What is school for?

In life we should leave our children two things: roots and wings.¹

My parents, two of my siblings, and I immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when I was very little, so most of my life I have juggled a transnational family divide and competing cultural priorities. At school I assimilated to American norms; learned to bring brown paper bag lunches and not lunch boxes; how to pronounce “yellow” with a soft “y” and not like “jello”; and to remain silent, follow the rules, and pay attention when the teacher is speaking. Until one day my junior year of high school Ms. Bachman and Mr. Klein taught a class about “race” as a social construct and I realized that everything I knew about society was a lie. Social rules didn’t exist because that is what nature intended. No. It was all a game and everyone was playing along. What it also meant though was that we could change the construct, change the rules or even make up a new game. That was both terrifying and exciting.

I bring this up because for the next 10 months I have the opportunity to teach English in Colombia. As an aspiring educator I think about what kind of world I want to help create, bring into existence. Questions like “What is school for?” “What are we preparing children/adolescents for?” “And what steps (or missteps) are we taking to reach that aim?” occupy my mind.

For me it comes down to values. Growing up in the U.S. I learned the Western version of history, politics, written expression, media, etc.

Bureaucracy + Rules + Order = Good, Safe.

Yes, and, blind sheep followership can also be very Bad, Dangerous. Yes, and, questioning authority can also be a warranted, healthy form of resistance to bring about more inclusive, positive social change. How do we know the difference? That’s where I think education comes in. When I learned that the relationship between race and socio-economic status operates within a larger economic and social context outside of biological differences and stereotypes, my mind expanded. I could hold divergent ideas and comprehend injustice both on an individual and societal level. I broke down the misinformed, inherited paradigms in my mind and suddenly had more room to think about how the world could be different.

The quote at the top of this page represents the roles that education plays both in providing sustainability and purpose: roots and wings. In other words, education is the acquisition of knowledge and skills in service of a greater purpose. I will never forget that lesson about social constructs because it stimulated my curiosity towards a more social justice oriented framework that now shapes the way I think about social issues.

I want to end my reflection here with a video. Featured below is a talk by renowned author, entrepreneur, outside-the-box thinker, Seth Godin, at a TEDx Youth conference at Brooklyn Free School. He discusses current trends in education, how they came to be, and explores some ways to start thinking about the big question “What is school for?” There is by no means one “right” answer to this question. But while we figure it out it is worth purposefully discussing and examining the values we most care to pass down to our children.


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