Task of the Educators

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” by C.S. Lewis.

Samuel Durr writes this guest post. He was given the quote by C.S. Lewis to interpret and give his perspective. Durr is a special education teacher who has been teaching in Chicago for 15 years. He has authored one published book, a few novels, and a barrage of short stories.

The phrase, irrigate deserts, is interesting in this famous C.S Lewis quote. The author probably means educators should encourage enthusiasm and curiosity, which is a good rule. Still, for me, the desert imagery has a different, probably unintended, possible tangential, effect. Since I carry my own associations and personal experience like an over-stuffed backpack, I will write about what questions it raises for me. Is education, are classrooms, are students, deserts? A desert is a resourceless, brutal environment where nothing flourishes, and everything has protective spines and spikes.   

Education is a Desert

The quote by C.S. Lewis offers an interesting perspective about the task of the modern educator.

In short. Yes. Education has become a desert. The need for a sea change is obvious to just about everyone. Recently, five large schools in Baltimore, Maryland, four of which were high schools, were found not to have a single student reading at grade level. Is Baltimore a city of fools? No, and so it’s clear that something is wrong, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe general education has become too available. 

The hard truth is that when anything is generalized, in fact mandatory, it becomes worthless and sometimes even loathed. Ask any teacher tasked to hand out free breakfast. Proportionally, far more of it ends up in the trash than in the mouths of those it intended to help. Students even complain about free breakfast as they drop it into the can. In other words, I’m not so sure we have a problem with how we educate.

Force to Educate

 Maybe, we have an issue with who we force to educate? If a family honestly doesn’t want to send their kid to school, why should they, and why do some schools have to take every student? This is a little ridiculous under a microscope. It has turned many public schools, unfortunately, into minimum security prisons.

Luckily, I have a solution. Picture, for a moment, if public schools could be more selective about which students they take? Just slightly. I’ve worked at four different schools over my fifteen-year career, and I can say without flinching each would have benefitted profoundly from booting ten kids, almost all for severe behavioral reasons. It’s easy to get all squirmy about the idea of leaving children behind. 

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Good Intentions

Still, perhaps it should be considered that despite good intentions and hard work, no teacher, counselor, priest, or coach can right the worst of the worst. Isn’t that nature? Some of the brood doesn’t make it for reasons beyond the control. With enough concentration, or maybe delusion, it’s possible to imagine an unnatural world in which every child becomes successful, but in such a world, the bar for success would be significantly raised. And if it were, we would still have students who didn’t “make it.” 

The point is that prioritizing students based on their sociability or intelligence is not evil, it’s realistic. It’s time to fully consider that organizing institutions around rotten principals leave us with rotten schools. Ten students, out of five hundred, give or take, isn’t very many but would change the overall tone. Similarly, imagine if a school had the ability to boot a kid because of parent harassment? Only in the most extreme cases, of course, but if schools simply had the authority, however weak, imagine the change. 

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Education as a Status Symbol

Consider also, if the government didn’t take money out of taxes to pay for public education but instead invited parents to pay out of pocket? If education became a status symbol, as it is to many parents already, they would be willing to spend money to send their children to better schools, and they wouldn’t trash their neighborhood schools and teachers. Competition can be healthy if it’s refereed. 

Problematic Institution

There are shining lights in every classroom, even in the worst public schools: brilliant students, self-sacrificing teachers, thought-provoking lessons, and dedicated staff. I don’t want to degrade education. There are many positives, and some of the best humans we have are teachers. Still, this institution has far too many problems, and the positives of change are worthy of the risks. It’s sad to say, anyone who’s been in a public school lately can attest to the lack of resources, brutal environment, ineffective teaching, poor social behavior, disorganized, stupid factories they have become. The point is, we can do much, much better. C.S. Lewis uses the term desert, and it works, it’s effective, but I wish it weren’t. 

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Angie Byrd