Lower than expected student performance on several state, national and international assessments might lead one to think that our children are intellectually inadequate and our teachers inept. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our problem is a fundamental confusion about whether students should be treated as consumers or producers. This confusion has had destructive effects on our students' academic achievement levels, our children's general well-being, and the reputation of our schools.
Over the last fifty years a fundamental change has taken place in our concept of a student and the requirements of a good education. Before World War II, U. S. citizens could reasonably be described as people who valued producing goods, services, and community infrastructure, while saving as much of their wealth as possible for the next generation. Education was regarded, perhaps above all else, as a means of self-improvement-something valuable inside of you that no one could take away, that would serve you and your community. You were sent to school to learn to read and write so that you might learn civility, discipline, the love of learning and a sense of community.
Instinctively, our parents and grandparents understood the dynamic relationships among education, personal power, and the health of the community. They seemed to have a perspective of time that allowed for delayed personal gratification and a desire to build, over the long run, a better educated family, a better and more beautiful home, and a better community-all, of course, within the limited ethical context of that time.
We began to move away from those attitudes after World War II. At first, the "American Dream" was affordable and it seemed that as the only player in the global market we could have it all-a home in the bucolic, quiet suburbs, two cars, and so forth, all on a single income. But, as time went by and as the fulfillment of the Dream required more and more goods and services, and as the global markets became more and more dominant in our own economy, our ability to pay for the "Dream" decreased. Wealth creation and distribution patterns began to change, and soon we found ourselves in a squeeze that made it clear to most of us that if we wanted to keep up with the expectations fueled by the postwar boom period of the 1950s and 1960s, which we did, we would need to have at least two incomes in the family.
Emotionally, we believed that we were entitled to have it all, regardless of the price or cost to ourselves and our communities, and regardless of the new economic rules by which the world was now playing. It was our birthright to have. We didn't think as much about our obligations to be or to know. We had to keep up with our material expectations, even if those expectations were from the past and the pathway to them had changed. And so we became a nation of consumers and spenders.
With the present exception of a rapid increase in our rate of savings for retirement, which is a healthy trend, our driving economic and political attitude is still based on the notion that we should spend whatever it takes to achieve our expectations because we are entitled to the "Dream." This behavior is affirmed in the media, through our government, and by the way we handle our private economic affairs. A personal "live for today" credo that denies our obligations to community and to history, however, carries with it two spiritual dangers. One is a lack of hope in the future, and the second is a fear of and a fear for our children.
We have taken the shallow credo of consumerism, and its inherent shortcomings, and superimposed it on the school system. We now advance the absurd idea that education is a good to be consumed. We no longer treat our children as disciples of a set of cultural beliefs who gain basic literacy through interactions with the structure of formal schooling, but rather as customers who are there to be attracted to the next fad presented in the right package.
The fundamental problem with the paradigm of student as customer is that, by definition, the role of "customer" implies judicious choice and assessed need. Our students are not capable of exercising these judgments, and our cultural beliefs and basic literacies are not products. The product here is not the easily gained attraction consumed without work; the product here is the result of work on the part of the student to become educated. The student is a producer, not a passive consumer. This wrongful consumer simile, this fear, and this lack of hope have, over the years, worked against teachers as they have seen student motivation decline more and more with each attempt to treat students as consumers.
As extrinsic motivational "ads" targeted students-"stay in school and earn more money"-"you have a right to read"-"you can buy a better education in that private school or that magnet schooquot;-they saw school as something to get through, and as something that owed them information, skills, and training for employment. The idea that one must work to become literate, that one must produce to be knowledgeable, has all but disappeared. We are now left with the intellectually atrophying notion planted in students' minds that schools exist to do something to or for them. Students no longer see themselves as lead actors in the process and drama of education. If students learn anything, it is nice, but not necessary. What is necessary is to pass on, get a diploma, and get a job. The principle that learning is intrinsically valuable has become foreign to pupils and, perhaps, to the general public as well.
The notion that work is necessary to become educated, that knowledge is produced by students, and that learning, if it is to reflect moral precepts, must take place within a just community are all things that we know, and know well. It is time, however, that we address these issues and reclaim a concept of education more consistent with the values of our democratic republic and the kind of education needed to sustain and enrich us within a state of civilization. Again, first and foremost, we must understand our recent history and stop thinking of our students as just another group of consumers or clients, as this corrupts the core elements of education. They do not buy anything from teachers.
If we insist on using the marketplace metaphor to describe the process of schooling, then we must apply it with respect to the true model and get the roles right. The true client is the community. The client is the family who lives down the street and has no children. (For example, in the Twin Cities area of St. Paul and Minneapolis, about 72% of the households fit this category.) But this same family has a deep concern that even with all of the taxes that it pays, we still seem to have far too many youths who have little respect for the qualities of civility, self-discipline, love of learning, and love of community.
Learning does not belong to the students until they earn it through work that makes things of value and importance in cooperation with other students and citizens. Thus, they earn an education by being producers. They produce their own understanding within the learning community and they care for that community in all the ways that they can. They make and sustain the community's ethical and aesthetic integrity by performing civic work as they create knowledge that they, as well as others, can use. In this regard, for example, it makes little sense to study the ravages of the rain forest in South America and continue to litter the hallways in your own school. It takes all kinds of work in order to learn, and the sooner the students learn that the better. Think of all the power and wealth that a school can generate when students are not takers of resources, information, information, and energy, but are creators of energy, resources, and knowledge. Our wealth is fundamentally a question of what we can be, do, and know... not what we have. Having material things must be a result or by-product of the qualities or virtues of being, knowing, and doing. If this is not the case, things will be without meaning and life will be shallow and meaningless as well.
As long as we continue to think of our students as consumers and clients, we will corrupt them and keep them from scholarship and citizenship. And their abilities and test scores will never be "good" enough for the world that they will inherit. This begs the fundamental question: What is a student? A student is one interested in knowing, just because he or she understands that there is so much to learn. A student is one who asks, "Do I get to study that?" A true student would never say, "Do I have to study that?" A student is also one who is capable of practicing such intellectual virtues as civility, reflection, clarity, responsibility, patience, and thoroughness. These are the qualities that define the good citizen, the good worker, the good parent, the good scholar, and the kind of individuals who would blow the tops off any test that you care to give them. n
Michael Hartoonian was President of National Council for the Social Studies from 1995-1996. He teaches in the Colleges of Education and Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota.