“Reopening schools should be a priority because schools fulfill many roles beyond providing an education,” says a report issued by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. Dr. Enriqueta Bond, the report committee’s chair, says “It’s child care, it’s nutrition, it’s health services, it’s social and emotional support services.” Dr. Anthony Fauci concurs, saying opening schools is important for “the psychological welfare of the children, the fact that many children rely on schools for nutrition,” and because of “the unintended downstream ripple effects on families,” who otherwise have to interrupt or stop work to homeschool kids.
It’s an oft-repeated refrain: educational institutions should re-open because of the important non-educational services they offer. Something about these appeals strikes me as curious, and deeply troubling.
The thing is . . . in all the attempts to persuade parents and teachers to open schools, almost nothing is said about the essential function of schools, for all children: intellectual growth. Failing to focus on the intellectual life of young people means that we miss out on something critically important in these debates. Learning is underappreciated, and, potentially, undermined. It is certainly not portrayed with the depth and beauty it deserves. Yet it easily could be.
In schools, students see things for the first time: in math, how wholes can be divided into fractional parts, and how every line on a graph can also be expressed as an equation. In literature classes, they come to appreciate the way a short-story author foreshadows, and a roomful of children write a play together, learning to be constructive critics of their own and each other’s work. School is where students dig a hole outside their classroom and see revealed previously hidden layers of soil, and where they learn to do experiments to see how each layer holds water and supports life. With classmates, they learn about both the richness and the suffering of ethnic and racial communities, helping them to become better citizens. School is where students learn about money and the basic mathematical operations, building financial literacy. In schools, students learn to see patterns in nature, whether in the rings of a tree or the bracts of a pinecone. They come to see how things are connected, like water temperatures and the ratio of male-to-female fish.
In schools, minds are opened, and ideas are made exciting. History comes alive, and young people actively participate in the fine arts. They reenact and discuss famous speeches, learn what it means to hold an election, find themselves on a map, and write about their lives. They learn from more than what is blatantly obvious, and build intellectual skills invaluable in families, workplaces, and politics.
The absence of focus on young people’s intellectual lives, in the endless parade of reports, guidelines, and recommendations urging schools to reopen, is remarkable. It reveals how, unintentionally but unmistakably, we underestimate and undermine the intellectual lives of the young. Young people deserve to be stimulated intellectually, and to be aided and encouraged in their progress. All of us—as friends, family members, and neighbors—can show more respect to their intellectual lives and capacities.
There is a second gap in the reports urging us to throw open the doors of schools, and it is related to the first: the expert role of the teacher is under-emphasized. If we only needed schools to deliver meals, we could deliver them to children’s homes, as we do pizzas! And parents are not only frustrated with home-schooling because they are often trying to combine it with working from home–the problem is that they are not trained teachers! Let us, in these reports, name and celebrate teachers’ skills and contributions. These, too, can be rather easily conveyed.
A teacher’s questions help students to see the importance of an historical event, and to understand even the concept of time. It is teachers who grasp the process of learning to read and can take students through the stages. Teachers are trained to pick out inspiring children’s literature to share with kids, and to identify the unique interests of each student so that they can pick just the right book for each to encourage a love of reading. Teachers are the ones who build bridges between the school and the community, hosting a holocaust survivor, and sending water samples collected by the students to a local environmental agency. Teachers educate about root systems and ecosystems by building a school garden that the children tend, a garden from which they prepare a meal. Teachers know how to visually demonstrate the amount of the world’s water that is potable, and build knowledge and passion that leads students to advocate for clean water. Teachers practice the scientific method with students, show how Algebra I can build to Algebra II, and demonstrate the distinct periods of Picasso’s art and of art history.
Teachers are doing their jobs when they light students up intellectually. Teachers are trained to help young people learn to distinguish, categorize, question, dissect, criticize, rethink, express, compute, induce, and deduce. We need to acknowledge and reward this!
Schools do indeed fill many social functions—more, in fact, than they are staffed or funded to carry out as well as they could. But first and foremost, schools are where students learn who, how, what, when, where, why, and more, aided by skillful educators. Let’s celebrate that function of educational institutions more, and that hunger in children to learn. We want students to have confidence in their intellectual and creative capacities!
Let’s agree that the capacity of children to learn and to learn how to learn is so important, to our young people and to society, that we will do everything we can to get COVID under control so that schoolhouse doors can, as soon as possible, safely re-open.
Conversations with Hannah Swaden and Brennin Weiswerda were helpful in developing this essay.