As another school year rolls around, the debate over the failure of American education will continue. For the most part, the debate has laid this failure upon the shoulders of the teachers, whose incompetency, poor pay and lack of dedication are pointed to as the basic reasons that our schools still flounder in spite of the money and energy that are poured into them. The premise of all these discussions is that teaching is a one- dimensional process involving only the teacher, not the students and their parents as well. This myopic view stems from the philosophy Americans hold about teaching and their schools. And any further discussion about our schools that fails to take into account student and parent failures will be nonproductive.
Americans have always expected too much of their public schools. Conveniently, they have forgotten that the school ranks third behind the family and the church as a socializing institution. The primary function of schools is to educate, not to change society. Teachers have no control over the way society shapes the students who come to them. If students arrive with a willingness to learn, they will; if they come to play, little will be accomplished. If parents see the school only as a convenient baby-sitting operation -- as too many do -- then they will neglect their obligation to oversee their children's progress, and schools will maintain their pres level of mediocrity.
Americans view their schools as islands untouched by the society around them. There is, in much of the recent criticism, an implication that the schools are the cause of the convoluted state in which American society finds itself. How else to explain the repeated efforts that righteous legislators, religious leaders and even the president are making to restore prayer to the public schools? The premise of this effort, and of the thinking of our most vocal critics of the schools, is that if we can restore our schools to their former pristine glory, then our society also will return to the halcyon days of yesteryear.
In the attempt to find a scapegoat for society's failures, we have opted once again to seize on the schools as the culprit. American society refuses to see the ugliness that exists in our schools as a reflection of the ugliness that exists in society. If there is violence in our schools, it stems from the excessive violence that pervades society. And if there is apathy in our schools, it is because we as a society have enshrined mediocrity as a virtue.
Coupled with the myth that schools shape society -- not vice versa -- is an erroneous perception about the nature of education. This view has led to placing an inordinate amount of responsibility on the teachers while ascribing little responsibility to the students themselves and their parents. It is but a further example of how our schools reflect society. Criminals shout about their rights, but ignore their responsibilities to those they have robbed; TV and newspapers point out their right to a free press, but speak very lightly about their responsibility toward society; professional athletes mouth their right to a fair wage, but ignore their responsibility to the fans who provide the money. Except for natural rights such as the right to life and the right to a decent living, which do not put an obligation on the person on whom the right is bestowed, every other right implies an obligation or duty.
Of course, students have a right to a good education, but they also have the duty of contributing to the conditions necessary for that good education to occur; certainly, parents have the right to assume that their children will be well educated, but they, too, have the duty of seeing that their children go to classes regularly and of monitoring their children's progress.
The Merit Scholars that our schools turn out each year are testimony to the fact that the teaching is there if students want to learn. But for too many students today, the refusal to accept their responsibility in the educational procdary schools into nothing more than a place to socialize. Unfortunately, for many students school is merely a place to meet their friends and keep warm.
Parents are an integral part of education, but they also suffer from the same kind of "me" syndrome. They want discipline in the schools, but they don't want their son or daughter disciplined. They want their child to be taught well, but they take the child out of school for any reason whatever: vacations, beauty pageants, baby-sitting, shopping. They want their child in honors sections, but complain loudly when honors work is demanded. And they certify sickness when their child misses school because he or she was up late watching TV. There are far too many students and parents who believe that the school week consists of only four days. Seeing to it that kids are in school so they can be taught is the parents' responsibility -- not the schools', not the teachers'. Only when students and parents see education as a three-dimensional effort will our nation's public schools improve.
Criticizing schools and teachers is not a new American phenomenon. An early colonial periodical advertised that a ship had just arrived in Baltimore and among its products for sale were "various Irish commodities, among which are beef, pork, potatoes and school masters."
Things have not changed much.