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What is a School?

Written by Charles D. Bernstein (Ph.D)

The question of what a school is supposed to be has many answers. One of the reasons that the public debate about improving schools is so difficult is that there is no consensus about what a school is. Without that, it is difficult to reach agreement on what a school should do

Literal Meaning of “School”

The modern English word school derives from an old English word, scol, that derives from Latin, schola, meaning “a break from work,” “leisure dedicated to learning,” “a place for intellectuals to gather to discuss issues,” and other similar concepts. The Latin word, in turn, derived from the Greek word, skhole, with identical meanings. Despite its vague meaning originally, the word was incorporated into most Western languages: French (école), Spanish (escuela), Italian (scuola), German (Schule), Swedish (skola), Gaelic (sgiol), Welsh (ysgol), and Russian (shkola)

Over the years, the meaning has evolved in English. In the Middle Ages, it took on the sense of a group of students attending a place of learning. About the same time, it was also used to describe a grouping of fish. The notion of “conformity” was emphasized when it began to refer also to a common perspective or set of principles. In the late Renaissance, the word was identified with a physical building. Finally, the word schooling, in addition to its reference to learning, has taken on the negative connotations of reprimanding and disciplining.

School as a Tool of Government

The original Greek and Latin notions of school emphasized the free exchange of ideas and the pleasure that it engendered. That practice was short-lived for the first universally-recognized schoolteacher, Socrates. After Athens’ shocking military defeat by the Spartans, Socrates had the audacity to suggest that some of the features of the non-democratic Spartan government might be superior to those of Athenian democracy. Worse, he questioned the wisdom of the Oracle at Delphi. The result was that he was convicted of corrupting the youth of Athens and irreverence, for which he was executed. After the demise of the Roman Empire, schools were primarily military institutions. This was true in the Byzantine Empire as well as in the East. Later, learning institutions known as schools were sponsored by religious groups in both the West and the East. Islam introduced a learning concept, the madrassa, which was independent of the mosque, in the 9th century. Under the Ottoman Empire, which introduced a socialized system to provide health care, food, and other essential needs, madrassas became the first public institution dedicated to universal instruction.

In the West, school attendance began to become obligatory in the 18th century. As American society became more urbanized, the one-room frontier schools were consolidated into larger institutions. After World War II, both federal and state governments began taking a greater role in the direction of what had previously been considered a local responsibility.

American Public Schools

Most societies and religious institutions have seen the indoctrination of youth as the cornerstone of political control. The United States, however, was both hesitant and slow in adopting this view. The increasing role of American government in schools is an interesting story in itself [SEE “POLITICS AND AMERICAN SCHOOLS”].

Congress made education a keystone of our defense system when it passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958 to improve the teaching of mathematics and sciences in local schools. This followed by only a few years the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education that separate schools for blacks and whites were inherently unequal. The issues of countering racial, gender, and handicapped discrimination was further emphasized in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act in 1972, and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1974.

For politicians and social reformers, schools are frequently seen as tools of change rather than institutions of learning. More recently, this has been manifested by the “one-size-fits-all” lobby into a monolithic, national curriculum, called “Common Core.”

Early Learning Institute Schools

Early Learning Institute (“ELI”) rejects any propaganda or indoctrination role for schools. Instead, it views the blossoming of the individual as the primary mission of a school. According to the ELI philosophy, a school should accomplish three things:

1. Teach basic skills—Developing the abilities to read, to compute, to research, and to think are the most important tasks of a school. These are step-by-step processes in which every step is essential to the next step. To ensure that each one is mastered by every individual, the process must proceed at an individualized pace.

2. Expose students to important content—An educated person is expected to have a basic, sometimes cursory knowledge of a wide range of topics. However, virtually any body of knowledge can be mastered by someone who has mastered the basic intellectual skills. Content is what most schools test, but it is secondary in an ELI school.

3. Demonstrate social success—Social success and failure is primarily taught through peer interaction, not as a formal school subject. For better and worse, students come to understand their individual strengths and weaknesses and how to cultivate relationships and work with others.

Those three objectives pertain to students, but a school serves more than its students. It serves their families, its teachers and staff members, and society in general. Not simply a facility or a curriculum, an ELI school is a learning community. Participants benefit from their involvement, but they also have responsibilities to fulfill to the community and its members. Our centers and schools are, thus, community centers for families and staff, providing social opportunities and mutual support for everyone. Our families are a rich resource with whom we retain ties long past the graduation of our students.

To the extent this blog post contributes to a public debate on the purpose of schools, it, too, fulfills the 2,500-year-old definition of a school as understood by the ancient Greeks.

Charles D. Bernstein, Ph.D.
President, Early Learning Institute
December 22, 2014

Charles D. Bernstein, Ph.D. (languages and linguistics), is the president and founder of Early Learning Institute, a Palo Alto-based organization that operates child care centers and private schools in the Bay Area—including the HeadsUp! Child Development Centers in Palo Alto, North San Jose, and Pleasanton, Emerson School in Palo Alto and Hacienda School in Pleasanton—and offers writing programs for school-age children.

Charles D. Bernstein (Ph.D)

Charles D. Bernstein, Ph.D. (languages and linguistics), is the president and founder of Early Learning Institute, a Palo Alto based organization that operates child care centers and private schools in the Bay Area—including the HeadsUp! Child Development Centers in Palo Alto, North San Jose, and Pleasanton, Emerson School in Palo Alto and Hacienda School in Pleasanton—and offers writing programs for school age children.

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