E.M. "Mac" Swengel, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Education
School of Education
United States International University
San Diego, California
“Under One Roof”
THE BENIGN SCHOOL
by Edwin M. Swengel, Ph.D
Members of every known
culture, going back to the Neanderthals and the human species that
may have destroyed them, showed curiosity about life, its origin,
meaning, purpose, and values—philosophical questions we still
wrestle with today. Poets, philosophers, dreamers, and mystics in
every culture have offered answers to these questions with myths and
legends and “lessons of life”—proverbs and homely adages. Those
which people of their own and succeeding generations found
appealing, satisfying, and practical, endured and became their
cultural values and beliefs. People internalized and tried to live
by them, accepting them as being true and right—but repeatedly
testing them to see if they still fit a changed and ever-changing
We of the human species, unlike members of all non-human species,
are born with almost no instinctive patterns of behavior, no innate
knowledge of what to eat and how to prepare it to be tasty, how to
keep warm and dry, how best to defend against enemies, how to cure
or at least alleviate illness and pain. Thus it seems we have to
learn everything we need to know to survive and to enjoy life. Human
nature is an astonishingly rich collection of potentials that must
be properly nurtured to be useful, protective, and rewarding.
We have to learn a lot to make life pleasant and meaningful. But the
most important things we have to learn—and how best to learn
them—are not now and never have been the central or major part of
the public school curricula and teaching/learning methodologies.
Since individual life cannot continue long without the care and
support of others, the fate of society is tied to the survival of
its individuals. The quality of social life affects the quality of
individual lives. The mutual interaction between individuals and
their culture leads to the inescapable conclusion that “a society is
its individuals writ large; individuals are their society writ
small.” This two-way interaction can be both benign and malign.
Ruling tyrants at all levels of life can squelch individuals’
enjoyment and growth--even without inflicting physical pain.
High-minded, warm-hearted persons, dedicated to justice and equality
for all, can and do upgrade the quality of their society, at all
Knowing all this, why haven’t educators, politicians, philosophers,
poets, and all who try to shape their society to fit their beliefs,
devised an educational system that equips all its members with the
knowledge, skills, and values they need to achieve worthy goals,
personal and social, within their reach?
It is much easier to imagine great and beautiful things than to
create them, to turn theory into practice, to make dreams come true.
Especially difficult is trying to make fundamental, basic changes in
long-established, traditional societies and systems—in religion,
politics, medicine, government, economics, and entertainment. Even
science, allegedly the most open system of thought and practice, has
entrenched basic beliefs—theories and standard research
protocols—that often prove difficult to challenge and change.
Worldwide, both public and private school systems are
tradition-bound, strongly resistant to basic, radical, fundamental
structural change. The traditional state-supported school system has
been in operation for less than two centuries. Ironically, it has
during that time proved so unsatisfactory in achieving its worthy
goals for all students, that well-intentioned educators and others
have continually been trying to reform it. The education brotherhood
is notorious for climbing on and off bandwagons that roll in from
religion, business, social and psychological science, politics, the
military. Most reform efforts, however well intentioned as most are,
have failed to make lasting, across-the-board, significant changes
in student learning and behavior.
The basic problem of most reform efforts is that they are piecemeal.
They look at problems one-at-a-time. What to teach? When (at what
grade levels) to teach it? (Rarely is it seriously asked why to
teach some subjects or parts thereof.) How to get kids interested in
learning? (In learning “school stuff,” that is. They get very
interested, and often quite competent in learning lots of other
stuff.) How to fairly evaluate their learning? How to determine who
is accountable if pupils don’t learn well? How to discipline them
(how to get and keep “control of the class”)? How to get parents
meaningfully and creatively involved? How to satisfy employers and
post-grad professors? How to get public financial support from
taxpayers, philanthropists, and foundations? How to recruit,
up-grade, and retain competent teachers? ……….. (Any teacher or
principal can fill in the empty space. I could have just added “ad