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Nick Hanauer, Educationism is a Thing; The Way You Think About it is Not

Is this the reason why we educate our children?

Better schools won’t fix America and neither will Nick Hanauer’s assessment of the purposes and goals of education.

I was recently sent an Atlantic Monthly article, Better Schools Won't Fix America, by successful venture capitalist, Nick Hanauer, which I felt compelled to respond to, mainly because it echoes much of the wrong headed thinking that I have been discussing in my blog posts, over and over, this past year.

Hanauer feels he has been “enlightened” by an insight he is just now coming to; an insight founded on good intentions but which circles back to the same arguments that cause his current state of despair and feelings of lost past efforts.

Basically his argument goes something like this: We would like to believe that education can solve economic inequality and raise up those who find themselves struggling to achieve the American Dream. Poverty and its corollary evils, crime, food insecurity, suffering, homelessness...etc. were thought to be nobly combated through educational opportunities that would provide people with the skills, abilities and credibility to find a place of dignity at the American and now global economic table. He is not only shocked by indicators that suggest that the widening income gap is only increasing but that studies have shown, for over 30 years now, that education only has a rather small role to play in the ability of individuals and communities to rise out of their generational cycles of poverty. He is surprised that families of wealth create cycles of greater opportunity for their children and that homes with barely subsistence levels of economic attainment defeat children even before they come through the doors of our schools.

He is also critical, and rightly so, that the wealthy love to focus on the education agenda because it gets them off the hook when it comes to addressing their ever increasing mega-slices of the economic pie and continued corporate malfeasance in regards to workers in this country. He calls this approach: Educationism. It is the corrupt and diseased thinking that you can talk about teacher quality and charter schools out of one side of your mouth and then hire lobbyists on the local and national level to convince politicians to not raise minimum wage to a measly $15 an hour or exempt companies from having to pay for decent and adequate health care for their workers. These are corporate leaders who want to reduce class sizes but could give a damn if a kid can’t even go to school because the family can’t afford shoes to put on their child’s feet.

Educators are reading Nick Hanauer’s article with only one response: Nick, welcome to the show. We’re glad you finally made it.

I can tell you from my own experiences of almost 30 years in education that where a child comes from, the stability of that home environment, the expectations, anxieties and even trauma generated in homes is the game changer. Educators don’t even stand a chance. And, this is coming from someone who spent his professional life in the private education world! My friends and colleagues in the public school arena, particularly in low income neighborhoods, holler in laughter at my “problems.” The lack of adequate resources for their schools, both material and human, are the least of it. One of my friends who still has the audacity to think she can make a difference in the lives of these children (and you do, Karen, you do!!) visits the homes of her students every year before the school year begins, even for just a quick drop in, to see what she is up against for the next 10 months. Her current take away after doing this for 20 years is how little has changed; how few of her previous students, who are now parents, have found themselves in an improved situation from the time they were coming through the system.

Human dignity and our freedoms are more complicated than a paycheck, and this overbearing American fixation on wealth and acquisition needs to find its proper place again in our country.

But where Hanauer’s awakening has even greater limitations is in his understanding of schools and historically, what their larger purposes really are.  And, this is the sad story of where, from early childhood through higher education, American schooling has really lost its way.

Nick, who ever said that the central or main purpose of an excellent education was to get a job?

Hanauer discusses the great revolution of 20th century American Education where our system was the envy of the world, and it certainly was. But not for the reason Hanauer imagines. Yes, on a certain level we produced the most well educated industrial work force in the world. And, no, it was not because our school system was so innovative. It was because, embedded in the system was a rather new and radical idea based on several of the founding ideologies of the country’s principles -- that if everyone is equal then everyone deserves an education. Not without the brutal fights of the civil rights and suffragist movements, but it was the inevitable assumption that minorities, the poor, and particularly women deserve educational opportunity that revolutionized our system and ultimately generated the economic success of this country. The ideology drove the system, not the other way around.

In regards to the women’s movement (and again this was not without a fight which continues today) the brilliance of our system was that we finally gave educational access to over 50% of the population, to talented and ambitious people, women, who previously did not have this opportunity. Their new access and slow but steady liberation began a process of political, social, and environmental change which has and is literally transforming how we see human society globally. (Please read the outstanding, The Race Between Education and Technology for more.)

The ultimate flaw in Hanauer’s argument is that he wishes to frame the education debate within the context of economic attainment and growth, which does nothing more than continue the negative feedback loop of why we need great schools in the first place.

The reason we need great schools is precisely because economic concerns and values should not and cannot be the central driving rationale of a Democratic society. We have sacrificed ourselves on the altar of making money and consumerism to such a degree that we believe everything else must and should support our economic systems. The real purpose of education, particularly today, needs to fight directly against these impulses and tendencies. Human dignity and our freedoms are more complicated than a paycheck, and this overbearing American fixation on wealth and acquisition needs to find its proper place again in our country. We have been absolutely consumed by these false gods and these idols need to be smashed.

If business leaders and economists want to be real allies and advocates for education they will discontinue using economic terms to describe its value merely because this is the language with which they are most comfortable. They need to listen carefully to what educators and educational leaders have to say and have been saying since the beginning of human civilization: specifically that the education of children and young adults is its own end.

The only institution that can drive this agenda is our schools which, when they are at their best, teach our children that there is nothing more valuable than a free mind and a liberated soul.

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Jason is flexible and attentive, yet remains committed to his high expectations of my work in tackling tough situations and tasks.  With a sense of humor and compassion for the rigor of a leadership position, he knows how to guide me with just the right amount of productive stress.  I appreciate that.

Daphne Orenshein - Elementary School Principal: Hillel Hebrew Academy

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