School and The Tomato

Education is no longer a monopoly

One of the great pleasures of the modern world is the ever-shrinking number of things in life that are exclusive. But there’s always unintended consequence, and nowhere has the unintended consequence of lost exclusivity had more reach than in education.

My father is a ‘tomato guy.’ You may know one — an older man who rhapsodizes over a vine-ripe, bright-red, juicy tomato. And he’s right, there’s nothing quite as good as a fresh tomato plucked from the vine in mid-July after a long anticipatory wait. Tomato guys like my dad also complain bitterly about the tomatoes that are now available year-round, how thick they are, how tasteless, how dry, how expensive. And they are right, because the commodification of tomatoes means attempting to overcome the reasons they were exclusive in the first place, which involves all manner of compromise and altered quality.

Once upon a time, most of life’s luxuries, and even many of its necessities, were exclusive. Everything was a tomato.

They were exclusive to time. If you wanted tomatoes or watermelon or apples, you had to wait for the season. If you wanted music or entertainment, you had to wait for the band or acting troupe or sports team to come to town. Later, you had to wait for the episode to air, the new season to begin, the 6 o’clock news to show, the movie to arrive in the theatre, the game to play. You had to wait for the newspaper to arrive, the school year to start, the class to end.

They were exclusive to place. If you wanted to see a team play, you had to go to the stadium. If you wanted to read a book, you had to go to the library or bookstore. If you wanted the news, you needed a newspaper. If you wanted some art, a museum in Paris or New York. If you wanted a tan you had to go to Florida. If you wanted an education, you had to go to school.

And they were exclusive to authority. If you wanted a nice piece of furniture, you needed a master woodworker. A butcher for meat, a reporter for news, a farmer for food, a tailor for clothes, and a teacher for knowledge.

For a long time, schools have had a near-exclusive lock on the rather broad and vital part of society dedicated to educating its citizens. Nearly every American learns to read, write, and do math in a school classroom and virtually nowhere else. A person’s exposure to our history, to the structure of our government, to science concepts, to our most venerated literature, to biology: all almost entirely exclusive to school and its classrooms.

This exclusivity influences the process, content, and structure of school in a variety of truly profound and often unquestioned ways. It allows education to group students almost entirely by age, and to separate content, especially after elementary school, according to the principles and concerns of the university. School’s exclusive monopoly on education sets the terms for how much we are willing to pay to educate our children (no more than one teacher for every 20 to 30 kids, for example), and what, precisely, they should learn at all (Shakespeare and calculus rather than biography and statistics). It determines how much time a person should dedicate to learning certain things (one hour a day, 180 days a year per core subject), how to best demonstrate understanding (a test, a diploma, a grade), and even, to an uncomfortable degree, what is unworthy (cooking, for example, and gardening, and popular entertainment).

Exclusivity — or monopoly, if one wishes to be blunt about it — also means that one is forced to accept all manner of otherwise disagreeable conditions, even risks, that the provider doesn’t need to consider or sacrifice for. Scurvy was once an actual thing because fresh fruit wasn’t available all year. A lot of the shows I now binge-watch still suffer structurally from the pauses and plot breaks and summaries that are created by broadcast commercial breaks and weekly segmentation. And of course all of us endured the classroom for twelve or more years because there simply was no other choice.

School’s monopoly on education is so powerful, in fact, that even implying ‘learning’ and ‘school’ may not be the same feels wrong and illogical. If not school, where else and how else? Are students just supposed to learn on their own? Do we expect every parent to teach her or his own child to read and write and perform trigonometry? Nor do we truly question the judgments of quality and value that school places upon all manner of occupation, event, or subject.

It was once possible to put 20 or 30 young people in a room grouped almost entirely by age because school offered a prized commodity that could be had almost nowhere else. If you wanted history (capital H history, that is), for example, you could either find a book or find a classroom. If you needed math, especially the advanced kind, there was no other way to get it than through a teacher. If you wanted to learn how to read, you could attempt it on your own or get it in school. It did not matter that the system itself was flawed or inefficient. (If you wanted that tomato in December, you had to take what was available.)

It is true that books are themselves a genuinely democratic commodity. Every town in America has a library. But books are surprisingly limited in their range, accessibility, and availability. Books themselves are exclusive, best suited to those individuals who learn by being alone and reading, and best tailored to those people have already have a sense of what they seek and need. If books alone could educate most people, we’d never have needed schools in the first place.

And schools were able to clump students by age alone, in specific types of classes, according to a very rigid schedule, and assessed in an incredibly narrow way, because it had a monopoly on a necessity. If schools — and teachers — once had exclusive hold on a few things, it’s also true that what they offer is needed by just about everyone. Literacy, number sense, science, history — the mental foundations of a modern society can neither be ignored nor neglected. To function as an adult in the 21st century, a human being needs to know how to read and count and have a modicum of knowledge in their head.

Teachers’ and schools’ exclusivity simultaneously offered (near) universal access to all Americans, and severely limited the shape and content of that access. Some of those restrictions were structural and unintentional, defined by the limitations of money and space and people. Others were entirely intentional, motivated by factors as varied as outright racism to well-intentioned content decisions.

Exclusivity is not entirely negative. Hardship and discomfort are often fundamental to an experience, especially education. Learning is a complicated business, not always welcomed and not always easy. And there are things in life which require discomfort to be complete. The effort we endure can make those things better just because we have to work or suffer to get them. Watermelon simply tasted better if you only ate it once a year. Lobster was more delicious because you went to Maine for it. The gifts of Christmas, even when more meager, felt far more fantastic than anything to be gotten today at a moment’s notice.

School’s hold on its content and delivery also enhances the experience. There’s something to be said for not having the choice over whom to learn among. Students, we all know, are not always the best judge of what they need, who they are best suited to get it from, or when and how they are best able to receive it. There are adults in the room, calling the shots, for a reason. The immediacy of everything in our commodified world can destroy the power of long-term effort and distant rewards. Immediate access flattens experience, quietly removes the highs when it takes away the lows.

None-the-less, there are reasons we move away from exclusivity. A lot of them are related to the market and profit. People didn’t choose to eat fresh tomatoes only in August; they did so because tomatoes weren’t available any other time. Same for t.v. shows and movies and the news. People didn’t choose to eat old fish or crappy apples either, but if you grew up in the ’70s or earlier, that was mostly what you had because that’s mostly what was available. Time, distance, the season, expense of travel, all conspired to keep things exclusive. In the business world, we might call this ‘commodification’ of the product — opening it up to a much wider market. School had a market, of course, one that we’ve been commodifying for awhile. That’s why Sparknotes are a multimillion-dollar enterprise, not to mention tutoring services.

And here lies the most vexing aspect of the whole problem: high school no longer has exclusive hold on many of the things it’s supposed to accomplish. It only has exclusive hold on the people it’s supposed to accomplish those things upon. Everything a high school student might want to glean from the world is now available not merely outside school, but in the student’s own hands. These portable hive minds that every student now carries offers everything they might possibly need to use later. It’s an access that begs a bunch of questions: Why do I have to memorize this? Why do I have to practice this? Why do I have to learn this your way? Why do I have to care about this at all?

I once had a student, back when cell phones and their data plans were still somewhat exclusive and expensive, who suddenly started offering consistent insightful comments to class discussion. He was a back-of-the-room kind of kid, who’d been silent most of the year. Suddenly he was raising his hand and dropping brilliant observations on the material at hand, interesting facts or trivia and deeply considered opinion. I pulled him aside after class one day to encourage him and discovered he’d been Googling (or Yahooing, it was that long ago) the topics of discussion. I didn’t honestly know what to make of that, still don’t. Because it increased his engagement and made him a better student, in addition to making the discussion itself more interesting, and dragging other students in too. It was a moment that crystallized a few aspects of classroom exclusivity for me.

This student now had the kind of immediate access to the stuff that made me the teacher, the esoteric knowledge of the work that I’d stored over the years in my own portable device, my head. My authority was diminished, but wasn’t accessing that knowledge exactly the point of the class? Wasn’t the goal of the class to get him, and everyone else, to engage with the material, not merely memorize it? Engagement, it turns out, is often merely access.

It’s this kind of access that has upended the education system on every level. It’s not new, of course (none of what I’m writing about here is; I’m just reiterating). I remember the hand-wringing about calculators 30 years ago, and if you go back far enough in time, the technology of the book wasn’t exactly received gracefully or gratefully. But the 21st-century high school, created on the foundation of our education systems’ monolithic hold on all things ‘education’, has shattered that hold, with one troubling exception.

Everything that was once exclusive to high school, with one exception, is now available outside its walls, tailored to the individual rather than the institution. All the knowledge we once needed to manually insert into our brains for future access is now available on a vast digital library at our fingertips. Nearly every skill that once required practice and repetition is now available on a screen before our eyes. Skills that once required intense, years-long processes to master are handled by machines, so why bother mastering them at all? Until recently, the acceptable answer was ‘Because you can’t get it any other way.’ This is no longer the case.

School still has a monopoly on one thing: the kids themselves. Unfortunately, high school no longer has an exclusive hold on the most significant reason we gave it that grip in the first place: the need for elusive or evasive or distant knowledge and skill to be internalized. (This isn’t entirely true of the skills and knowledge imparted in elementary school, but effects are still felt across the entire system.)

The education system resists necessary change. It is imperative that we root out the reasons for its intransigence without demonizing any of the people within it — from the students to the teachers to the administrators to the parents and politicians. It resists change because every monopoly instinctively rejects threats to its power, and clings to what it still has. In this case, its absolute control over the bodies and time of its students and teachers.

That must change.

It is imperative that we acknowledge the effects of school’s former monopoly because we do a great deal of damage clinging to it. Perhaps the worst thing a young person can do to his or her future is drop out of high school. But it is a mistake to assume this is only because of what school offers. The reason it’s so dangerous to drop out of high school is also because there’s little but threat and hardship for a young person who rejects the system. Jobs are scarce and low paying. Support systems grow weaker every year. Internships are now exclusive to college students. The trades are decimated, and increasingly demand a rather loosely justified university degree. These are society-wide decisions that have little to do with the content or structure of our high schools, yet allow us to resist change. We’ve made a high school diploma an absolute necessity, not exactly to make high school better, but simply to enhance our authority and prevent students from leaving.

School does have the world to offer. I would not be a teacher if I didn’t believe this in my bones. But school also seems incapable of keeping up with the modern world. It clings to old systems and structures, old schedules and old content. It seals itself from the modern world as if under fatal threat, and hugs the bodies and time of its people like a desperate dictator.

If we are going to change our education system, especially high school, we have to confront its diminishing exclusivity, the entrenched effects of its former monopoly, and the results of its authoritarian unwillingness to let go.