Dinner Table Depositions (or Whatever Happened to Horace Mann?)

by Sarah Blaine

“A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” — Horace Mann (educator & attorney)

Living in a house with a former teacher turned attorney can’t always be easy. It probably doesn’t help that my husband is also an attorney. As we share stories about our days around the family dinner table each night, our dinner table conversation almost invariably includes some legal discussion.

Then the questions start. My favorite first came about three years ago:

“What’s a deposition?”

How do you explain a deposition to a six year old?

Well…

All of my lawyer friends…

How do you do it?

You don’t.

You act it out.

Ok. Well, first we need to assign roles. E, you are going to be the witness.

— Okay.

E, do you want Mommy or Daddy to be your attorney?

— Mommy.

Ok. Then Daddy is going to be the attorney for your adversary.

J is going to be the court reporter.

— What’s a court reporter?

J, your job is just to sit there and pretend to type what we’re saying.

We show the two year old what to do and she bangs on the table like a court reporter for a minute and then returns to smearing peas onto her face and into her hair.

So then we need a hypothetical dispute. E’s across-the-street sometimes future-husband, sometimes arch-nemesis will do for an adversary. In our hypothetical, they’re fighting about sometimes-nemesis stealing E’s stuffed shark.

J again bangs on the table. M examines the witness. And E answers the questions.

We swear the witness and “go on the record.”

This witness giggles much more than your run of the mill deposition witness as we go through the preliminaries.

Then…

“When did your shark go missing?”

— Last week.

“What is your basis for stating that my client took your shark?”

— I saw him.

etc.

etc.

A few substantive questions in, M asks a ridiculous question and I object to the form of the question.

Then we go off the record to have a discussion about my objection.

We go back on the record and the questioning continues.

I object to the form of the question again.

And so forth.

After our first deposition dinner, deposition dinners, believe it or not, became a common request for a couple of years:

“Mommy, can we play deposition again?”

Thankfully, more recently they’ve petered out, as I think that M and I have been getting tired of generating hypotheticals and, to be honest, the last thing I want to do at the family dinner table is to act out a hypothetical version of my day job.

This is one example of our daughters’ dinner table civics education. Oh, and even my oldest is still a few years away from 6th grade.

But what do deposition dinners have to do with education policy?

Well, with the roll out of Common Core this year, we’ve been hearing a lot about the Core’s central goal.  That goal, of course, in case you’ve been hiding under a rock, is to ensure that every child graduates with the skills that will make her “College & Career Ready.” But before we do a close reading of what, exactly, “College & Career Ready” means (that is a subject for another day), can we start with the premise?

Why do we dedicate so many of our tax dollars to ensuring that every child in this country has access to a public education?

Is it because it’s our duty as a country to make sure our kids are “College & Career Ready?”

Or, dare I suggest, is it because, as a nation, we decided that an educated citizenry is a necessary component of a functional democratic republic?

Horace Mann is largely credited with the growth of the modern public school movement. I’m not sure how many of us realize that education wasn’t compulsory throughout the United States until the early 20th century.  Mann was a mid-19th century reformer who is credited with developing the system of Common Schools that would become our modern public school system (for the record, he too was a lawyer by training).

As this PBS.org website explains:

Mann’s commitment to the Common School sprang from his belief that political stability and social harmony depended on education: a basic level of literacy and the inculcation of common public ideals. He declared, “Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School…may become the most effective and benignant of all forces of civilization.” Mann believed that public schooling was central to good citizenship, democratic participation and societal well-being. He observed, “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people, must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.”

I’m with Mann.

The number one reason I approve of my tax dollars supporting public education is that I desperately hope that we are an educated and informed citizenry that can look beyond the muckraking, grandstanding, empty rhetoric, and self-aggrandizing to vote for elected representatives who reflect our political philosophy and will advocate policies that we believe are best for our communities.  In short, I don’t want to live in a mad-house of a nation.

To avoid the mad-house, we need to educate students to learn lessons from history, to understand our government and how to advocate for themselves in our democratic republic, and provide our children with access to the education necessary to resist slick rhetoric in favor of reasoned discourse and critical analysis of what they read, hear, and view.  In the internet age, I believe these skills are more critical than ever.  I worry about standards for public education that tout college & career readiness rather than civic education as their central goal.

The public schools I attended did a great job teaching these skills. And I take my duty as a citizen seriously: I research candidates and issues before I vote, and I often find myself frustrated by the farcical nature of modern political discourse. But then again, I’m also a nerd and an amateur policy wonk.

So sue me. But don’t depose me at the dinner table.

I believe that educating an informed electorate is the central reason why we publicly fund public schools and why education is compulsory for all children.

College and career readiness? That’s just icing on the cake.

And what worries me when I review the introduction to the CCSS Grades 6-12 standards for History and Social Studies on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website, is that there is not a single mention of preparing students for their future roles as members of an informed electorate:

The standards below begin at grade 6; standards for K–5 reading in history/social studies, science, and technical subjects are integrated into the K–5 Reading standards. The CCR anchor standards and high school standards in literacy work in tandem to define college and career readiness expectations—the former providing broad standards, the latter providing additional specificity.

It seems to me that we have a philosophical and theoretical disconnect here.

Why do we fund public schools?

Why do we make public school compulsory?

Is it really all about “CCR” (College & Career Readiness)?

Does educating an informed electorate still matter in the wake of Citizens United?

Does justice require educated citizen jurors who are capable of sifting through facts to arrive at thoughtful and well-reasoned verdicts?

And if these things matter, shouldn’t preparation for citizenship be at least as much at the heart of our public education system as “College & Career Readiness”?

Or are we headed straight into the madhouse of Horace Mann’s nightmares?

7 thoughts on “Dinner Table Depositions (or Whatever Happened to Horace Mann?)

  1. I agree the rhetoric about why we have public education is mostly wrong. Neil Postman’s “The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School” is a good read on the subject.

    I’m not worried about the CCSS ELA standards not mentioning “preparing students for their future roles as members of an informed electorate” because that is outside the realm of what is being standardized. As you said in your earlier post, “It’s a CORE. It is meant to represent a floor, not a ceiling, for what public schools need to provide and what students need to learn.” But beyond that, CCSS only specifies two subject areas: mathematics and English language arts. The content of history courses, civics courses, science courses, and more has been left to other efforts to create standards, in part because past attempts to create comprehensive standards were mired in politics. The CCSS ELA standards mention those fields because it is expected that they will provide more opportunities for reading and writing outside of regular English courses.

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  2. I agree with Greg. In addition, I think much of the standards that prepare students for college and career also prepare them to be citizens.

    And I am encouraged by the math curriculum my son’s school uses (it is common core approved, though in the interests of full disclosure my state has not adopted the math cc standards). I see a huge difference between what I learned in elementary school math and what my son learns. He is being taught multiple ways to approach problems and the logic and reasoning that is the foundation of mathematics, as well as basic math facts. This problem solving and critical thinking approach will serve our students well as citizens and is a good complement to civics education.

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  3. I’m not worried about the CCSS ELA standards not mentioning “preparing students for their future roles as members of an informed electorate” because that is outside the realm of what is being standardized. As you said in your earlier post, “It’s a CORE. It is meant to represent a floor...., not a ceiling, for what public schools need to provide and what students need to learn.” But beyond that, CCSS only specifies two subject areas: mathematics and English language arts. The content of history courses, civics courses, science courses, and more has been left to other efforts to create standards, in part because past attempts to create comprehensive standards were mired in politics. The CCSS ELA standards mention those fields because it is expected that they will provide more opportunities for reading and writing outside of regular English courses.

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  4. Very thought provoking writing. Thank you. As I read this, I wondered, where is the parent to prepare their child(ren) “for their future roles as members of an informed electorate?” Should this responsibility primarily fall on teachers and schools?

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  5. “Failure to help gifted children reach their potential is a societal tragedy, the extent of which is difficult to measure but is surely great. How can we measure the loss of the sonata unwritten, the curative drug undiscovered, the absence of political insight? They are the difference between what we are and we could be as a society.” —Dr. James J. Gallagher (1926-2014)

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  6. Pingback: PARCC Online | parentingthecore

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