I recently had the chance to read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for my Teach For America credentialing program at Loyola Marymount University. Reading the book in that setting prompted notice of the near absence of school in the novel. In one way this is disappointing, as I’m sure Morrison would powerfully present how her protagonist, a young black girl, experiences school. At the same time, however, I wonder if this absence helps an educator remember what is often very hard for educators to remember: school is not a very powerful force in the lives of many students. School for many is a span of time they must endure, but it does little to animate their emotions and thoughts.
What does animate students’ (or better, “childrens’”) emotions and thoughts is their relationship with their parents. Morrison investigates parental influence over and over in her book, sometimes sparingly, sometimes quite vividly. To risk superficiality, here is a catalog of a few of the studies: Frieda’s patronizing sovereignty inherited from her mother. Pecola’s need to be accepted inherited from her ostracized mother Pauline. Cholly’s anger from his father Samson. Elihue’s, “Soaphead Church,” Gnosticism from his bookish father. Junior’s cruelty toward low-income blacks from Geraldine. However Morrison chooses to show us in each episode, the message across the book is bracingly loud and clear: Those who influence children determine their destiny, and those most influencing children are their parents.
The troubling trend of public education is the expansion of a problem inherent in the idea of public education: the replacement of the parent with the school as primary instructor of a child. There are two reasons this germ of public education is problematic: first, American public education, as it has been established, shies away from moral instruction, leaving children who are not trained in virtue by their primary educator. The second problem seems to be inherent in public education, but perhaps isn’t. This problem is the slow but eventual surrender from parents to state of responsibility for more and more aspects of their offspring’s future. Parents take less and less initiative, are less confident, and defer to the school on more and more. One aspect of this seems to be because of a certain view of education, explained well below by Leon Kass in the article “In Search of an Honest Man,” published in the most recent National Affairs:
I had unthinkingly held the Enlightenment view of the close connection between intellectual and moral virtue: Education and progress in science and technology would overcome superstition, poverty, and misery, allowing human beings to become at last the morally superior creatures that only nature’s stinginess, religion, and social oppression had kept them from being. Yet in Mississippi I saw people living honorably and with dignity in perilous and meager circumstances, many of them illiterate, but sustained by religion, extended family, and community attachment, and by the pride of honest farming and homemaking. They even seemed to display more integrity, decency, and strength of character, and less self-absorption, vanity, and self-indulgence, than many of my high-minded Harvard friends who shared my progressive opinions.
As mentioned, Morrison does not often talk of school, but one can imagine how Cholly, the most tragic adult in the book, would have done in school. Cholly is an instructive example to consider because his parents abandoned him at a young age; how would he survive the modern day without the parental function of public schools? This is a good question, but first notice Morrison’s mention of Cholly’s zeal in reuniting with his father in Macon: “Surely that would be enough to get to Macon. What a good, strong-sounding word, Macon.” The power between a child and parent, a power of influence, is not present between a child and a teacher he or she has for nine months. Even if a teacher stayed with a child for ten years, the two are not as intimately connected, and as able to positively benefit from one another, as parent and child.
But what about bad parents? If The Bluest Eye is anything, it is a tragic examination of what happens when no one intervenes in bad parenting. Parents are often bad, and they do not need references or background checks to influence their children the way teachers do. But public school is hardly an appropriate intervention for bad parenting. In fact, it seems to encourage bad parenting, with the subtle but corrosive notion that teachers and classrooms are with whom and where students learn, not with parents at home.