"…there is no surer way to bring an end to schooling…

…than for it to have no end” –Neil Postman

What Postman is saying, i think, is that without an agreed-on end (transcendent purpose) for education, education ends. That if you remove a satisfying conclusion to the narrative of people’s endeavors, they will peter out and eventually cease achieving, end of story.

I think i would agree, having been in schools where the “whole vision thing” was lacking, where the kids and teachers wandered with no over-riding central “narrative” that gave direction and meaning to their work. Yes, I suppose learning happened (does it ever not?), but it wasn’t focused and maximized through the agency of the school (the school’s main purpose, no?)
Postman:

“Without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention.

In schooling, you’re always playing out a story, if only a stupid re-run you borrowed from some other guy.

So, how does the narrative at your school end? In what does your education eventuate? Is it higher test scores? fine-tuning the RTI? getting kids ready for their next level of the educational system? Is it in making the curriculum coherent and common? For what ends, then?

Curriculum leaders can dictate the story, and the teachers and students play it out–for good or ill.

When I was at Mt. Carmel HS, they had (and continue to have, I believe) a very strong common ethic. United in common purpose, the school regularly delivers on its stated purpose to produce fine young men. When I worked there (1987-94) the motto that inspired everyone was easy to find, posted in large letters in the lunchroom.

“You came to Carmel as a boy;
If you work and struggle at it,
You will leave a man.”

The purpose (end/goal) thus posted, students (in most cases) gave their all at accomplishing whatever tasks their coaches and teachers demanded of them.

In a prior position, at Fenwick High School when it was an all-male institution (1986-87) I experienced teaching in a school with no transcendent end because it had in mind more pressing goals–like continued survival. Enrollment was dangerously low, the Dominicans were being less munificent, and so the very future of the school was in doubt. Complicating things for them that year was a new Dominican principal, who brought innovative ideas with him, further confusing the sense of self.

In such a school, not much appeared different. Learning continued, teachers still taught a traditional curriculum, priests still administered sacraments, and the Speech and athletic teams continued to do well. But there was little sense of purpose for the students, nothing held before them to motivate the entire enterprise. The “Friars continued to achieve (an excellent swim program, and lots of National Merit scholars, for instance), but it was on the tails of the school’s history, burning the fumes of the past. It was not, as I experienced it, a school working toward common goals.

The “Fenwick story has a happy ending, as anyone who knows their awesome achievement over the past twenty years can attest–allowing young women into the school made all the difference, and it continues to be among the best schools in Illinois.

It makes sense to me that where schools are powered by the collaborative energy of the people in the community, there can be better communication and commitment to achieving common aims.

A challenge to you administrators, then: how well are you infusing your students and staff with a sense of purpose, and toward what ultimate ends?

A challenge to you students and staff: what to you are the most important ends of our work?

*A comment to this post would get the conversation going, and knowledge accruing!

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