What Is School For?
At the start of September, the New York Times asked some important thinkers the question, “What is school for?”
The eight different writers answered in eight different ways, which shouldn’t be surprising because it seems as though there isn’t necessarily broad agreement about the answer to the question.
Education reporter Anya Kamenetz answered, “School Is for Everyone,” writing an essay that outlines the vision of Horace Mann, the nation’s first secretary of education and the person who believed the school and schooling should be accessible to everyone, regardless of class or background.
John Friedman, a Brown University economist argued that school should be oriented around “social mobility,” arguing that school is a route out of poverty. The current evidence is unconvincing on this front, which is why Friedman advocates for increasing funding to schools that serve low-income students.
Asra Nomani says that school is for “merit,” sharing her story of hard work and sacrifice as a first-generation immigrant who used excelling in school as a springboard to a prestigious and prosperous career. She is concerned that the concept of merit is under attack.
Most of the pieces make arguments I generally agree with, or at least understand, but one theme that kept recurring began to bug me, and I think belies some broader attitudes about what school is for that undermine the ultimate effectiveness of school.
Just about every essay framed school as something that would deliver some kind of positive future benefit. The reason to go to school is because it will pay off someday in terms of economic prospects, or being an informed citizen, or having an appreciation of nature.
This views the result of school as a product, an outcome. I would rather we look at school as a process, an ongoing experience. For that reason, my answer to the question “What is school for?” is:
To be engaged.
Surveys show that pre-pandemic we had something of an “engagement crisis” with fewer than 50% of students saying they were engaged in school and nearly one-quarter saying they were actively disengaged. Engagement declines with each successive year of schooling. This problem has been significantly exacerbated by the disruption of the Covid pandemic.
By framing school as something that will only have benefit in an indefinite future, we ignore the importance of living in the present. As I say in my book Why They Can’t Write, “Life is to be lived, including the years between 5 and 22 years old. A world that suggests those years are merely preparation for the real stuff, and the real stuff is almost entirely defined by your college and/or career, is an awfully impoverished place.”
If we first think of school as a place for students to be engaged, lots of other parts of the equation will fall into place. Engaged students will find reading necessary and fascinating. Engaged students will want to learn what they need to know to become informed citizens.
We’ll also take care of any problems with “wasting time,” though wasting a little time is also part of life, is it not?
I look around and see lots of students who are eager to be engaged. Sometimes they have to take matters into their own hands, like a group of students in Texas who have formed their own book club to read and highlight books that have been banned in their districts.
Or consider Idaho high school senior Shiva Rajbhandari, who ran for school board and won because he and his classmates had been trying and failing to get their school to adopt a climate policy.
My experience working with young people who are learning to write is that they are beyond ready to express themselves to the world, but they often feel like school is not the place to practice such a thing.
This is a shame, really.
It can get a little uncomfortable when we provide students the kind of power and agency that leads to engagement. Sometimes they may even disagree about what school is for.
But the sooner they have to start wrestling with these complexities as active participants along with parents, teachers, administrators and the rest of the community, rather than having a hodge-podge of visions imposed from above by adults, the better.