[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Yesterday was the final day of the school year at Peterson Elementary School, the public school which three of our four daughters have attended. It is less than a mile from our home here on the west side of Wichita, KS; we chose our house in part because we wanted our children to be able to walk or ride their bikes to school (a longstanding preoccupation of mine), which is what they’ve done for the past seven years. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise (that would be Cowskin Creek in our case–and actually it has flooded on a couple of occasions, but Peterson has remained safe), our youngest two daughters will have another three years of benefiting from being part of the Peterson Tiger family, one which we’ve come to identify with to a far greater extent than either my wife or I probably ever would have guessed when we moved here. My wife, in particular, has frequently volunteered at the school, working with various teachers as well as their librarians (particular given her passion for children’s, middle-grade, and young adult literature and her employment at Wichita’s premier local independent bookstore, that was probably inevitable), but we’ve been part of parades and fund-raisers, have worked alongside many other parents and volunteers, and have gotten to know some teachers (like Mrs. Harman above on the left, or Mrs. Turner on the right) pretty well, as they have gotten to know our children–by name, by need, and by personality, despite having 20-30 other children to focus on as well, and despite having done so again and again for different patches of children for years. I spent some time at the school yesterday, talking to folks and snapping pics of my daughters as they delighted in the last-day-of-school fun, and I came away feeling impressed and happy–which, to tell the truth, is my usual feeling about the place.

It is easy, of course, to dismiss or mock or even outright attack the public schooling ideal, or even if one accepts the ideal to criticize it in practice. Seeing as how most of my brothers and sisters and their spouses have chosen to home-school their children or send them to private schools, I’m pretty familiar with their arguments: less bureaucracy, more personal attention, fewer discipline problems, higher standards, more explicit moral or religious content, etc., etc. All of those arguments hold water (often enough, anyway). But they’ve never changed my or my wife’s minds; for all my own conflicted feelings, I remain very much a defender of the democratic principle of empowering local and state governments to fund and provide a common education for all. As a citizen, I obviously have my own views about how those schools and their curricula ought to be constructed, administered, and paid for, and sometimes those views are highly critical of what I see those in charge of the sprawling, multi-level, multi-faceted, often confusing, sometimes frustrating organization that goes by the name “Wichita Public Schools” doing. But the civic and egalitarian goods that the public schools provide make it worth it to me. Well, that, and the fact that the people who have taught our children really have by and large, provided them with something valuable, something that you might even call loving. Social skills, learning to work with and make friends with others, negotiating the diversity of expectations and interests which arise during every recess (which students still have in Wichita, thank goodness!) and every shared assignment in the classroom–these are sort of things which the disciplined, fun-loving, open-minded women (and they have overwhelmingly been women) who have taught my daughters have given them, and at the heart of those lessons is not just cognitive skill, but also ethics, citizenship, even a sort of charity. Am I saying that children educated outside of the public schools couldn’t learn those things? Not at all. I’m just saying that they have gained those things from our public schools, from Peterson Elementary in particular, and that itself is an argument in defense of the public schooling ideal.

I’ve spoken of family, love, charity, locality: does that always obtain in every public school? Obviously not. (It doesn’t always obtain in every parochial or private school or home-schooling co-op or family either, as if that even needs to be said.) And it could very well be the case that, someday or somehow, our local elementary school might become so out-sourced, so under-funded, so lacking in caring and experienced teachers, so slack in its discipline, and so arbitrary and irrational in how it exercises that limited discipline, that sending our children there simply wouldn’t make any kind of moral sense. But I know that, were Peterson Elementary to get to that point, it wouldn’t simply be a result of a stingy state-government, a tax-phobic local population, unreasonable teachers associations, mind-numbing state and federal regulations, bizarre and elite-driven educational trends, and the like; it would also be a result of families like our own no longer contributing our human capital, no longer investing time and effort in a public cause that we value not merely for what it provides our own children, but also for the way it blesses and builds affective ties in this public space that we here on the west side of Wichita share. And that would be a terrible shame, because it would cut us off from a history that, even if so many of us are unaware of it, nonetheless shapes the local world we are part of. Peterson (once named Prairie Rose School) has been in this location since 1875; the 1931 building which the school used has been preserved on the school’s property (see above), goes by the nickname “The Little Red Schoolhouse,” and is still used by students and teachers for various activities today. I don’t want to lose that, I don’t want my children to lose it, and I don’t want my neighborhood to. So for the sake of an egalitarian principle, I need to be particular. Which, if you think about it, is what the best public school teachers model for us everyday: taking a particular set of children, and treating them afresh every year, passing along to them skills and knowledge and awarenesses that make them equal–in the midst of all their differences–to all those who have gone before and will come along in the future. Like any good family does.

It’s a two way street, taking the sometimes unwieldy but–I think, anyway–entirely defensible civic and social good which is the whole apparatus of public schooling, and keeping it locally grounded, culturally responsive, and respectful of the teachers and families and children who all constitute its lifeblood. I wrote once, in response to an argument over the sometimes seemingly contrary obligations that we have to our families, our faith, and our local communities:

As members of our local communities and as a citizens of a country at least nominally committed to the principle of equality (a principle we all benefit from), doing our part of keep public goods like free schooling available to all is important. And that means being engaged in the state project of making these schools work….[But at the same time] a public school that does not listen to and strive to reflect all the concerns of parents in its neighborhood, including the religious ones, is going to make it ever more likely that these parents–which could be one of the few remaining resources for holding together the larger public enterprise which that school represents in such an environment–are going to turn away, and quite legitimately and unselfishly decide that through directly tending to their family in their own homes they can serve their neighbors as well as their own children much better than they could through the schools.

After seven years of sending daughters to Peterson Elementary, watching them learn, struggle, make friends, and grow, I think we’re still pretty satisfied that we’re not at that point–that the people there don’t operate separate from the welter of social realities and needs and expectations particular to us parents and neighborhood residents that surround and support them. There’s no culture war dividing us, for all our disagreements; there’s a civil consensus which makes it easy to see that what all of us–as trained educators, as volunteering parents, as tax-paying and fund-raising citizens, and as mostly good-hearted and usually respectful children–can create by working together is greater than that which we can create on our own. Or at least, we managed, once again, to see it during the 2013-2014 school year. Here’s to giving everyone a few months off, and then trying to make that Peterson magic happen, yet again, next August.

6 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with these sentiments about public schools (even though I taught in Lutheran elementary schools for five years, decades ago). But I also think our public schools tend to work best when kept small and decentralized, and close to their local communities. The trend has been to consolidate, centralize, and separate them from the people.

    It saddens me when I see a new school built in a small town — well, usually not IN town any longer, but out in the country, on a campus isolated from the rest of the community, where there is room for acres of parking for the students. And this is probably the least significant symbol of their separation from the community.

    It’s not always done that way, though. I can think of some good exceptions.

    And this reminds me that I need to post something in my Russian movie blog about the 1987 film, Завтра была война (Tomorrow Was the War). It’s set in the late 1930s, just before WWII. I have some questions about the historical accuracy, but at one point in the film a new school director wants to reorganize the physical location of the classes to mix up the age groups, so the good kids can influence some troublesome pockets of younger ones. One of the reasons I’ve long been in favor of small schools is so the age groups can mix. Separating them too much encourages a kind of self-centered generational behavior.

  2. It saddens me when I see a new school built in a small town — well, usually not IN town any longer, but out in the country, on a campus isolated from the rest of the community, where there is room for acres of parking for the students.

    Well said, John. In one of my links above, I talk about my own and my oldest daughter’s high school experience (the one daughter who didn’t attend Peterson), and how she herself ended up attending a high school that, while nice enough in many ways, was exactly the sort of isolated-campus, quasi-Panopticon schools you’re talking about here. And yes, it’s undeniably true that our ability to get to know her teachers, and develop a locally respectful relationship with what she experienced and gained there through their efforts, went easier with her younger sisters at Peterson Elementary. Scale, as always, matters so much in our ability to make authentic, non-alienating use of those larger projects which we build for the sake of drawing upon the expertise of the larger group.

  3. Three cheers!
    Especially inasmuch as I am recalling — I went to a public “Grade School” wherein one of the teachers had taught my Uncle Leo years before, and where one of my nephews and a great-nephew attended.
    For the last one in the line, I have only sympathy, as the several generations of relatives who preceded him probably contributed to his baggage. (When you live in a place where everybody knows everybody, this tends to accumulate. In that town, I shall forever be known as the carpenter’s boy, and younger brother of Big John, if they cannot remember my name.)

  4. The tiny Republic of Pollock – situated in the southeaster quadrant of Grant Parish, a parish carved out of two other parish for the purpose of a further carving, namely caring the remaining wealth wealth from the already beleaguered republics of the region, not city-states, but town-states and settlement-states, hence the name “Grant” – established a “public school” as opposed to a “state school” in the late 1800’s which also welcomed boarding students, not from afar like New York City or even New Orleans but from the settlements which made up the hinterland of Pollock, settlements such as Travelers’ Rest, the Bob Community, Fish Creek and Big Rock, an offer necessary before cars and buses and too far to walk.

    By my time to attend in 1955, there were buses and no walking, but other than that the school had not changed much. No few of the teachers were still old maids, having given like Protestant nuns their lives to the school. The higher up in the grades one went the more masculine the teaching staff became. What all of the lady teachers had in common was a real Southern genteel spirit which could, however, turn upon the discovery of gum chewing among the students into a glare that would wither a fig tree at one thousand yards, a glare which brought no few students to the point of death by choking as they attempted to swallow their gum.

    In our happy Saxon and Scotch enclave with just the right sprinkling of Roman Catholics to make things interesting we had not yet learned of the progressive Prussian Kindergarten which had already been imposed on most other Americans. We were taken from our carefree childhood and plopped into the first grade like a drafted recruit on his first day of boot camp. The same lady who had taught my daddy in the first grade, daddy being thirty-five when I started, had taught him. In fact, many of the teachers whom I would encounter had taught him. My paternal grandfather, Uncle Tom as he was known, had died the year I was born. I have always hoped that the knowledge of my advent did not kill him. He, however, came alive for me, not only through the stories of my extended family, but also through many of my teachers who had known him. It was true not only of me but of most of my classmates: our teachers knew our stores before we came to them.

    Most of our teachers were also our Sunday school teachers, our scout masters and our private piano teachers. Since my mother was a teacher, they were also friends. When I graduated, I knew the names of most of the other six hundred students in school, 1st through 12th grade. That year, there were only five kids who did not live with both biological parents. Such were the times.

    We had Christmas plays at school each year. Each year, we had a baccalaureate for the graduates on campus. They rotated ministers: Baptist one year; Methodist one year; and Catholic one year. There were not any Episcopalians or Presbyterians in our little republic, not any who admitted it.

    We did not have football, but we did play basketball. Each year, we had a big tournament and served excellent hot meals in the cafeteria. We also had a town fair centered around the school. In the first grade, we all wore coonskin hats in honor of Davy Crockett. We had a sane but fun Halloween Carnival.

    From time to time during my years as a student, a fellow student would die or get killed: part of growing up. The funerals were usually held in one of the local churches, so class by class we would walk to the church and sit still, quiet and reverently as our peer took his eternal leave. There were not any grief counselors, just God and His preacher.

    Then Federal Judge Norman Scott, may he kick cinders in hell with General Sherman, like a mad god, swept the tiny republics of Grant Parish off the map, forced the building of consolidated schools in sage patches in the middle of nowhere and buses river kids, black and white, into the hill country and hillbillys, mostly white, into the river country. With that along with the coming of modernity which brought divorce, drugs and bedroom-seeking immigrants from Alexandria, the little republics have all but died.

    Once, however, there were schools in which the Lares Compitalicii consorted with the Lares Familiares. Today, the spirits are gone. In their place is merely an aggregate of would-be autonomous individuals to be indoctrinated by the agents of the state on the one hand and to be formed or deformed under the thrall of Madison Avenue and Hollywood via, among other things, social media devices to which these would-be autonomous individual are in contradiction to their claim or the claim made on their behalf addicted. Gone are the days, for the wind of progress has carried them away.

  5. Robert,

    Once, however, there were schools in which the Lares Compitalicii consorted with the Lares Familiares. Today, the spirits are gone. In their place is merely an aggregate of would-be autonomous individuals to be indoctrinated by the agents of the state on the one hand and to be formed or deformed under the thrall of Madison Avenue and Hollywood via, among other things, social media devices to which these would-be autonomous individual are in contradiction to their claim or the claim made on their behalf addicted. Gone are the days, for the wind of progress has carried them away.

    Obviously, I can’t speak for the current conditions of Grant Parish, nor compare it to what you eloquently describe about your experiences there nearly 60 years ago. Moreover, it’s pretty clear that our respective judgments about what “indoctrination” or “standardization” consists of are at least partially subjective, conditioned by our life experiences, our cultural perspectives, and our place and time. All that being said, I’m going to disagree with the general thrust of this final paragraph, even as I agree with many of its particulars (especially its condemnation of how addiction to technology has warped a generation or more of young people). Once there were schools where the Lares Compitalicii (the local guadrians) consorted with the Lares Familiares (the neighborhood families), but now there are not? Untrue, says I; I’m the father of a family, and I’ve sat down with teachers and principals; I’ve met and spoken and worked and made changes with other parents, other members of the neighborhood, in consortium with those whose training and vocation puts them in a position to serve our needs, as our resources serve theirs. Are there many public schools where family and locality are meaningless, where the bureaucracy of “progress” has steamrolled over any real fruitful interactions? No doubt. Is the existence of such negative examples in themselves proof that the whole civic promise of public schools was just a mad dream? I reject that proposition (which you may or may not have intended to imply; my apologies if I am reading too much into your concluding paragraph) entirely.

  6. Mr. Fox,

    Where, if such places exist as you say they do, that which is “public” is not convoluted with that which is “state” and teachers are still in loco parentis rather than agents of the state and the ideology of progressivism in all of its forms does not permeate the curriculum, instruction and assessment, then you and I have a nexus. If not, then not.

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