What is School?

A school is by definition an institution for educating children. Googling “what is school?” is surprisingly unhelpful. I think we take for granted that we know what “school is”. We’ve been there, done that. Some of us don’t leave school at all between the ages of 4 and 55 (or barely).

It depends on what we think the purpose of school is. That is tied in to our deepest beliefs, and often our values. We may have a set of core knowledge in mind, that must be imparted to the next generation, for example. Or perhaps we believe that building character is truly what matters. Some of us can take strong stands for things like teaching coding.

I personally might tend to a definition something like, “a building where you learn big ideas about the world, and to consider any and all points of view about things that matter.” But that’s just at this moment. My oldest son is in the middle of the great life change from illiteracy to literacy, both in reading and writing. That he becomes able to read and write, to express himself with language, that’s the most important thing about school to me right now.

We fight about the purpose of school. Many of us fight because we care. We make great sweeping predictions about future schools, then have to temper our optimism slightly when cold, hard reality hits: systems are hard to move. Inertial forces favour the status quo. You might be in a rebel group trying to infiltrate the educational Death Star with your big idea. Maybe you want to bring back cooking classes. That would truly be a punk rock move, in this day and age.

Maybe you fuss and worry about the lack of “core knowledge” being taught in schools. Guess what? I do too. I am also pragmatic enough to know the “core” is constantly changing. Certain things, like gravity, endure. Some, like Latin, have mostly faded away.

You’re going to point out, and rightly so, that we often don’t need buildings for school. I teach online. I did a Master’s degree online, in my spare time. If I wanted to learn, say, the history of Judaism, I would sign up on Coursera for a course. For learning to play the ukelele thought? YouTube, that would be my school.

The school of the here and now is humans learning how to be humans. It is disappointment with the lack of moonshot thinking; it’s also a worry that we have thrown out too much of the best of “school” of the past. Things change though, and this is just one morning rambling on “what is school?”

So, I ask you: “‘what is school?”

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