Something has gone seriously awry with American public schooling. Forty-four percent of students read below the minimum level for their grade; 72 percent among African-Americans. In many inner-city high schools, the graduation rate is as low as 40 percent.
Blaming teachers or administrators for the ailments is simplistic and cruel. As a group, our educators are dedicated public servants, well-trained and committed to their vocation. They also are underpaid and underappreciated.But if American teachers are among the best in the world, why is our public education the weakest of all developed countries? There must be something wrong with the system itself - something "beyond the symptoms."
Current proposals for reform address only the symptoms (i.e., how to raise math scores) and focus on money. And indeed, our nation should ensure that every child has fair access to good education, including educational technology. Likewise, teachers deserve salaries commensurate with their training and the social service they provide. But neither money nor technology is a panacea.
There is evidence that increased funding well-used - to create smaller reading classes, for example - can have positive results, but beyond this, the gross correlation between school spending and student performance is unimpressive. Per-pupil expenditure in public schools increased by 22 percent in the 1970s and by 48 percent in the '80s, but SAT scores declined almost 100 points. A 1996 study by the Rand Corp. found that personal computers are only "marginal contributors" to student learning.
It's time to reach beyond symptoms to the foundations of what, how and why we teach. It's time to renew a humanizing and holistic vision for American education. I say "renew" because America's Founding Fathers had such a vision.
Education is humanizing as it empowers students to become fully alive, to care for their own and the common good, to relish life and accept its challenges, to exercise their rights and honor their responsibilities, to champion justice and compassion. It fosters students who are confident in their own identity but open to other cultures and perspectives, and who have a knowledge of and appreciation for the sciences, humanities and arts.
Holistic education engages the whole person - teaching students to think critically and creatively for themselves. Such visionary education requires solid grounding in reading, writing, arithmetic and rhetoric but adds two more - respect and responsibility.
And that brings us to the crux of the crisis. The most likely sources from which to draw a humanizing and holistic education are more spiritual than philosophical. Such education addresses the "deep heart's core," as poet Yeats said. At its best, education is a spiritual affair.
Any mention of soul and spirituality triggers concern about separation of church and state. But the ban on an "established religion" shouldn't mean excluding common spiritual values from our educational system. Proselytizing on behalf of a particular religion is very different than allowing spiritual values to permeate our approach to education.
Meanwhile, we are complacent about the philosophy that presently undergirds our schooling - a narrow pragmatism concerned primarily, as philosopher William James said, with "the cash value." Such a philosophy isn't neutral; it's as value-laden as any spirituality, imparting an outlook that canonizes whatever "works."
There are spiritual values around which many of the great world religions and spiritualities reach consensus. For educators to allow such spiritual convictions to permeate their teaching and the ethos of schools would be transforming:
The equal dignity, rights and responsibilities of everyone. This would encourage a liberating, integrated education instead of a functional, fragmented one.
Life is a gift charged with purpose and meaning. This could encourage students to find hope and joy in living in contrast to nihilism and escapism.
An emphasis on community - an understanding that we need and must care for each other. This could offset the reigning "me" attitudes.
Spirituality emphasizes the quest for wisdom of life. This could lend a noble vision to study, with every discipline of knowledge fostering an ethic for life.
All great spiritual movements teach justice for all and compassion for the needy. This suggests education in critical consciousness and commitment to social service and transformation.
At their best, most faiths are universal in outlook, emphasizing open hearts and minds and cherishing truth.
All spiritualities also are convinced that the person is essentially spiritual, that the human vocation is to live in "right relationship" with God - however named - and with oneself, others, and creation.
Such values seem distant from the reality of American public schools, but we must ask why - and then, why not?