School Architecture Gives the Game Away

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It's
not an original idea of mine that many new government schools look
oddly like prisons, except for the absence of razor wire (that may
be coming soon). My point about contemporary school architecture
has not only been made by others; I submit it's really self-evident.

The
new schools also look like manufacturing plants or distribution
centers. Rather few of the former are being built, around here anyway;
but we do have some of the latter, new ones and very large, sited
here in Odessa in West Texas in recent years because of our location
on an Interstate and our adjacency to Mexico. Actually, I-20 as
it runs through here is also known as La Entrada al Pacifico.
There are signs up to that effect. The projected road system, of
which this stretch of I-20 is one leg, is to go directly south to
Ciudad Chihuahua and then turn west to terminate in Puerto Topolobampo,
Mexico, on the east coast of the Golfo de California.

Just
now the Ector County School District is building additions to several
schools. The School District is a very big deal. It is the biggest
enterprise by far in the county. It enrolls 26,000 students (58%
Hispanic), "mostly from Odessa" (pop. 96,000), attending
41 "campuses" served by 3,327 employees, of whom 1,702
are instructional staff (presumably that means teachers). The District's
website
announces that a current $89 million bond issue is enabling
a number of construction projects. That's nearly $1,000 of new debt
per man, woman, and child in Odessa.

Of
the two pictures here of some of that new construction, the one
below is an addition to an elementary school dubbed an “Early Learning
Center,” and the one above is an expansion of a junior high school.
They look to me forbidding and Bastille-like, but I suppose there
are those who would consider me neurotic for making such a remark.
In general, I think the local view is that these are excellent additions
to the best possible school system in the best possible . . . ,
etc., etc.

But
I ask you, in all fairness, to tell me if you think that hulk of
a learning center (the picture does not do justice to its windowless
bulk) is a building you would like your four-year-old to disappear
into. I admit that the website says it is going to provide an abundance
of natural light for its young occupants, so perhaps I didn't photograph
the right view. If they hung out a sign saying it was "The
Minitrue," it would not raise an eyebrow. (The Minitrue was
Orwell's Ministry of Truth in 1984, you will recall, which now appears
to have its own website.)

What
game is given away by this architecture? Actually, it's quite a
simple one. These new schools, prisons, factories, and distribution
warehouses are all boxes for holding things, sorting them out, and
issuing them on demand to other "centers." It's all mass
production and assembly line stuff. The boxes are for "processing."
They can't, by definition, have anything to do with real education,
which, God save us, means (this is the view the etymology supports)
to lead out (educere) of the student what he needs for effective
performance in life and personal spiritual realization.

I
daresay that last point would get a laugh in any teachers' lounge
where you tried it on for size. But I believe, and I have Plato
and many others for support, that what we most need for personal
development and integrity is innate and God-given. Education's purpose
is to rend the veil, oppose the original fault, destroy the ignorance
(Hindu: avidya) that blocks us from realization of what we are.

True
schooling is personal and is best done in small settings. Whereas
a man, a student, a boy or girl, is "bigger than a city"
and needs to be so valued. (That paraphrases a line of Emerson's.
I believe it.) But a school needn't be, shouldn't be, over-large.
What does learning have to do with vast piles of bricks and mortar,
swelling community debt, and high per capita costs of "education"?

A
student needs a teacher. The one room school, on which America was
to a large extent built, and about which Linda Schrock Taylor has
recently written so winningly on this site ("The
Feds Filched Our One-Room Schools
" and "Lessons
by the Yard
"), consisted typically of a set of pupils of
many ages and a single harried teacher, but she (sometimes he) did
a great job and was assisted in it by the older students, who didn't
get a chance to clique off into a peer group and make trouble for
themselves. They were too busy looking out for the younger kids
or dodging the teacher's ire if they were misbehaving. (I am not
claiming all this was heaven incarnate, only that it was better
than the system that has replaced it.)

I've
lately had reason to try to get the feel of an elementary school
classroom in New England about 1890. I'm not there yet, but a good
friend I've known nearly sixty years ponied up the following when
I asked him for his recollections of going to school in rural Vermont
about 1937, that is, nearly a half century after my target date:

"I
attended elementary school in Northfield Falls, Vermont, just
a mile and a half south of Northfield. It was in a two-story
frame building, the first floor for grades 1 thru 4 and the
second floor 5 thru 8. [On the second floor] we had a schoolmarm
named Effie Hutchinson, who brooked no nonsense from any of
us who would try to get out of hand. She kept a piece of sawed-off
rubber hose in her desk and was wont to use it on us whenever
the spirit moved her. As I remember it, the curriculum consisted
of English grammar (sentence parsing, etc), reading, writing,
mathematics (pre-algebra), geography, and physiology. She taught
all four classes in all subjects rotating from one class to
the next. This was common in those days. I did it myself in
my first teaching job in Maine, also in a two-story frame building."

Notice
that my friend remembers his teacher's name nearly 70 years later.
I remember the names of the nuns I had as teachers in a much larger
(brick) suburban Catholic school about the same time: Sister Macharias,
Sister Lillian, Sister Mursita (sp?), Sister Justin. . . . I particularly
recall sentence parsing, at which I was the very devil. That delighted
the sisters. They liked boys who liked sentence parsing. I'm not
at all sure sentence parsing did anything for my standing among
the boys in the class or for my character as a true red-blooded
male but, oh well, sentence parsing was fun because I could do it;
it seemed a mystery to many; and my fledgling ego got a boost thereby.

Personal.
Small. Effective. Homeschoolers have relearned the trick of getting
older kids to help younger ones. Good for the older ones, good for
the younger ones as Linda Taylor makes clear. The curse of contemporary
education – well, it's no good making a remark like that. There is
not one curse of contemporary (elementary and secondary) education;
there are many, and they are all grievous. Big, impersonal schools,
charged with turning out human "units" to fit into the
economy, are simply one of the bad things. One of the names of this
is "School-to-Work." We have another Big Bastille built
just a few years ago that is devoted at the secondary level to something
called "careers."

Another
curse of contemporary education, perhaps the worst one, is TV. TV,
in fact, is where much of the real "education" of today's
average youngster goes on, from toddlerhood up. Whatever kind of
intellectual and moral wasteland you may think the big central school
is, it is a virtual cloistered convent teaching Latin, Greek, and
Mozart compared with the savage and degenerate world TV presents.
It is watched more hours per day by the average student than that
student spends in classroom.

The
late Clifton Fadiman complained many years ago that TV had set up
a "rival school system" which was more encompassing and
more effective than the government (he called it the "public")
school system. He was addressing a convocation of school teachers.
No doubt they all agreed and nodded their heads sagely. And did
nothing. Fadiman should have lived on a while to see how bad TV
could get.

Just
now, our county school district is embroiled in a vast battle at
the top level. I haven't followed the details. I suppose I would
if I had children in the system. It appears that the newly elected
board of trustees is unhappy with the superintendent and the failure
of the local schools to shine in the State of Texas testing rigamarole.
Just prior to the 4th holiday weekend rumors were flying
around that the super had emptied out his office; the assistant
super appears to be already gone. Perhaps one or both were involved
in another town scandal (I'll not go there); and the board has called
in lawyers to study a buy-out of the super's contract, already bruited
to cost in the range of $150,000. It is a mess, worthy at our boondocks
level of the kind of thing that goes on in Washington, the place,
as Linda Taylor says, where all the awful engrossing, centralizing,
bad-education nonsense came from in the first place. The schools
we have now are an instrument of federal policy, and that policy
means us "peeuhpul" no good.

The
only sane thing to do would be to offer up the big-box school buildings
for lease or sale as offices and distribution centers and return
education to small neighborhood schools and to teachers that parents
both trust and direct. Palliations are all going to fail. But the
school dilemma is just another one of those situations, like the
Iraq war, where the thing to do is obvious – abandon present course;
about face – but the will to do it is missing. Or rather the contrary
will is all-powerful. So it's slog on, drearily and hopelessly.
And when in doubt, hire an architect and build something big and
mean that'll impress the tax-paying boobs.

July
6, 2004

Tom
White [send him mail]
writes from Odessa, Texas. He is the author of Bill
W., A Different Kind of Hero: The Story of Alcoholics Anonymous

(2003).

Tom
White Archives

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