Sunday, February 24, 2013

"Public" matters

I wrote this a couple of Februaries ago. 
Sometime I need reminding.... 

"That broad [public trust] doctrine derives from the ancient principle of English law that land covered by tidal waters belonged to the sovereign, but for the common use of all the people. Such lands passed to the respective states as a result of the American Revolution..."

I clam on a tidal flat a few miles from here.  A few others do as well. Tidal water is public--any of us can walk anywhere below the average high tide mark, and so long as the water is deemed safe, rake for clams. Or fish. Or launch a kayak. Or just lie on the beach letting the sea lap at our toes.

Lots of people have eaten my clams, our clams. I have caught a lot of my fish, our fish. I have wiled away hours and hours at the ocean's edge, my ocean, our ocean.

"Public" is not a four-letter word. You can count the letters.
Public is, however, a misunderstood word.

If we keep misunderstanding it, our republic will fail as a republic. Some would argue it already has.

I teach science, but keep a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights on the wall in class. right next to a tiny poster describing New Jersey's snakes. Every now and again someone asks why, and I'm all too eager to explain. Public schools exist for the benefit of our republic. Our republic depends on a learned, thinking citizenry.

We forget that sometimes.

Some classes are obviously tailored for this. Civics (where it still exists). History. The various vocational arts (cooking, wood shop, metal shop, home economics). Physical education.

Some less obviously so. English, when reduced to grammar, not so much. English, when sharing great ideas and helping citizens craft their ability to share those ideas, wonderfully so!

Science, when reduced to teaching the cell cycle, not so much. Science, when pushing children to look at the natural world, and start putting the pieces together, thinking about how things work, more so.

(We are, as a nation, confused about science--we think we need STEM education to produce technicians who will lead us into the New Glorious Economy, at least that's what those in power keep saying. The more we push science to feed our technocracy, the worse science education becomes.)

Public education, like the tide's edge and public parks, has become one of the few common spaces left. Few people know what "usufruct" means anymore.

Democracy cannot survive gated communities. Democracy cannot survive a constant drum of propaganda beaten into the heads of folks who have given up thinking for tribal acceptance. Democracy cannot thrive when small, powerful groups dictate the rules.

I fear for public education. Every time a family says my child's life is worth far more than yours, the commons shrinks. Every time a child has walls built around her to shield her from the world, the commons shrinks.

The walls are insidious. Charter schools (which, though "public" in name, defy the commons), SUV's, A&F t-shirts, gated communities, gerrymandering, and on and on and on create the image that your child is special, is elite, is immune to the world.

Does your Mayor send his children to public schools?  Do your local board of ed representatives? Your school district superintendent? Does your Senator send hers to the local public high school? Where do Bill Gates' children go? President Obama's? (I will give he devil Arne Duncan his due--at least he sends his children to public schools).

Yes, the reasons are myriad. Yes, we all want what's best for our children.
If you think the commons matters, if you think about that at all, then realize that your choices matter.

We may be beyond the tipping point. Some folks worry about the clams I rake, yet think nothing of the packaged clams dredged up hundreds of miles away by strangers. How do I know they're safe?

If you trust strangers more than your neighbors in the name of safety, and many of us do just that, then the local town hall becomes a quaint memento, the public school roof will start to leak, and democracy will fail.

I'm going to keep clamming as long as I can. I'm going to keep teaching in a public high school as long as I can. I'm going to keep writing as long as I can. We have a great thing going here in America.

The sad thing is, so few know what we got, they'll hardly miss it when it's gone.

Yes, we ate all the critters, (excepting the human kind) in the photos.


Kathryn J said...

Be careful about the comment about children going to the same schools as parent educators. My father was an administrator at one of the high schools that I attended. If you want to see man's inhumanity to man (children's inhumanity to children?), I could recount the bullying, threats, and physical abuse that I suffered that year. It was a requirement of his contract but after seeing what we went through, he never took a job with that restriction again.

I did go to public schools but not where my parents taught. Similarly, my children go to public high school but not in the district where I teach. I do not think it changes my dedication or affects my work ethic.

Kathryn J said...
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