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What is the purpose of school?

Obviously, school is intended to prepare students for life. But what do we mean by that? On the one hand, we mean that it provides students with the necessary skills to gain a career after graduation and become productive members of society. On the other hand, the teachers most of us remember long after our own schooling are those who encouraged our individuality.

Humans are, of course, social animals. We have come to dominate this planet by banding together. In many ways, our societies themselves can be viewed as living organisms. Consider the unique personality of New York City, for example, as Robert Pirsig (of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Mechanics) has pointed out. Or think of the manner in which ideas—or memes, as Richard Dawkins (of The Selfish Gene), would say—survive, compete, and grow across the ages, creating and sustaining a culture. Of course, humans are also more than merely herd creatures; they’re individuals, with their own uniquely tinted personalities and ideas, goals and dreams.

Every one of us dwells in the tension between that social bonding and the preservation of individuality. For young people—particularly middle schoolers and high schoolers—this tension is a virtual war. They vacillate between loudly proclaiming their uniqueness and desperately craving peer acceptance.

Cultures also exist within this tension. Consider the history of feudalism in Great Britain. It began as clans banding together for defense against wandering raiders or against other clans seeking to expand their own holdings. Naturally, a band has to have a leader, and the individual for that job is the most forceful personality. Being physically strong helps, but as a band becomes larger, determination, cleverness, and the ability to inspire others take precedence. Eventually, the leader becomes a king with such individual power that his subordinates must invent a Magna Carta to restore some measure of balance.

For a more modern example of this struggle between individual and cultural interests, we need only consider the recent economic market meltdown in the U.S. Left to their own devices—i.e. without sufficient government oversight —a few individuals pushed the banking industry so far in their pursuit of profits that the entire structure began to collapse. At that point, the larger social entity reared its head in outrage, many congressional seats changed hands, and the presidency fell to a decidedly different administration, one with a message of public service.

Without social banding, we would have no security. Without individualism, we would have no invention. The teacher’s job, then, is to foster both. In passing along content, we provide students with the information they need to function in our society. But unless we also allow and encourage students to think for themselves, that society will inevitably wither and die.

Literacy plays a central role in this duality. Reading—a relatively passive skill—permits students to receive hard-won knowledge and ideas from previous generations. Writing—an active skill—provides them the opportunity to wrestle with that information and take possession of it, as well as to contribute their own ideas. Obviously reading is the easier skill to teach, and to test. Reading lies mainly on the receptive, social-collective side of the wheel. Teaching writing requires more talent and dedication on our part because once we get past handwriting, it isn’t about mechanics as much as it is about personal expression. Writing lies more on the individualist side of the wheel.

One grave danger we face in teaching literacy is a tendency to teach writing as we do reading. To approach writing first from its parts—sentence structure, paragraph structure, and writing form, all dressed up in proper spelling, punctuation, grammar, and word usage—is to treat writing as a collectivist activity rather than an individualist one. Contrariwise, to begin from the point of “What do you have to say?” and then work downward through “How can you best say it?” (form, paragraphs, and sentences) to “How should you clean it up and dress it?” (spelling, etc.) is to put the individual first, and afterward point out her or his responsibility to readers.

So, what is the purpose of school? It is to provide a commonality of culture while also encouraging individualism. We might well say that it is to keep the wheel balanced between those two, so that we can all continue rolling along.

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