“Give me a child until he is 7 and I will show you the man.” So said Aristotle and likewise a number of others such as St. Francis Xavier to whom the quotation is sometimes attributed. Even Adolf Hitler took credit for this quotation and recently an American billionaire speaking about the importance of early childhood education. Aristotle lives as his thoughts are being cribbed more than 2000 years later. To paraphrase another famous quote – a great phrase has a thousand authors and that’s because Aristotle’s statement rings true to this day, the proof of this pudding is the eagerness to destroy and privatize public education especially as seen in billionaires from Rupert Murdoch to Bill Gates, and right-wing politicians.
It is inarguable that to be fully functioning responsible members of any society children must be properly educated, a process that is thousands of years old because it is indisputably vital to the community interest. Consequently, in our times, we must beware of the politicization of the public discourse aimed at disparaging public schools and public school educators. How can authentic education happen when it is reduced to ingestion, regurgitation, and controlled performance not unlike the training of seals? We must ask how can an educative process take place when children’s noses are pressed against computer screens informing only themselves in a controlled, circumscribed, and contrived personal world and not always in a classroom with other children? We must also ask: What is the purpose of this recent interest in public education by people and groups that have no training and no expertise in the field? Can it be simply that Rupert Murdoch sees K through 12 education as a “$500 billion sector in the US alone” that is his for the taking with the help of ambitious politicians? Yes, it could be about money but profit is neither a humane nor a socially constructive motive. I believe childhood education must be more than that; a civil society depends on it.
If you wanted to control any society where would you start? With the health and welfare of the general public perhaps? Or maybe civil courts where well-paid insurance company lawyers beat back attempts to hold culpable parties responsible? How about ubiquitous universal surveillance of your activities, phone calls, and internet browsing? Controlling the public narrative is especially effective and important because so many people don’t look beyond what they see and hear in the media or the circumstances of their own lives; they often don’t look beyond information that confirms their beliefs or feeds their fears.
If you are in it for the long game wouldn’t public education be the best place to start your agenda? And what would the “long game” be about? I believe the long game is about social control. Historically, while propaganda has been one of the central tactics used to create and maintain social control so too has childhood education. An often used tactic today is funding charter schools and taking money from traditional public schools. Couple this with a continual disparagement of public school educators who work long hours with pay that falls far short of their education and dedication who are replaced in many of the new schools with cheaper to hire staff who in many cases are not trained as teachers. In some states educational management organizations (EMOs) are running 30% of all charter schools and of those 16% are for-profit operations. There are also “virtual” charter schools where instruction is provided at home over the internet further distancing children from the socializing aspects of public schools.
The foundational conception of public education is neither capitalism or socialism, it is not about Republicans or Democrats, and it has never been, before now, about profit. Public education has always been about the development of each child as an individual to the fullest extent of their abilities for the ultimate benefit of society. Public schools are about Community, about Democracy, about civility. The antithesis of self-centeredness is Community and Community means all of us working together, learning and teaching, not grasping whatever can be at whatever cost to others, oblivious to an inclusive social contract. Public education is where children learn and practice these values.
The proper focus of authentic education is not ingestion and disgorgement of information like trained seals clapping their flippers on command but a process of development that leads to critical thinking and life-long learning skills. Information can readily be absorbed when that information is relevant to human purpose and life as it is lived. I have been writing about this question for a long time, I taught about it for several years at one of the world’s great universities and it worries me to see politicians and non-educators controlling children’s lives as a form of self-promotion, as profit centers. It is well worth repeating now: it is what Aristotle was telling us so many centuries ago.