In the September 16 issue of The New Republic Elizabeth Weil has a provocative article, “In Defense of the Wild Child” about the emphasis on self-regulation for kids in schools. It’s quite worth reading – but not because this is a new issue. The question of how much youth adults should allow the young has been discussed, debated, and recorded since the Greeks – and probably long before. Rousseau wrote a whole book about it, Locke had plenty to say, and Americans from Jefferson to Twain to current education writers have views on what is at its core a genuine tension of both values and educational practice. Weil instead grafts today’s debate about students’ emotional learning onto the current context of school reform. The result is an awkwardly time-bound article about a wide-ranging issue. She, for example, says the motto of the school reform movement is “No Excuses.” I was unaware there was a motto, and if there is that surely wouldn’t be it. Besides,the “no excuses” ethos is more about the adults who serve students than it is about the students themselves. There are, however, schools (including “no excuses” schools) seeking to wrap academic and social structure around students in some formalized ways. Dubbed the “new paternalism,” David Whitman and Paul Tough have chronicled those efforts.
Those schools disproportionally serve low-income students and that raises two interrelated issues about social class and education: Are we perpetuating class-stratified schools, albeit better performing ones, under a different banner? And, somewhat conversely, how much do lower-income students need something dramatically different than other students given what we know about social capital, out-of-school supports, and knowledge? Those are not easy questions – and almost impossible to discuss in the current hothouse education conversation where arguments turn on accusations about motive much more than they do on facts, context, or what’s actually being discussed. Here it’s hard to miss the upper-middle class sensibility of Weil’s take.
Only in the penultimate paragraph does she forthrightly turn the lens on parents rather than the schools. That’s where the action is, it seems to me. My own bugaboo on this issue is that young people don’t spend enough time outside – which is one place kids can genuinely be kids in addition to learning about the world around them. But programs to do that – especially ones with more perceived risk, for instance Outward Bound or summer programs offering kids backcountry adventure – are struggling these days. The reason is not budget cuts, reform, or liability issues. It’s parents. They’re not choosing these experiences for their kids anymore. It’s obviously a larger issue than just that piece of it but the trend is illustrative: Don’t blame the schools for responding to some clear signals from parents.
So for the schools’ part here, parents want and kids need different things. Are we really going to settle a long-running argument about how to educate – in every sense of that word – young people through one school model or another or through some basket of programs? That’s perhaps the most compelling argument for allowing parents more choices for their kids within our system of public education. The parents who want Montessori might look with suspicion at the parents who want Core Knowledge but they have a shared interest in ensuring a public system that is dynamic enough to accommodate both within some framework of accountability and quality. And for the poor, why shouldn’t they enjoy the same range of choice as the affluent, not just a choice between a public system failing them and different option or two? If you want to talk about excuses, the laundry list of why we shouldn’t or can’t do that is as long as it is unconvincing.