What is school for? To answer that question Massachusetts Bay colonists invoked the devil.
The devil had a stake in ignorance, so school was a tool to fight that evil. “It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures,” somebody should teach children to read and write. To nudge people to do so, a 1647 law later nicknamed the “Old Deluder Satan” act ordered all towns with at least fifty households provide primary education, and those counting a hundred or more to have a grammar school too.
It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these later times by perswading from the use of tongues, that so at least the true sense and meaning of the Originall might be clowded by false glosses of Saint-seeming deceivers; and that Learning may not be buried in the graves of our fore-fathers in Church and Commonwealth, the Lord assisting our indeavors: it is therefore ordered by this Court and Authoritie therof;
That every Township in this Jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to the number of fifty Housholders, shall then forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the Parents or Masters of such children, or by the Inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the Town shall appoint. Provided that those which send their children be not oppressed by paying much more then they can have them taught for in other towns.
Of course, Puritan settlers weren’t just waiting around for the General Court’s proclamation before they started teaching their kids. Informally, even where no actual school was mandated, younger children could learn rudiments of reading at home or be sent to a “dame school,” where a woman would, amidst her own housekeeping, train them in their letters.
To be sure, Massachusetts Bay Colony’s system is hardly a blueprint for the kind of education Americans expect now. It required that schools be available rather than that children go to them, extended boys’ schooling longer than girls’, and advanced literacy for sake of growing piety rather than future earnings. But the link between some broadly desired good and schools as means to accomplish it should make us wonder about now. In the wake of spring’s closures, summer’s Covid spikes, and fall’s tentative plans to return kids to classrooms, arguments run hot about the costs and benefits of school.
A surprising piece in the New York Times by Deb Perelman argues for something to be done about kids and school. The title puts the problem starkly: “In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.” Perelman is creator of Smitten Kitchen, presenter of eminently edible foods in cookbooks and a website. The argument coming from her is spun round with irony as many-layered as babka dough. Here is the difficulty of managing work and childrearing as told by a person whose fame and income come from egging others on to domestic pursuits, boosting baking’s value by branding it; she anatomizes challenges children pose to work while she works at advising what to cook for her children and ours.
Perelman’s bottom line: we need schools again because it’s impossible to educate your children while also working sufficiently well from home to keep a job.
Why isn’t anyone talking about this? Why are we not hearing a primal scream so deafening that no plodding policy can be implemented without addressing the people buried by it? Why am I, a food blogger best known for such hits as the All-Butter Really Flaky Pie Dough and The ‘I Want Chocolate Cake’ Cake, sounding the alarm on this? I think it’s because when you’re home schooling all day, and not performing the work you were hired to do until the wee hours of the morning, and do it on repeat for 106 days (not that anyone is counting), you might be a bit too fried to funnel your rage effectively.
She’s right in some ways. She has good cause to be dismayed. Remote learning last spring was hard for teachers, parents, and kids all around. For some parents it generated not only extra effort but self-doubt, seeing oneself as insufficient to the social and instructional needs of one’s kids, comparing preference for what one gets paid to do and what one does for free.
It is too much to expect of a person to be giving one’s all in paid work and also giving one’s all in childrearing. The problem may not be the children per se, but how much “all” parenting and work now both include. Putatively the article makes an argument about the incompatibility of a job with schooling one’s kids. Much of it, though, sounds like the fundamental conflict really is between minding one’s kids—parenting in the way now socially mandated – while earning a paycheck. Perelman again:
“Why aren’t you enjoying the extra quality time with your kid?” lays bare what is really simmering below the surface — a retrograde view that maybe one parent (they mean the mom) shouldn’t be working, that doing so is bad for children, that it’s selfish to pursue financial gains (or solvency, as working parents will tell you). It is a sentiment so deeply woven into our cultural psyche that making the reasonable suggestion that one shouldn’t have to abandon a career or livelihood if offices reopen before schools, day cares and camps do is viewed as a chance to redeliberate this.
I am tempted to take the redeliberation bait. There are many reasons why parents work, some concerning solvency. There many ways to name connections between one’s family and one’s work. (Are they what your work is for, to buy them things they need? Maybe to improve the world they inhabit? Or are they competitors for resources you’d otherwise devote to work? Are you primarily a mother/father/husband/wife or primarily a person paid to do a job?) But we might best take Perelman at her word and focus on schooling. Perelman insists something must change because if we all have to keep our kids at home we can’t get our work done. Some people have the “luxury” of staying home, having help with kids, supervising remote learning without ruining jobs.
At best, the kids will be crabby and stir-crazy as they don’t get enough physical activity because they’re now tethered to their parents’ work spaces all day, running around the living room in lieu of fresh air. Without social interactions with other children, they constantly seek parental attention in bad ways, further straining the mood at home. And these are ideal scenarios….Even those who found a short-term solution because they had the luxury to hit the pause button on their projects and careers this spring to manage the effects of the pandemic — predicated on the assumption that the fall would bring a return to school and child care — may now have no choice but to leave the work force.
Since most people do not have that pause-button luxury, we must have schools.
It’s a startling picture of the two-pronged pressure pinching American parents. On one side, there’s parenting with a bloated job description, beyond love, food, and shelter, adding lots of stimulation and affirmation (though not, under normal circumstances, education). On the other side, not only economic necessity but also identity features work as the organizing principle of life. The scene set that way, if we pose the question again–what are schools for?—we get a hard answer. Schools are for keeping children of workers safe during the day to make those workers more productive. Schools also are for infusing in children skills and habits to make them useful future workers.
But surely that’s not what we think school is for.
Perelman does not deserve my ire. I’m as smitten with her marbled banana bread and chocolate chunk cookies as anyone else. She merely lets slip a more pointed variation of what other parents wink to each other each September. Or what school principals say year after year at parent-info nights, that we’re doing right by your children by preparing them for jobs that don’t even exist yet. (Those must be doozies, given how many jobs that we kind of liked having have withered in the pandemic.)
Another Massachusetts document offers yet more language helping recall right relationship between parents, children, and education. New England’s First Fruits recorded in 1643 that, after settlers built houses, churches, and government, “one of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance Learning and perpetuate to Posterity dreading to leave and illiterate Ministery to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust.” We see in this text again the case for education as a way to transmit correct belief. But this one also has two other insights. First, the reason parents want school for children is longing for their good, a desire that they learn and a willingness to build institutions to make learning happen. Second, parental limitations—indeed, human limitations of life span and contingency—are what motivates education. Advancing learning, handing on the good you know, is a way parents can provide for children when they no longer are present to do so physically.
This here is a much better motivation for school than Perelman’s underlying assumption: school is for training up some workers and providing babysitting for others. No offense meant to Perelman. She’s faulting the economics that determine the problem. New England’s First Fruits was boasting of a colonial achievement predating even the pathbreaking “Old Deluder Satan” act. To secure blessings for themselves and their posterity, settlers needed schools. What a relief then, for them and posterity, that one John Harvard felt stirred to donate funds for new university in 1636.