As school years start up again, just about everyone agrees COVID is hurting education, except, perhaps, those with healthy financial stakes in online learning. Parents are exhausted, students are bored, and teachers and staff are overwhelmed, plus terrified of getting sick. Yet if COVID does nothing else for education, it might force all of us to spend a bit more time examining what all this educational effort is actually for.
Listen to most policymakers, and you’d probably guess the purpose of education is social mobility—lifting poor kids out of poverty and getting middle-class kids into Harvard, even if schools aren’t achieving that goal. Meanwhile, the more radical among us argue that schools are simply doing what they were always intended to do, not fix inequality but maintain it, all the while convincing both winners and losers that where they wind up is where they deserve to be.
But what if—and just go with me here for a second—the purpose of education has nothing to do with social mobility? What if we let schools off the hook for fixing social inequalities and just fixed those inequalities instead? What if we took money from the wealthy and took privileges from the entrenched and we gave these boons to those who needed them more? There are dozens of ways such changes could take shape: wealth taxes, reparations for black and indigenous Americans, stronger unions, and universal child care, to name just a few.
As things are, a focus on social mobility pits students, families, and schools against each other for ever-diminishing resources, making it easy to forget that education could just as easily be about community as it is about competition. Whether it’s school choice and vouchers or simply ensuring it’s your kids who gets the best teachers and COVID pods, schooling as the solution to social mobility helps to reinforce that education, and, well, life, are about each individual getting ahead. And that cynicism boils down to the experience of learning itself.
When we’re obsessed with schools as the primary solution to social inequality, the content of learning—everything from fractions to Franz Ferdinand—becomes a means to an end. Some of that content might be useful (like learning to read or touch-type). Students might even find some of it meaningful, like the elegance of a complex math solution or the thrill of a well-crafted experiment. Yet all too often that content is treated as a checkbox to complete, with each lesson bringing students one step closer to the degree, the credential they really need.
Education becomes no longer about what students do but rather where students arrive, and so it’s no wonder young people feel alienated by all the time between beginning and end. And, because of our unwillingness to consider more dramatic solutions to inequality, these students and their families know they have no other choice. Families might believe the strangely radical idea that your value as a person is entirely separate from your achievement in school. But until we live in a society that sees inequality as a problem rather than a justification, that kind of commitment to human dignity is a pretty idea that can’t pay the bills.
Concerns about social mobility also dominate discussions about COVID and education. Marginalized students fall behind benchmarks while privileged students get further ahead, whether via pods, readily available parents, or simply the certainty they have the medical care and financial support to handle whatever COVID University sends their way. Fixing these inequalities is as necessary as ever, and they highlight the vital role schools play in the lives of our nation’s children. Schools, often quite literally, feed those who need to be fed.
Yet too often schools are tasked not simply with caring for their students but with repairing an entire social order. Schools can do so much we do not ask of them, like developing solidarity, fostering political responsibility, and ensuring a love of learning for its own sake. Yet the one thing we are most insistent they accomplish, the ensuring of “equal opportunity,” is something even the best school is simply not capable of achieving. We’re asking our schools to do the wrong things, and then blaming them, and their students, when they fail. And now we’re going to try it all again while remote learning.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The potential freedom new COVID syllabi and pedagogies provide us could give room for different ways to think about education, both while we’re in this mess and maybe even when we get back to our classrooms. In her vital work on the purpose of schools, bell hooks provides a model for such rethinking, echoing the landmark work of John Dewey, Anna J. Cooper, and W.E.B. Du Bois.
hooks helps us recognize that what we learn must be connected to how we live, centered within the relationships students forge with their teachers and with each other. Learning should always be meaningful—capable, at any moment, of bringing us to moral and political transformations. It is through this context of a safe and trusting community that students can learn about injustice and privilege, about problems they can see in their own stories or recognize as their own responsibilities. Ironically, educating for justice becomes much easier when education is no longer considered the only means of building a just society.
As we get ready for another COVID semester, the stress of combining full-time work and full-time de-facto homeschooling is matched by the sadness of smushing all the power and beauty of education into the meritocratic ideology it has come to represent. Our students, our children, are more than achieving automatons. Yet this is where our focus on schools as agents of social mobility has brought them, and us. Don’t let the crisis go to waste. Fix inequality in whatever ways we can. And then we can let education actually be about education, even if we’re still just doing it at home.