The Role of Parents and Community in Education

In reading Charles Glenn’s book "Educational Freedom in ­Eastern Europe" (1995) I delve into the world of totalitarian states, regimes that looked to education to perpetuate a carefully tailored ideology that would ensure the perpetuation of the state.  Slowly as I read on, current day issues distract me and compel me search for implications this work has for understanding and rethinking problems in our education system. ­

Glenn himself draws parallels between the focus of his study and western educational systems:

 "While an authoritarian regime may be satisfied with obedience, a totalitarian regime seeks devotion that will be self-perpetuating….the nation-building elites who made popular education a priority in the United States and other industrializing nations throughout the 19th century had something similar in mind. Without intending to suggest a ‘moral equivalence’ between the educational goals of totalitarian regimes and those of liberal democracies, it is appropriate to recognize that few political leaders in times of rapid social change can resist the temptation to seek to promote their own agenda through schooling…" (p 11-12)

While Glenn sees a shared trend in governments wanting to use education to promote a common ideology, the problem I see is not with the goal -many examples attest to the lack of efficacy of large bureaucracies-, but the growing lack of balance of power, not by design but by happenstance. Many questioned whether the Communist regime would be successful in destroying civil society. When I paraphrase this question I see a bridge between bodies of work and analysis. I understand this question about civil society to be whether individual agency and the will and freedom to organize and collaborate could be eradicated, supplanted by a top down state control.

The collapse of the Soviet regime seems to have answered this question in part. Works that explored resistance movements among populations deemed powerless provide some explanation as to how the totalitarian state ideology failed to ensure its faithful reproduction to the exclusion of alternative worldviews.

My fieldwork in the Basque Country, provided me first hand accounts of the persecution and oppression under a dictatorship. Through my informant’s stories I am able to better understand Václav Havel’s "Power of the Powerless" (1978) and James Scott’s "Weapons of the Weak" (1984).  Individuals can conform and yet not believe. Individuals can learn and perform on one level sanctioned by the state and yet understand and relate to peers reinterpreting those same ritualized performances with another set of values and beliefs. The key to this silent or underground resistance is ironically alluded to by Marx in his often quoted passage:

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but on the contrary their social existence that determines their consciousness.

Scott and Havel remind us that outside of the government controlled institutions peasants and the otherwise powerless groups of people shared and constructed their truth, their alternate ideology and practice. This alternate worldview and ritual  was crafted and maintained through their social interactions, outside the control of the state.

However, the question regarding the ability of the state to eradicate civil society was only partially answered.  Totalitarian regimes collapsed, an alternate view of what was possible survived outside of the design of the state institutions. But, what is there now?  I believe in many places the verdict is mixed when we look at the drive individual agency and trust in a social contract.  Do we witness innovation and collaboration, new social structures and economic endeavors flourishing?  I do not have the answer to this.

As I consider the health of individual agency and trust in a social contract abroad I come full circle to my present day concerns. For almost a decade now I have been a part of a disorganized, grass roots if you wish, movement to engage public servants and the business community to recognize that the social contract is broken, that education is working against individual agency, entrepreneurship and collaboration.  These are the maladies of the "welfare state" that many do not want to acknowledge exists.  Add to the picture the increasing impoverishment of the middle class in western democracies and the question I fear is: Where is the resistance going to come from?

By drawing a parallel between the totalitarian regime and the welfare state, I am reminded of the different fates of the Basque communities of Spain and France. On one side of the border, the state oppression was overt and resistance formed, on the other side the effect was perhaps more devastating on the long term survival of Basque culture and heritage though no weapons or overt violence was there to fight.  In France educational opportunities drew youth away from the regions. It was voluntary, languages other than French were tolerated just not institutionally endorsed.  In the end, the Basque region of France still is Basque but its identity is often kept alive primarily because of the fluid border with the Spanish Basque Communities.

My experience in the Basque Country and stories from other regions point to the irony that totalitarian regimes enabled the resistance, where as, in the case of western democracies, we face the effect of socialism and welfare states eroding individual agency and opportunities, not by force and dogma but by "goodwill". Where Scott and Havel studied the poor and powerless, and found a fountain of resistance among their social network, we face a broken social contract.  Single parent households and households where both parents work look toward state education and after school programs for help to keep kids from the streets. The result could very well be institutionalized children with fractured socialization outside of these government programs.

When I ask, where is the resistance going to come from, I am not asking for a revolution but I do recognize that a balance of power needs to be ensured. The role of families and communities should not be handed over to government programs. Solutions to present day ills is endangered when we willingly abdicate our responsibility to engage our neighbors and children.  Co-dependence on institutions – the definition of individual agency as the active decision to seek the help of the institution and the dependence of the institution on people needing them –  erodes the need for individuals to negotiate and collaborate independently of the government’s endorsement.  Transformational change – understand here innovation- needs multiple foci of action and thought,  if a government committed to sustainable economic development it requires diversity of experience, individual agency, and alternative spaces for learning.

At present, I know too many families, I include here college educated colleagues, struggling to make ends meet, outsourcing the raising of their children because the economic environment demands it. The choice to invest in community or family seems not to be available to the poor or the middle class.  The best that some can hope for is to bring a diversity of experience to their children through the extra-curricular activities arranged. But this in and of itself is limited by parents time and money, and these in short supply in this current economic climate. More and more I hear stories of families who faced loosing their homes due to illness or lost jobs, fears of not being able to afford college education and better opportunities for their children.

I do not have answers, but a genuine concern over the dire state of our public education, the growing fear and hopelessness, the broken social contract and the path forward beyond this economic recession.