Competition in Schools Has Corrupted Our Civic Capacities
Congress is in chaos. It is barely news given how many times we have been told to brace for a government shut down. The House, speakerless for weeks now, has given the problem another dimension, and it is easier to see some of the social underpinnings of the crisis. It is time we began to understand the apparent lack of capacity in our elected leaders as an outcome of how we educate our young people.
Over the last few years, I’ve been studying for a PhD in Public Policy, a later in life career twist, as I am 53. I chose this path after a career in teaching and school leadership because I wanted to change the context in which my students were learning. I wanted to change not only the rules of the game: I wanted to change the purpose.
The stated purpose of the U.S. Department of Education highlights preparing students to compete in a global economy, not to collaborate across differences for a functioning government. This may make sense on the surface: Most students will never serve in a formal civic capacity, but all need to feed themselves. However, by defining the purpose of our education system based on principles of the market economy instead of on principles of the civil sphere, we have created a culture in which it makes no sense for individuals to feel successful when they collaborate, or heaven forbid, compromise.
In every aspect of schooling, students are taught to compete to win. A little “turn and talk” is fine, but when it comes to measuring success, each of us is on our own. and High schoolers aren’t graded on the quality of their solutions to common problems or their consideration of the greater good. Students earn scholarships when they win debates, not lead coalitions. Teaming up with collaborators with different skill sets to nail the SAT is verboten. And none of us in public life are judged successful when we change our minds because we listened deeply to someone else’s point of view, least of all political leaders, no matter their age.
What are students competing for, exactly? And how do we keep them committed to the training regime day after day, year after year? It is simple: There are a very limited number of seats in programs that launch students to careers that can sustain them financially — from career and technical education programs to elite universities. To be clear, we can not dismiss this as a problem for poor rich kids who are waitlisted at Yale. My recent research has shown that even trades certification programs that once served students who were academically “disinclined” now screen by grade point average, and many programs have long waitlists. Every one of our students experiences school as a race that you run to win — on your own, for your own survival.
In that zero sum game competition, what are students learning? Are they learning to find their own purpose, their voice, what they can contribute to their community? Are they learning to listen to their teachers and fellow students to understand the context of their evolving voice and the needs of others? Are they learning that they are one element of an infinitely complex web of connections that sustains life on earth? Are they learning to love themselves, each other, and the planet? None of the above. They are learning to win at all costs, and it seems the costs are becoming too much to bear.
While we certainly need a strong economy, and competition is the mechanism by which much of the world relates to each other economically, competition has no place in education. When it does, the result is that adults don’t have the skills, or even the desire, to find and implement useful solutions to problems their communities face. It is no wonder that so many of our congressional representatives show little interest in working together with anyone, even those in their own party. They have been training their whole lives to serve a different purpose.
Let’s imagine then a different purpose for school. What if school were for developing the capacities to thrive personally, civically and economically? We don’t want to ignore economic needs, but emphasizing personal and civic thriving along with economics creates a holistic picture of what it means to be successful.
How would our schools need to be designed for this new holistic purpose? There are a plethora of possibilities and many needs to consider. At the core, however, school needs to be designed to prioritize connection. Humans need connection to thrive — to know and understand themselves, to feel they matter to their community, and to somehow feel that they are a part of something bigger than our everyday lives, something eternal that can survive even a pandemic, whether that is God, nature, or something else.
If our schools prioritized teaching students what it means to be connected to themselves, their communities, and the natural world, and to have a strong sense for the purpose and dignity of participation in democracy, our political leaders would have what they needed to succeed. They would have confidence in their own convictions and the care and respect for the convictions of others, a feeling for the true needs of their community and the interconnectedness of all things, and the commitment to enacting deliberative and participatory democracy. They would also have the support of constituents, educated in the same public schools, who hold those same values.
Democracy was never meant by the Founders to be efficient. The United States may have been founded, essentially, by businessmen, but they knew that democracy would be messy in order for it to function well, in a system of many checks and balances. Current events would indicate, however, that we have pushed past messy and entered the realm of dysfunction. Let’s find solutions at the root of the problem; let’s find new purpose in a system of education and design it for democracy.