I used to live in a room full of mirrors
All I could see was me
I took my spirit and I smashed those mirrors
Now the whole world is here for me to see
It is maddening to be assaulted with the cacophony of demands on public schools today. Schools (and by that I mean teachers) are expected to “fix society” in any number of ways. Each of these goals has a degree of merit, and it is not surprising that non-educators might hope that they would be met within the K-12 years. These expectations cannot be met, however. Schools have never, and will never, “fix society.” Instead, schools reflect the society they exist within.
Anti-bullying programs will not rid us of people who want to push society in one direction or another. Ask the Koch Bros. and Bill Gates if this isn’t so. “Raising standards” will not cause children to escape the effects of poverty or emotional deprivation. Teaching Shakespeare in elementary school will not inoculate future generations against the Duck Dynasties of the future.
The purpose of public schools is to preserve a democratic society by assisting citizens in their pursuit of happiness and to prepare citizens to take an active role in public affairs. Corporatists instead insist that education is utilitarian; that it functions to provide a workforce that will maintain American dominance in world markets. They work toward ensuring that every reflection of corporatism remains permanent—toward a society that shapes itself to a corporate structure, paralyzed by a need for certainty.
Corporatists are determined folks. They can amplify their messages and the political consequences of their beliefs in proportion to their willingness to use their cash. They believe that their position in society is evidence of the equivalence of capitalism and democracy, and that their socioeconomic status therefore entitles them to dominate the political scene. It’s a circular argument that has the added advantage of perpetuating their power.
It does not serve corporatists to have an engaged citizenry. They would much rather that citizens be passive spectators, disaffected by political chicanery and alienated from a government they do not think they can affect. This leaves civic affairs firmly in the hands of the one percent who distort democracy by manipulating the language of debate and purchasing the loyalty of persons who possess political power.
Corporatists want us to change the “mirror” rather than change our society. They demand a school system that conforms to market-driven forces. The mirror they offer is a distorted one; one that reflects with limited focus and exaggerated promise the possibilities of an instrumentalized education. We who have great experience in keeping the mirror in focus have been excluded from decisions that only those anointed by corporatists or their lackeys are permitted to influence. These anointed ones possess little or no experience with the population of students we engage with daily, yet feel entitled to meet behind closed doors to undermine the curriculum and limit student opportunities.
Jimi Hendrix encouraged us to smash the mirrors surrounding us, but I believe that refocusing and a bit of polish may yet permit us to enlarge and expose the image of society those mirrors reflect. Truth exists in mirrors that are square and plumb, not those built with distorting curves. That refocusing can only begin when the warping curves of education deform are straightened by teachers who demand transparency in the processes leading to determination of curriculum and the goals of public education.
At the same time, we must not permit corporatist initiatives such as CCSS and excessive standardized testing to dishearten us. If we do, our dismay will breed the apathy that permits corporatists’ unfettered control of the one institution that exists to provide students with experiences likely to instill commitment to democracy rather than oligarchy.
No, mirrors don’t fix anything, but they do permit us to consider those aspects of ourselves that might deserve attention. The discussions that can result from honest self-reflection are the heart of democracy. But there is no honesty in the reflection I see from the corporatist’s mirror. Their vision is of a profit-driven and profit-producing educational system, for that is the sort of society they are committed to. It is a society as bereft of humane interest as it is ravenous for mammon.
And yet, the number of people who have encouraged me during these “dark times” heartens me. If we all will reach out to others with and for support, our schools and world–and we ourselves–will be better for it. If we connect, then we will be able to make a commitment to a society that we will be proud to be mirrors for. My commitment is to a society that is inclusive, supportive, and fundamentally democratic and to an educational system that reflects those values.
What do you want to see in the mirror? Let’s make the changes to our society needed to bring that vision into focus in our schools.
© David Sudmeier, 2014