All U.S. states have legal requirements that children between ages 6 and 16 attend school — public, private or an approved process of home-schooling.
Exceptions for special circumstances are there, as well as variations between states, but the general rule is that schooling is mandatory for that developmental stage of life.
This has led to school systems that can be massive, with the complexity of large corporations and often mimicking their organizational style. They can be smaller in less populated areas, but often adopt a similar organizational structure.
Individual schools also reflect the institutional pattern, as they provide formal structure to their mission’s function. That function, of course, is education; and few of us have not benefitted from the structure that has enabled us to partake of that function.
As a direct participant of schooling as a student and teacher for 65 years before retiring 10 years ago, my gratitude is deep for what the formal frameworks of schooling have made possible for me, as well as for my children and grandchildren.
As I was making the transition from formal student to formal teacher 50 years ago, a wise mentor who had been my teacher and would later become my dean and colleague encouraged me to read two books that were in the public conversation about education at the time.
One was Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich — a proposal growing out of studies of the relationship of formal schooling and dominant political and economic systems of the context.
The other was Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Friere — a methodological alternative to what he described as a “banking” concept of education that dominated the tradition of his setting.
Both books, and the larger conversation of which they were a part, offered a distinction that would become important to me in how I thought about the work to which my colleagues and I were committed.
The difference these writers proposed is between “schooling” (the structures, programs and underlying philosophies that were the formal framework of academic life) and “education” (the process of bringing together knowledge, perspective, discovery, discernment and application of growing understandings of self and world in a journey of life-long transformation).
At their best, structures and creative functions work together to provide context and guidance for education to occur. A partnership of mutual respect and support is the ideal balance.
At times, the needs of institutional frameworks can dominate and restrict the functions of creative guidance. At other times, creativity can forget its dependence on the frameworks for space and resources to explore its various frontiers.
Further, motives other than the nurturing of educational growth can creep into the process, and they seem to do so perennially.
I couldn’t help thinking about this distinction between schooling and education as the latest arena of our political culture war has turned its attention to the scope and content of education.
In some quarters, the rhetoric of high-priority concern for education seems to be mixed with a politically motivated desire to control curriculum and resources in support of a limited narrative designed to promote a particular path of learning.
Three of the frontal assaults on education, boldly undertaken by those feeling empowered to do so are:
- Restricting access to certain features of history.
- Banning books that deal with topics deemed undesirable in their likely challenge to preferred ways of thinking.
- Imposing limitations on teachers committed to helping students develop critical thinking skills and discernments that will help them navigate life in an increasingly complex world.
In addition to these direct challenges, there is the gradual erosion of the formal schooling process toward the quest for quantifiable assessment data (read: standardized testing) and the tendency to substitute the common landmarks of diploma/degree/certification as the definition of what it means to be “educated.”
Institutional passion for uniformity and “measurable outcomes” as a way of demonstrating faithfulness to the educational mission are cited by many disillusioned teachers who find the educational profession they gladly entered being replaced with a form of “schooling” that seems to serve a different vision.
Politically motivated assaults from without and gradual erosion from within have obscured the kind of education that embraces the unique integrity of every learner, the need for comprehensive knowledge of a historical and literary heritage, the character of scientific investigation, the discernments of critical thinking that can embrace the nuances of reality and the many layers of life’s challenges.
These are features that can slip into the background of an environment that seems to be gaining ground on the public stage.
Comprehensive schooling is a feature of a healthy society, but for education to be optional within that context is not a good sign. It is not hard to see the consequences of that problem already.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).