Could the real problem be that the government attempts to do the swimming for us all?

“Swim in your lane! Swim in your own lane!” the check-in attendant at the ticket counter insisted to the young man who was working with her. He was flitting from one counter to the next, helping people. He had inserted himself in front of his colleague to complete my check in when she had seen me and was headed to help me. It was her lane, not his. The man had jumped ahead of her to wait on me. After she told him to mind his own work, “Swim in your own lane, my friend!”, he mumbled that he was able to help first and was only trying to assist.

The check-in attendant instantly regained composure and my check in was completed. In thinking it over afterward, I realized that the young man’s intentions were good. He meant well. But his cohort was also engaged and doing her job a single step behind his quick (frantic, really) leaping from one thing to another. The woman was making the point that there is a system in place that defines what each person in the scheme of things is to do. Jumping out of place creates an illusion of quickness but, in the long view, scrambles everything, and everyone, up. Further, it makes people look as if they are not doing the jobs assigned correctly or quickly enough, even when they are.

Our government’s job in education is to protect the right of every child in our nation to a good education. That’s it! If everyone in a democracy gets taught the same things in the same way, they will think the same way, and then there is no longer a democracy. The United States was founded from vigorous thinkers educated in home schools, one-room school houses, private schools, boarding schools here and abroad, the equivalent of public schools, and self-schooled-avid reading education. This engendered a deep tolerance for the differing opinions of others. The friction of disagreement through tolerant discourse forged enlightened documents like The Declaration of Independence, The Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States of America.

In our contemporary culture of looking information up quickly online, we can all look like experts on any topic fairly quickly. We argue points as if we know things well. We feel we know how others should do their jobs, how other countries should hold elections, how people should be raising their children. Rarely does anyone demur, saying honestly, “I am not really qualified to do or to discuss this. I know very little about it.” In the new age of “fake news,” we cannot know who knows what about anything anymore, though this doesn’t diminish opinions on how we “know” others should do their jobs.

In the arena of education this is extremely dangerous. Little children up through young adults are at the mercy of a system increasingly designed by those who know next to nothing about educating the young. The teachers who actually signed up to become teachers — idealists, for the most part, wanting to help, to change the world one child at a time — and who trained in how to become teachers and who work with children each day are no longer asked what a good approach might be, or how a second grader might respond to a lesson. Instead the federal government, without any constitutional basis to call them to action, and driven by industries hawking electronic devices, white boards, software, drugs, textbooks, charts, and many another “thing,” are making up “solutions” to our educational “problems,” uninformed by much of anything having to do with education. Perhaps they looked up the answers on the internet.

The realm of education is a special one, a sacred one, one that is fueled by hope, yearning, and love. It demands a kind of clairvoyance to be able to see a child for what the child might be able to become, far beyond what the child may be at a given moment. This kind of seeing takes time and care to cultivate, and takes a fully-considered curriculum, as well as insight into the motivation in a human heart, especially a young heart. What can a smartphone or a whiteboard know of these deep and mysterious things?

The pressure to perform present in our current educational system now runs against all that a good teacher knows will help a student succeed. Performance has been narrowed to mean one thing — good marks on tests. How a child is in class, how she has progressed of late, how kind or moral the child might be, are all irrelevant if the test scores produced are not high enough.

These tests defy sensible appreciation for the arc of a child’s development. Curriculum designed to feed the tests increasingly pushes high school-styled information down into lower and lower age groups. The intent seems to be to get the children practicing early enough to ensure mastery at an ever-earlier time. Tests see how well children are doing at this. Much like a growing plant, the fruits cannot easily be rushed. Our tests for children are like deciding how a bunch of broccoli seeds perform in providing nourishment. To wait for the seeds to be planted, sunned, watered and allowed to grow is considered irrelevant in the current thinking. If we measured broccoli like we measure children, we would end up throwing away whole vats of seeds prematurely, as not capable of providing proper nutrition.

In Washington, DC, there are many good people in government work who have good intentions. They wish for every child to have access to a good education, for every child to do well and to learn well. Think, though, about our check-in attendant at the ticket counter. What if we said to the government, “Swim in your own lane!”? What might that mean for a government? It might just be that once these well-intentioned government lawmakers, who do many things well and who can read and study and look things up on the internet, and who can apply adult logic to any area of knowledge, depart from their own task, the work becomes destructive. Our government’s task is to protect its people and uphold the laws decided upon by the representatives of “we, the people.”

This has been articulated many a time by many an intelligent philosopher. Notably, Wilhelm von Humboldt as far back as the eighteenth century in his dazzlingly clear treatise entitled, The Limits of State Action, articulates the need for governments to understand their role as protectors of the rights of their citizens. Period. In the case of education, a government needs to ensure that each child in its protection can have access to education. It must never dictate what that education should be. Swimming in its own lane for the government is, therefore, to protect and ensure.

Think now how far out of their lane ours has gone in dictating curriculum and controlling teacher education. This last goes beyond even dictating curriculum and enters the realm of controlling and deciding how teachers must do it to do it right.

Meanwhile, the act of protecting and ensuring goes unattended, and the enormous inequities of funding for education in America deprive whole communities of children access to any real education at all, especially children of minorities and of limited means.

What if, no matter how good the intentions might be, swimming out of one’s lane turns the work toxic? Takes away the chance to do a job well from someone prepared to do it? Makes things that are good look bad?

What if expecting our government to “fix” education is the very problem — not the curriculum nor the teachers nor the process of educating — because everything the government does with education constitutes swimming out of its lane and into the lane of others?

What if all education were done by educators, chosen by parents responsible for their children, and we turned to the government to explain what the costs are and to then submit an invoice to have those expenses paid as the lane of the government requires it to do?

If we could actually look at this and re-direct all to swim in their own lane, the world surrounding children and their educational environment might become less sour, less combative, less cynical, less critical, more supportive of children’s growth and learning, and more supportive of teachers and parents. Anxiety might lessen; anxiety that in turn sells things that falsely claim to “fix” the problem. If legislators paid more attention to the real task of funding education more equitably, we might get more done and done well. Teachers could fight for children instead of for their livelihood and their dignity. Parents could trust that children do learn over time and need not be demoralized repeatedly by tests they may or may not be able to ace. Best of all, we might be a calmer, more intelligent, more trusting, less profit-driven culture. It’s worth a try!



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