Back to School…D’ya Think?

Back to School…D’ya Think? by James Howard Kunstler

After the spring from hell, and two months of summer staycation, families across the land anxiously await the very dubious reopening of the school year. The Covid-19 virus has revealed structural cracks in the mighty fortress of public education. Some districts remain closed, or only tentatively and partially open. It’s easy to see where this is going.

I got a letter this week from a high school physics teacher in New England — who wants to remain anonymous. He writes:

“…Covid has initiated the death of public ed in America…. The state cannot decide whether we should start full remote or whether we should try some weird hybrid schedule. Nobody can make a decision. The union is pissed. They know most of the classrooms are poorly ventilated and too small and they see nothing but a ‘cruise ship’ scenario unfolding. Remote is terrible, but it is better than nothing….”

Before we go further, remember the first principle of the long emergency: anything organized at the giant scale is liable to fail. During the post-war growth spurt, we consolidated all the nation’s schools into giant districts serviced by the yellow bus fleets bringing thousands of kids together in buildings designed to look like insecticide factories. And when that project was complete, what did we get? Two decades of mass shootings in schools. I don’t think we got the correct message from this — which is that this manner of schooling produces so much ennui and anomie that some kids turn homicidal by the time they hit their teens.

The fact that this condition remains unrecognized, and certainly absent from public discussion, says a lot about our disastrous collective psychology of previous investment: having set up this miserable system at titanic expense, we can’t even think about changing it. Now, as is usual in human history, the process will happen emergently, on its own, whether we like it or not, because circumstances demand it.

Another matter absent from news media is what happens when falling tax revenues start to bite the giant consolidated school districts. My physics teacher correspondent in New England writes:

“School finances are in full reverse mode. Whispered in the hallways before every school committee and in every town council chamber is the awesome reality that sales tax and property tax collections are down 25 – 30 percent. The fear is palpable…. It seems to me that Public Ed as we currently know it will be history in about four years. It is a big edifice. It will take a few years to fully implode, but not a decade. There’s no money left to keep it going as it is.”

And so, “technology” steps in to save the day: remote learning. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but the unintended consequences are pretty grim. Is it realistic to park little kids, say 1st to 6th graders, in front of computer screens for six hours a day? I doubt it. And now that we’ve set things up so that many households need both parents to generate income, who’s around to supervise the remote learning? Personally, I doubt that a majority of even high schoolers will stick to that regimen.

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James Howard Kunstler

James Howard Kunstler says he wrote The Geography of Nowhere, “Because I believe a lot of people share my feelings about the tragic landscape of highway strips, parking lots, housing tracts, mega-malls, junked cities, and ravaged countryside that makes up the everyday environment where most Americans live and work.” Home From Nowhere was a continuation of that discussion with an emphasis on the remedies. A portion of it appeared as the cover story in the September 1996 Atlantic Monthly. His next book in the series, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, published by Simon & Schuster / Free Press, is a look a wide-ranging look at cities here and abroad, an inquiry into what makes them great (or miserable), and in particular what America is going to do with it’s mutilated cities.