Arthur Camins is the director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology, but Camins is a humanist, not a technocrat. In a new piece at Huffington Post, Camins explains that what’s gone wrong with our thinking about public education is at the level of our deepest values: “The anthem of the civil rights movement was not, I will get ahead, but We Shall Overcome. The vehicle for ‘bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice’ was not winning competitions with neighbors or winning a competition with fellow workers for merit bonuses, but rather walking hand-in-hand. Maybe the most important historical lesson is that only mass collective action guided by a moral vision will pressure elected leaders to prioritize the interest of the many over the selfish demands of the few.”
How does all this apply to public education policy? “(A)dvocacy for charter schools and vouchers is framed as the personal right to choose a school.” “In contrast to the collective spirit of previous social and economic justice efforts, the core value of current education reform policies is individual advancement. In fact, its advocates seek to undermine collective action, democracy and community responsibility. They explicitly accept the notion of improvement for the few at the expense of the many. This value is reflected in the idea that parents should secure their children’s future by competing for a slot in a charter school. It is evident in the idea that teachers will work harder and smarter when they compete to achieve better student scores than their colleagues in order to receive a financial reward.” A policy that aims to help a relative few children compete to escape cannot possibly improve the schools that serve the mass of children who are left in what competition has made into big city school districts of last resort for the children who have not won the lottery.
Camins’ thinking is in the tradition of the kind of philosophy that has guided the development of public education for over two centuries. Consider his words in the context of these other education thinkers:
From the political philosopher Benjamin Barber: “(T)he object of public schools is not to credential the educated but to educate the uncredentialed; that is, to change and transform pupils, not merely to exploit their strengths. The challenge in a democracy is to transform every child into an apt pupil, and give every pupil the chance to become an autonomous, thinking person and a deliberative, self-governing citizen: that is to say, to achieve excellence… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Learning begins at birth, and much of it takes place at home or in the marketplace, in the streets or in front of the television. Yet, what happens in these venues is largely a private matter… That makes formal schooling, however inadequate, our sole public resource: the only place where, as a collective, self-conscious public pursuing common goals, we try to shape our children to live in a democratic world. Can we afford to privatize the only public institutions we possess?” (Benjamin Barber, An Aristocracy of Everyone, 1992, pp 12-15)
From philosopher of education, Walter Feinberg: “(T)he common school must be involved in teaching students both to speak from the knowledge that their cultural identity provides and, as audience, to hear the voices of others… It is within and across this medley of difference that the common school continues the dialogue begun during the American Revolution about the nature of national unity and the character of national identity.” (Walter Feinberg, Common Schools/Uncommon Identities: National Unity and Cultural Difference, 1998, p. 245)
From Mike Rose, UCLA professor of education: “There have been times in our history when the idea of ‘the public’ has been invested with great agency and hope. Such is not the case now. An entire generation has come of age amid disillusionment with public institutions and public life, disillusionment born of high-profile government scandal and institutional inefficiency, but, even more, from a skillful advocacy by conservative policy makers and pundits of the broad virtues of free markets and individual enterprise… Our reigning orthodoxy on the public sphere…. downplays, often dismisses, the many ways that markets need to be modified to protect common people and the common good against market excesses—for markets are relentlessly opportunistic and dollar driven… We have to do better than this. We have to develop a revitalized sense of public life and public education.” (Why School? 2014 Revised and Expanded Edition, pp. 204-206)
From education historian David Tyack, “But wait. Is education primarily a consumer good or a common good?… If Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, and John Dewey were now to enter policy discussions on public education, they might well ask if Americans have lost their way. Democracy is about making wise collective choices, not individual consumer choices. Democracy in education and education in democracy are not quaint legacies from a distant and happier time. They have never been more essential to wise self rule than they are today.” (David Tyack, “Introduction,” School: The Story of American Public Education, 2001, p. 8)
Arthur Camins believes our public education thinking these days derives from what he calls “the audacity of small hopes”: “In the shadow of the Great Recession and after several decades of increasing wealth disparity in the United States, the politically and financially powerful have the audacity to call upon the nation to accept small dreams. Nowhere is this more evident than in the pathetically small hope that consequential testing and competition—among parents for entry into charter schools, among schools for students, and among teachers for (bonus) pay increases—can lead to substantial education improvement and be a solution to poverty… We can be better than the audacity of small hopes. The next anthem for equity needs to include the unifying theme: We’re in this together for jobs, justice, and equitable education.”