A group of public school superintendents recently met at Columbia University to talk about mutual concerns. They did not want to talk about the ever-present problems of lack of money, too many and conflicting demands and so forth. Those topics were all givens. What they wanted to discuss was their mutual concern about the decline of community in America and the role of the public schools in creating and sustaining community.
We are a commonwealth and should be concerned with the common good and not just what is good for me. Apparently our citizens do not understand this message. The first place to learn how to be a responsible member of a commonwealth is within the family. Members of a family should learn that while their growth and development is important, it should not be at the expense of other members of the family.
Special interest groups make demands which they want gratified immediately no matter what effect this will have on others.
When one member uses up all of the resources of the family through drugs, alcohol and rebelliousness, the other members suffer. The family needs to take responsibility to model other behavior and to produce children who do not expect instant gratification and think only of themselves.
The classroom is another place where children can learn to work together for the good of the group.
The classroom is a community of people, which includes the teacher, who should develop a concern for each other. The children should be helped to feel responsible not only for the successes of the group but for its failures. They help each other to succeed. In this way, they not only develop intellectually by sharing their abilities, they also develop morally by developing a concern for their peers. They are learning how to be good citizens.
In their anxiety to provide the best for their children, some parents give the wrong message to them.
They do not want their children to experience any distress so they intercede for them in ways that are not helpful for the children or the school system. Charter schools are having a problem because, while they welcome parent involvement, they cannot accede to all of the parents' requests because the parents' concerns are for their child only and do not take into account the needs of the group as a whole.
The superintendents lamented the fact that there was a decline of community and the loss of social cohesion. People no longer pull together. Special interest groups make demands which they want gratified immediately no matter what effect this will have on others. Superintendents who understand the whole situation and try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, wind up out of jobs because they usually cannot please their most vocal parents.
Recently, resort towns have expressed a desire to bring a sense of community into the towns which originally came into being for winter activities only. These towns are expanding into year-round communities and are concerned about their future. Again, the problem is that each group is concerned about his own needs. The wealthy residents put a fence around their homes and only go to private clubs. They do not want an "undesirable" element to move in to disturb their sense of what a community is.
If our country develops into a society in which every person and every group is for itself then we will cease to be a commonweatlh. Our children will never experience the values promoted by the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Is that the legacy we want to leave for them? Maybe it is time for all adults to rethink the messages we are giving to our children.
First published in 1996