The Education System: An Aristocratic Experiment?

Reform, Reformers and Reformatories
Summer 2009

Michael Sitch


            The following reflection on the AHTC Summer Institute is one that raises more questions than it answers.  It attempts to track a series of philosophical discoveries (to me, anyway).  And, it all centers on the idea that our education system or rather a liberal education is extremely aristocratic.  I use liberal in the traditional sense meaning, “a system designed to empower individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a stronger sense of values, ethics, and civic engagement” The first question that comes to mind, “Empower which individuals? All?” So, this reflection is less about coming to conclusions about the historical meaning of a specific document and more about the relationship between a variety of sources and the affect they have on my educational philosophy.  This translates into a better understanding of my students needs, giving me the opportunity to use primary sources in a more thought provoking manner.   

            Within the first day of the institute I became aware of my incomplete philosophy.  The presentation by Timothy Gilfoyle on his book, A Pickpockets Tale, illustrated just how “out of touch” a liberal arts school can be.  The reason we know this is because Appo, the subject of Gilfoyle’s research, never went to school, nor did he mention it!  This doesn’t mean he wasn’t schooled, however.  He was, after all, an adept apprentice.  The skills and knowledge he gained helped him survive and for certain periods of time excel.  Although his type of work was shady at best, Appo lived many of the lessons that would otherwise be taught at school.

            By the end of Gilfoyle’s lecture I was already wondering how to meet the needs of students whose situations were as dire as Appos.  What does our system and more specifically my class offer these students?  Lessons from the past?  Perhaps. But I imagine they, like Appo, are living their lessons. 

            It was an hour and three caffeinated beverages later when I was introduced to another document that quite perfectly deconstructed my philosophy of a ‘liberal education for all’ mentality.  The document was presented by Don Owen in our ‘Primary Sources 101” breakout session.   One quote, in particular, stands out, “Some parties have moved into town who are not sending their children to school…” Sound familiar? The quote is found within a letter written from a local Illinois School board member to the state superintendant of schools in 1914.  Dr Miley, the originator of the letter, is concerned with truancy at his school and is writing in regards to a new law passed to curb such behavior.  At first I found this to be outright hilarious, for hopefully obvious reasons.  Sadly, though, it slowly began to sink in.  Just thinking of the time, effort, programs and money dedicated to this problem today can make you, well….not laugh exactly.  I wondered, would Appo gladly attend school today with all of the programs in place to help him ‘succeed’?  I’ll bet my stipend he wouldn’t.  Thankfully, we’ll never know!

            Of course, we all understand that our students come in with different needs ranging from the mild to the extreme.  The enduring question seems to remain, “How do we reach those with extreme needs?”  How do we reach the ones who don’t want to be reached?  Maybe the answer lies outside of our conventional school system-the one steeped in aristocratic tradition.  Perhaps a new renaissance is in order.  

            I didn’t have too much time to ponder that question before I was introduced to a similar document regarding truancy in the school system.  In Don Barbour’s mini-session on the acculturation of Native Americans I was shown a transcribed journal entry from a teacher at the Mequakie Day School for Native Americans.  In her journal she continually refers to her students being absent from school for reasons ranging from cultural events to economic necessity. The following excerpt from the text illustrates this in a clear manner, “A dance on the hill which lasts for four days is taking some of our children and spoiling the attendance record.“ 

            It was at this point I was reintroduced to an old idea I once had:  The education system is pretty ethnocentric.  But, to be fair, as Don Barbour discussed in our mini-session, Native Americans weren’t poorly treated in these schools by our standards.  We were trying to bestow them the graces of a needed and proper education.  I am, of course, being cynical.  Today, we look back at the acculturation of Native American youth with a sense of sorrow or even regret.  I wonder: A hundred years from now will we feel the same about the treatment of minorities or even differing social classes?  Is what we offer so great?

            Based on discussions throughout the seminar I learned that public schools, as we know them, were a reform.  They were an answer to a changing society’s need for a new labor force.  Industrialization coupled with urbanization provided the foundation for the ‘cog’ production of a labor force.  Schools also aimed, as they do today, to produce contributors to the American experience-a form of acculturation for all!  I am not saying this is bad, I’m just suggesting it makes sense as to why groups or individuals choose or are unable to succeed in the school setting.  For good reasons, ‘their way’ may suit them best. 

            I left the first day of the AHTC summer institute mentally and physically drained.  The obscene amounts of coffee and pop were significant contributors.  But, I had a lot of serious questions to consider as I reevaluated my philosophy.  As I am still a believer in a liberal arts education, I have come to appreciate the many forms in which educational opportunities present themselves.  I am a huge supporter of vocational opportunities as well as situational experiences. 

            And the best way for this to become a reality in my classroom is by using primary sources that tell of a deep and meaningful personal experience.  I aim to use primary sources to help in solving problems and to shed light on new problems.  What lessons can my students teach me about their experience?  And, how can we learn from the past?  “History is the hammer that drives the lessons of the past to our frame of mind.”