Thursday night was my first chance to watch the Republican National Convention. I won’t offer another tired commentary about it—with this one exception: a reaction to, and reflection on, Jeb Bush’s speech on schooling and school choice.
By definition, authentic choice cannot exist within a compulsory system. They are antonyms. Any choice worthy of the name cannot be constrained by an institutional system of compulsion. The only real possibility of any serious form of “school choice” then, is only possible after the disestablishment of compulsory schooling.
Sadly, both reigning, mirror-image political parties today accept compulsory schooling as more than a descriptive state of affairs: they seem to endorse it as a normative value in and of itself. There is a disturbing Messianism to the credentialist creed of schooling today.
There’s no such thing as “school choice” in today’s discussion, on either side. The idea that a quixotic “compulsory choice” between home, private, public, or charter schools—all relative equivalents of the same, impoverished assumptions and curricula—is a serious, real “choice” only has traction today because we’ve become so alienated from the reality that schooling has not, does not, and will never have a monopoly over education, real education.
Any school smaller than the world is just too small a place for education.
I may seem to be overemphasizing the need for rejection and denial, while forgetting about the proclamation of the Gospel, the good news. My sense of proclaiming the good news is always in a minor chord, deeply influenced by the apophatic; the via negativa and the via dolorosa: ways toward God that pass through the dark night of absence and suffering. Love hurts. This renders a tragic vision of the world that, I want to argue, is more than truth: it is a dark aesthetic revelation of reality. Tell me not what is true, show me what is real—show us Your face and we shall be saved.
This gets me to a practical challenge: how will this way of seeing reality—the reality of a world both without (compulsory) schooling and within the world as school—educate people in a holistic, authentic way? What is the purpose behind tilting at today’s schooling and senseless credentialism? The classic response to the suggestion of removing the placebo effect created by compulsory schooling always takes the form of nervous cautionary questions, asking what will come next—“If I stop taking these sugar pills, what will happen to me then?”
Here is a more constructive response, inspired by childplay:
My two boys have been playing make-believe with their cousins all morning. Earlier, over coffee, they performed a rather disjointed play in three acts for us. Don’t get too excited: it wasn’t very good—at least I didn’t think so—and I didn’t particularly enjoy watching it. But that was not the point. I didn’t need to patronize them with the virtue of “self-esteem” to truly esteem what they were doing and how importantly real it was. It was not entertainment or amusement.
I could see that their play was serious; it was obvious, with signs of it everywhere. For one: they were extremely self-righteous and bossy about it. “Sit here and watch the play—No! Don’t clap yet. It’s not over. NO! Not yet!” They constantly fought over who was to do what, who should stand where, who was going next, and what they were supposed to be doing in the first place. “And where did Gabe go? Gabe! GAABBE! Where are you?!—I think he went inside.” It was clear to me that they were not taking their make-believe lightly.
Afterwards, I sat trying to resurrect yet another manuscript I wrote during grad school into a proposal to my field’s top conference of the year—the Philosophy of Education Society—I could hear them running around, going about doing even more of their imaginative nonsense. How annoying it was to me! (Reality can be very annoying sometimes.) I did not find their tireless play precious, at least not then; but I did consider it to be the most important thing going on at the moment; so important, in fact, that I decided to write about it instead of working on my still-unfinished conference paper.
While the adults work, the children play; and their play is usually more serious and earnest than our work. If we worked as seriously as they played, the world might not be any better or worse, but life would surely be far richer, more enchanting, and less mediocre.
I never joined them; I didn’t pass out ribbons or stickers or other cheap, external rewards or adulation. For one, I didn’t want to; but more importantly, any such meddling would have been deeply disrespectful to the sacredness of their play. I wasn’t good enough then to play at their level of rigor. I was working.
People often argue that children need to play and go to recess to have “fun.” I don’t see it that way. Fun, to me, is only coincidental. These valiant defenders of fun, I suspect, have never really played. Or they forget that real play, the play I am describing here, usually ends in tears or disappointment or fighting or all three.
Play is not important because it is fun; and I do not think that children are nearly as interested in constantly amusing themselves as we are. The fun is for us, not them. They are being absolutely serious. How strange that nowadays we celebrate children who work and adults who play! (Just contrast elementary school science fairs from collegiate and professional sports.)
My boys and nieces understood and practiced the art of play in all its dead-serious nonsense. The fact that I found it childish and tedious is not important; focusing on that aspect would be losing oneself in translation. The more important, educative reality is that this was sacred time, doing perhaps the most ambitious, important thing that was attempted around here all day.
This is what the school of the world allows us to do and be that the smaller, compulsory ones do not. This is school choice at it’s finest. It goes beyond the consumerist fancy of choosing and picking and ventures into authentic freedom, the only “choice” that really matters: the choice to elect what is beautiful—To whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.
If someone saw them playing and asked why they were not in school—my nieces actually are enrolled in school, but were not required to attend that Friday; my youngest is too young; and the older one is a different story for a different time—I would have laughed and said, “Of course they are in school! Why aren’t YOU in school today?”
The abolition of compulsory schooling is not (only) the disestablishment of schooling institutions; it is also a return to a school of the world, a curriculum of life. When the school is destroyed, everyone goes back to school. No exceptions. No choice other than the only one that really matters: the choice to imagine the real. No more work. Only play. No more fun or amusement, only what is most serious: love.
Samuel D. Rocha is an assistant professor in the educational foundations and research graduate program at the University of North Dakota.
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