value of school learning” has been determined by “masters” who obviously “know better than anyone what’s best for the kids and for the world.” This statement is foolish when you look back in the history of America and education. There were countless numbers of scholars (such as John Locke, Tomas Jefferson, Christian von Wolff, Edward Lee Thorndike, who wrote Educational Psychology: The Psychology of Learning, John Dewey, who came out with Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, Lev Vygotsky, who did endless studies and came out with Thought and Language) all who dedicated their lives analyzing human development and learning. Clear and obvious results have accumulated over hundreds of years to bring our education system to where it is now, so to make a claim implying that our education system is based lightly on some (or one) “master’s” idea is totally erroneous.

    Ayers also argues the idea of standardized testing and report cards and says sarcastically, “don’t trust yourself; seek approval from your betters.” Clearly, standardized testing and report cards are used to motivate kids, and are used to try an see how each school and their students are doing so that there can be some type of universal static which everyone will understand. Yes, standardized testing has many flaws, but Ayers is not the only one to see that, considering how many colleges in current America that don’t even ask for SAT scores because of this exact reason.

    I would have to disagree with much of this article and especially when Ayers claims schools are not built to fit children because that is completely false. Schools main dedication is their students. They do everything they can to provide a fun safe and smart environment for them to grow. Schools and especially colleges are meant to suite their students and nothing more.

    Essentially, Ayers in the end of his post describes what he thinks schools should be, and in my eyes he describes flawlessly what schools are. He couldn’t have put it any better for me saying schools are “workshops for discovery and surprise, a laboratory for inquiry and experimentation.”

  12. avatar Taylor Brennan says:

    I could not agree more with Ayers’ criticism of schools as businesses, seeking to drain students and their families of money at every corner. Why is the business successful? Because as Ayers suggests, all parents want the best for their children, and to attain “the best” one needs to graduate from a reputable college. But graduation comes at a high price tag, far out of the reach for many Americans, especially those whose families need to send more than one child to college. If it is not enough that one year of one of the nation’s strongest college will cost more than many Americans make in a year, the process of applying to college is an incredibly costly one. Taking the SATs, sending transcripts, and application fees all cost, and those are just the bare necessities. SAT prep classes, SAT tutors, writing tutors and transportation to college visits can amount to a few thousand. While college applicants do not necessarily need to take an SAT class in order to get into college, the competition for a spot in America’s strongest schools is so tight that they are not willing to risk it. But what about the Americans who cannot afford the SAT practice book, let alone a private tutor? These students are the ones thrown by the wayside, and while their ideas may be as illuminating as the next Harvard graduate, they are deprived of the opportunity to reach such potential.

    The financial cost of the college processes speaks nothing to the emotional cost, on applicants and their families alike. I understand the need for the written application. While it would be ideal for students to be studied in their high school surroundings, ensuring they are on paper who they are in real life, this is unrealistic. But what is the need for excessive standardized testing? A high school GPA is a reflection of a culmination of countless tests and quizzes taken by the students. And it is no longer enough to take the SATs once, most students are pressured to take the SAT two, three, or four times to improve their scores, the better schools in the nation require applicants to send two or three SAT II scores, and college advisors suggest students take the ACT in addition to the SAT, to see which they fair better on. Excessive testing yields excessive pressure on students, already burdened by the need to complete college essays, interviews, and apply for scholarships or financial aid. If it is not belittling enough to be reduced to an application of a few hundred words, the job is surely done when students are reduced to numbers as they receive their SAT scores.

    Ayers’ criticism of the school system is as a business is a valid one though I feel his criticism of the school system is too dramatic in some passages. Ayer condemns schools because their value and use is “elusive and indirect–hence students are asked to accept its unspecified worth on faith that must always be motivated and rewarded externally”. I do not see how any education system can maneuver around the fact that the worth of school does not reveal itself directly to students. As I student I am guilty of wondering, “why do I need to know this?”, “how is it going to help me in the real world?”, while cramming statistics and facts into my brain for various exams. But now I have found the elusive nature of education to be the beauty of it. Looking back on old assignments I am amazed at the development and deepening of my thought process. This is not a testament in any way to my intellect, rather to the teachers and courses I have taken. Of course this is not directly a result of learning the quadratic equation, prominent dates of history, or facts about single-celled organisms. It is a result of what storing this information asked me to do–open my mind to a world I understand so little of. Though I am quick to criticize the college processes for excessive standardized test taking, many tests I have taken in classes have been beneficial, forcing me to think outside the box and out of my comfort zone. I still do not fully appreciate the value of my education, though I trust one day I will, and I am content not seeing it’s worth manifested at my fingertips.

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