• 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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