<< The Body Politic

Henry V and modern education

Tuesday, July 10th, 2012

As we continue to explore the broad range of approaches that different charter schools bring to preparing students to become engaged citizens and active learners, we thought David Brooks’s recent column in the New York Times on the need for public schools to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to be pertinent.

In the column, Brooks imagines a young, rambunctious Henry V going to an American public school:

By about the third week of nursery school, Henry’s teacher would be sending notes home saying that Henry “had another hard day today.” He was disruptive during circle time. By midyear, there’d be sly little hints dropped that maybe Henry’s parents should think about medication for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Many of the other boys are on it, and they find school much easier.

By elementary school, Henry would be lucky to get 20-minute snatches of recess. During one, he’d jump off the top of the jungle gym, and, by the time he hit the ground, the supervising teachers would be all over him for breaking the safety rules. He’d get in a serious wrestling match with his buddy Falstaff, and, by the time he got him in a headlock, there’d be suspensions all around.

First, Henry would withdraw. He’d decide that the official school culture is for wimps and softies and he’d just disengage. In kindergarten, he’d wonder why he just couldn’t be good. By junior high, he’d lose interest in trying and his grades would plummet.

Then he’d rebel. If the official high school culture was über-nurturing, he’d be über-crude. If it valued cooperation and sensitivity, he’d devote his mental energies to violent video games and aggressive music. If college wanted him to be focused and tightly ambitious, he’d exile himself into a lewd and unsupervised laddie subculture. He’d have vague high ambitions but no realistic way to realize them. Day to day, he’d look completely adrift.

This is roughly what’s happening in schools across the Western world. The education system has become culturally cohesive, rewarding and encouraging a certain sort of person: one who is nurturing, collaborative, disciplined, neat, studious, industrious and ambitious. People who don’t fit this cultural ideal respond by disengaging and rebelling.

Brooks then provides the grim education statistics for boys–how male reading scores are far below those of females; how 11th-grade boys are writing at the same level as 8th-grade girls; how boys account for nearly three-quarters of D’s and F’s–and urges a change in school culture:

Schools have to engage people as they are. That requires leaders who insist on more cultural diversity in school: not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.

The basic problem is that schools praise diversity but have become culturally homogeneous. The education world has become a distinct subculture, with a distinct ethos and attracting a distinct sort of employee. Students who don’t fit the ethos get left out.

As Cheryl Miller and Robin Lake noted in their report in January, many charter schools are actively creating distinct and transformative school cultures in which their students–even boys–can succeed. They write: “As mission-oriented schools, charters offer not only diverse, but distinctive approaches built around explicit educational principles and goals. When families and teachers are assigned to schools based on geographic residence or bureaucratic formulas, it becomes difficult to forge the kind of agreement needed to establish strong codes of conduct of a coherent vision of citizenship. Schools of choice, however, can bring together like-minded educators and families and create clear norms around conduct, learning, and pedagogy so that instruction on moral, political, and social issues can be done within classrooms of willing participants.”

Read the rest of Brooks’s column here.