“Government Schools” vs. “Public Schools”

Last weekend, the NY Times published an important story by Julie Bosman about the political importance of how we name our institutions: “Kansas has for years been the stage for a messy school funding fight that has shaken the Legislature and reached the State Supreme Court… Somewhere along the way, the term ‘government schools’ entered the lexicon in place of references to the public school system.”

Bosman briefly quotes George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist from the University of California at Berkeley, an expert on the metaphoric thinking that characterizes our politics.  In his book, Moral Politics, Lakoff describes the way savvy communicators frame political issues with language that connotes deep values and morals:  “(M)ost of our thought is unconscious—not unconscious in the Freudian sense of being repressed, but unconscious simply in that we are not aware of it. We think and talk at too fast a rate and at too deep a level to have a conscious awareness and control over everything we think and say. We are even less conscious of the components of thoughts—concepts. When we think, we use an elaborate system of concepts, but we are not usually aware of just what those concepts are like and how they fit together into a system…  (M)etaphorical thought need not be poetic or especially rhetorical. It is normal, everyday thought. Not every common concept is metaphorical, but a surprising number are.” Moral Politics, (pp. 4-5).

To define the connotation of “government schools,” Bosman quotes John Locke, a linguist at the City University of New York, who worries that the term “government schools” is austere: “It has an oppressive ring to it.  It sounds rigid, the opposite of open or friendly or charming or congenial. The people who use that term are hoping those words will come to mind.”

Actually, I believe that in the context of today’s battle over school reform and privatization, the term “government schools” evokes far more than concerns about rigid and austere schools.  The term “government schools” works as a metaphor for a very different political frame.

As a pejorative, “government schools” immediately evokes the ideal opposite to which it contrasts: privatized charter schools—free of regulation, and vouchers that privilege the  private institution of the family over the calcified “government schools” that impose on the individual freedom and choice of parents. Those who disparage “government schools” are rejecting the twentieth century public school—paralyzed, as they see it, by bureaucracy, resistant to disruptive change and innovation.  “Government schools” lack the efficiency of schools kept accountable through marketplace competition, where individuals are free to choose, free to thrive, free to race to the top. And, especially in Kansas where there is a long-running school funding battle, “government schools” are known to impose a very heavy tax burden.

“Public schools,” on the other hand,  connotes democratic governance, public funding, universal accessibility, and accountability to the public. The term, “public schools” evokes  the ideals of equal opportunity, equal access, and protection, through democratic oversight, of students and tax dollars. Public schools that operate on a huge scale, constituting a universal system that pulls our society together, are comprehensive—intended to serve all children and protect their rights. Public schools are democratic institutions; citizens are expected to provide ongoing oversight and demand corrections by law.  And citizens are expected to pay taxes as a civic responsibility. Public schools privilege the public—the common good—as well as seeking to educate every individual child. Historically, public schools have been understood as a centerpiece of the social contract. “Public schools” as a term is a metaphor for public obligation and public responsibility.

For the cognitive linguist, George Lakoff, the term “government school” would connote a particular individualist definition of the model citizen: “(M)odel citizens…. are those (1) who have conservative values and act to support them; (2) who are self-disciplined and self-reliant; (3) who uphold the morality of reward and punishment; (4) who work to protect moral citizens; and (5) who act in support of the moral order.  Those who best fit all these categories are successful, wealthy, law-abiding conservative businessmen who support a strong military and a strict criminal justice system, who are against government regulation, and who are against affirmative action… They are the people whom all Americans should emulate and from whom we have nothing to fear.  They deserve to be rewarded and respected.  These model citizens fit an elaborate mythology.  They have succeeded through hard work, have earned whatever they have through their own self-discipline, and deserve to keep what they have earned.  Through their success and wealth they create jobs, which they ‘give’ to other citizens.  Simply by investing their money to maximize their earnings, they become philanthropists who ‘give’ jobs to others and thereby ‘create wealth’ for others.  Part of the myth is that these model citizens have been given nothing by the government and have made it on their own.” (Moral Politics, pp 169-170)

According to today’s school reformers, “privatized schools” are the ideal opposite of “government schools.” But for many of us, traditional public schools remain the best institution to serve our society.  Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, castigates the “government school” frame: “It is the peculiar toxicity of privatization ideology that it rationalizes corrosive private choosing as a surrogate for the public good… It associates the privileged market sector with liberty as private choice while it condemns democratic government as coercive… Privatization ideology today encourages us to believe that the market is not only efficient and flexible but can somehow turn its regressive impulses to the service of what is left of the idea of the public good… Privatization is a kind of reverse social contract: it dissolves the bonds that tie us together into free communities and democratic republics.  It puts us back in the state of nature where we possess a natural right to get whatever we can on our own, but at the same time lose any real ability to secure that to which we have a right…  Public choices rest on civic rights and common responsibilities and presume equal rights for all.” (Consumed, pp. 143-144)

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2 thoughts on ““Government Schools” vs. “Public Schools”

  1. Jan, this is excellent and certainly timely. I don’t see how the term “government” as applied to schools can escape the political implications of that word. (Schools in the hands of those who govern.) In the educational context the term is pernicious, especially in the current climate, which tends to disparage “politics” out of hand. The term “public schools” is one we ought to cherish and struggle to maintain. It is a reminder that these schools, with all their shortcomings, are a treasure and a public trust. They “belong” not just to the “patrons” (i.e., students and their parents) but to all citizens (since society at large has a vital stake in their effectiveness). Of course “private schools” are something quite different from this–especially, but not exclusively, those that are operated for profit. But “private and public” is certainly a more useful and accurate oppositional pair than “private vs. government.”

    Do Kansans, I wonder, refer to their high school football teams as “government teams”?

  2. Pingback: “Government Schools” vs. “Public Schools” – Ministry of Public Witness

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