June 14, 2024

The role and goal of education | Ron Colone | Local news

Listening to arguments about what can and can’t be taught in public grade schools brought me back to a moment from my junior high school social studies class.

We were talking about the riots that ravaged our city five years earlier, when over the course of five hot summer days, 1,600 buildings were burned, 1,700 stores looted, 43 people killed, and 5,000 more were left homeless.

At the time, the population of the city was close to 2 million people, more than 40% of whom were African American, yet there were only 50 Black cops on the police force, and of the 400 officers in the Fire Department, only three were Black.

We had a kid in our class whose dad was a fireman, so of course his perspective on it was informed by his father’s job experiences, which included having bottles and rocks thrown at him by rioters while he tried to put out the fires. Others had their hoses cut, and some were even shot at. So in the mind of my classmate, it was the people in those “inner city” neighborhoods (i.e., “the Blacks,”) that were to blame — and, boy, did he spit it out with venom.

This gave the teacher an opportunity to talk about the various causes that led to the riots, which may have included poverty, unemployment, racism, policy brutality and a general lack of opportunity.

I recall this day in class so very clearly, and remember that it really got me thinking. It didn’t make me feel ashamed or guilty, for I knew I hadn’t done anything to feel ashamed or guilty about, at least as far as those things went. It did, however, help me empathize with people, especially people who regularly and routinely seem to always get the short end of the stick through no fault of their own.

If you ask me, getting a kid to think and feel empathy is an incredibly positive and powerful consequence of a classroom discussion. Yet today, there are people who would oppose and are trying to prevent that same kind of conversation from happening, which raises the question as to what the purpose of public education should be.

On one end of the spectrum is the idea that school is a training ground to give kids the basic skills and information they need to go out and get a job and make money; what they used to call “The Three R’s,” which has now evolved into STEM education. On the other end, there is a belief that school should also be about developing a moral compass, learning what it means to be a good person and a good citizen, discovering what you’re passionate about and helping you reach your potential (to which opponents might say, “that’s the parents’ job, thank you very much.”)

In recalling this incident from a day so very long ago, I see it as a crucial moment in the development of my own set of problem-solving skills as it prompted me to consider and maybe even look a little deeper at cause-and-effect relationships. It wouldn’t have happened, at least not then, were it not for open discussion that took us beyond the pages of a textbook that had yet to catch up with a world we were living in.

If all we look at is the obvious and immediate then we’re likely to miss the “root” causes of our problems and predicaments, i.e. blaming high winds for something that is more accurately the result of poor root structure.

As we continue to debate the role and the goal(s) of public education, I am reminded of so many various historical attempts to suppress knowledge, discovery and inquiry, which dot our past like burial markers scattered across graveyards, while the spirit of curiosity and learning lives on.

Our understanding, awareness, knowledge and wisdom are like a stream that continues to flow around the impediments that would block its course.