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Friday, October 30, 2009

A Polished Sarcophagus

I often wonder if education, civilization, and all things "proper" are really nothing more than a huge performance designed to cover up the realities underneath. I think back to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Jonathon Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Conrad uses a polished sarcophagus introduced in the early part of the novel to symbolize the reality of the Belgian Congo in the late nineteenth century, a place where King Leopold II claimed to be promoting the virtues of civilization when, in fact, he was carrying out one of the most appalling human rights atrocities humanity had ever known. I think of Swift's Houyhnhnms as an example of what we'd all like to be, but in the end just pretend to be. Secretly, we're all just a bunch of yahoos.

I feel the same way about education. We always hype up how we're making great gains with the kids we work with and point to numbers to show improvement, but what's underneath is what is truly appalling, what we never want to deal with: the social ills so many parts of our society deal with. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer; it's what gives the inner-city kid in DC the opportunity to be somebody one day, just like the rich kid from Beverly Hills. But schools cannot, by themselves, be the great equalizer. It is simply not possible. So, instead of looking at the corpse that rots inside, we polish the outside and proclaim victory. But while we're working on the exterior, the interior continues to rot.

I tend to think this is the myth that "civilization" thrives on, but it works for a lot of other things too. Public education is certainly one of those things.

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