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Critique Of School Bells By Lewis Lapham

School Bells Essay
I found Lewis Lapham’s article “School Bells” in the August, 2000 edition of
Harper’s magazine to be not only convincing, but also easy to relate to and truthful. The
contents of the article have far-reaching and thought-provoking implications.

Much of his argument rests on the nearly indisputable belief that if we, as a
nation, devoutly wished to reform or even revolutionize the educational system in place,
we undoubtedly could. Factual proof of this is found throughout the history of the United
States. We have made significant scientific and societal advances in the last one hundred years as evidenced by the computer, the automobile, the civil rights movement, the list goes on. With such incredible financial and intellectual resources as can be found in this country, why not add another major contribution to our success? – Education.

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Though he never directly refers to it, the process in which public schools are funded is alluded to several times by Lapham (e.g. “We have one set of schools for the children of the elite, another for children less fortunately born). The flaw in funding for public schools lies in direct community influence. Nearly 1/2 of the funding provided is derived from the property taxes collected from the locality. Since wealthy neighborhoods pay far more property tax than poor ones, schools that lie in wealthy districts and neighborhood are allocated far more capital than schools located in poor areas. This creates a myriad of dilemmas for the poor (most of which they aren’t even aware of because they have never been taught), and innumerable advantages for the rich. Under the current system the children of wealthy families are catered to and groomed to become the new “elite” while obstacles are constantly being placed in the paths of destitute children. This is a major contributing factor to the cycle of class distinction.

Lapham claims at one point that “schools regulate the supply of unskilled labor,” and think of “the graduating classes as an assembly line product.” In essence, I believe the point he is trying to convey is that schools produce certain types of people according to society’s needs (or shall I say the needs of politicians and those who own large corporations). A definite correlation between impoverished school districts and disciplinary action can be seen throughout the U.S. This increase in security and authoritarianism teaches poor children their future place in society by inducing “fear of authority and habits of obedience.” He also mentions that corporations often target the least prosperous districts to market their products under the guise of “educational tools.” These schools often discourage creative thought and teach students that reading is dull and tedious as well. Conversely, the financially secure children can avoid public schools altogether by attending private school, or go to a public school with monetary advantages due to its location. Both of these options give well-to-do children access to a far better learning experience.

One conclusion that can be drawn from all of this is that children of impecunious families are undoubtedly at an educational disadvantage to begin with. Because of the pervasive toward those with low incomes, low-income schools expect less from their students. People tend to live up to the standards set for them, and since they are expected to anyway, there is little chance for creative, independent thought. Advanced courses that encourage this are often times not offered at these schools – this maintains low standards. The odds are unquestionably stacked against the poor.

On the other hand, the upper class, especially politicians and the owners of multi-billion dollar corporations, has a great interest in maintaining the status quo. Many politicians rely on huge corporations for much of their campaign funds, in turn, these corporations receive preferential treatment – if the corporations have no money bad politicians cannot make it back into office (imagine what well-informed consumers would mean), nor can they if the public is able to make competent political decisions. In general, this system ensures financial security for the offspring of the wealthy.

Lapham does present ideas on how the existing system might be improved. His ideal educational system is based on free and creative thought. He proposes that we achieve this through a variety of methods. First and foremost, he emphasizes the importance of reading as an enlightening, fun, educational activity rather than a chore. He cites Britain, France, Germany and Spain as countries whose students make much more progress then their American peers after 7th grade (let’s not forget that communist Cuba who most Americans despise has the highest literacy rate in the world). He believes reading nurtures the thought process and I agree. He also advocates a decrease in discipline and security – this is in accordance with the belief that schools are educational institutes, not “minimum-security prisons.” The final change he mentions is the need for equal and raised academic standards. A system based on these premises would result in a more competent, intelligent, equal, better informed society.

Changes such as those above are suggestive of not merely a reform, but an all-out educational revolution. This would mean drastic changes in major aspects of education.
This is pertinent to Quest classes in a couple of ways. First, Quest classes should be made more widely available. This would increase educational standards in general as well as being a great step toward eliminating the involuntary lack of learning that produces hard-working, poverty-stricken people.

The second way in which this is pertinent to Quest classes is the way in which they are taught. These classes should promote creative thought through various processes. Highly structured activities should definitely be avoided; in place of these, discussions allowing the free flow of ideas should be placed. Reading for the class should be interesting, and above all, combating ignorance. He stresses the importance of reading as an instrument that can sharpen and liberate one’s mind – this too should be an integral component of Quest classes. According to Lapham, there should be an emphasis on the truth behind the lies, politics, and societal problems and the solutions for these problems – if this was how all classrooms were run, there would not be an “educational crisis,” because the system would have changed long ago. Because of the freedom of thought and expression in Quest classes, they need to be very flexible and are therefore more demanding on teachers (as if we didn’t see through your little ploy to get more feedback from us).

Lapham’s article was a concise, clear articulation on what school’s really – not learning institutes, but because of the benefits for the wealthy derived from the present system, it may never happen.
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