Public Schools and Community

RDP Sign

I’ve written a number of times that I think public schools are important for reasons that are in addition to the education our kids receive. I usually say something like, “they turn us from a collection of individuals into a community.” I think this is true of traditional public schools generally, but maybe more so in the two school systems with which I have the most experience: West Lafayette and Richmond. Basically you have one school corporation for the city that pretty much everyone goes to. (Though, you can make a decent argument that the relevant community is “Tippecanoe County” and there are several different school systems.) In any event, the systems in West Lafayette & Richmond struck me as binding the community together more tightly than in places (like Ohio where I went to college) with high numbers of students going to private schools.

In the abstract, this sense of community comes from the age old tradition of a tribe banding together to provide for its young and, by extension, for its future. We all — whether we have kids or not — pay taxes into the system that are, in turn, used to build schools, pay teachers, run buses, and do everything else that goes into education. We do this because we all have a stake in the education of the community’s children. Back in 1846, Caleb Mills – the father of Indiana education – began his series of “Read, Circulate, Discuss” pamphlets which were ultimately instrumental in persuading the General Assembly to adopt a program of general education for the State. Part of his argument had to do with the benefit to the community at large. He argued that “the rich land-holder [is] interested, to the full amount of his property, in the intellectual and moral character of the community in which it is located” and that the value of the property is enhanced by “the intelligence and virtue,” and lessened by the “ignorance and vice of the surrounding neighborhood.” The merchant and the manufacturer benefit from operating in an “intelligent and virtuous” community rather than in one that is comprised of “ignorant and vicious” people. “We can better meet the expense of the proper education of the rising generation, than endure the consequences resulting from the neglect of it.” Self-interest aside, Mills also argued that the mere fact that we all would be paying for schools would cause us, whether we have children or not, to take an interest in them. In his second address published in 1847, Mills advocated:

Awaken the public mind, and concentrate it on the question, “Am I not interested in the proper education of all that are socially and politically connected with me? The bearings of such a question have not been duly considered. It needs to be discussed and examined. We are a shrewd people where dollars and cents are concerned. Many have never taken that view of their duty, and when it has been presented to them have frankly acknowledged that they have never thought of it in that light. Does not the Farmer derive as large a percent upon what he expends in the education of his children, as from any investment he can make of his funds? Does the amount which he pays to sustain a good school for the instruction of all the children in the district or township in which he lives, never find its way back again to him in the improved character of the community for intelligence, enterprise, and morals? Is not real estate in such a community more valuable, capital more productive, and enterprise more intelligent and successful? Would not the general thrift and prosperity caused by this intellectual and moral elevation, lighten public burdens, increase social enjoyments, enhance the value of property, multiply the facilities for its acquisition, and increase the security of its possession? Such cultivation could not fail to diminish pauperism and crime, lessen poverty and suffering, throw around the gardens, orchards, and the products of the field, an enclosure that would never be passed, improve the highways, and materially increase the substantial comforts and conveniences of the house, the farm, and the implements of husbandry.

All of that’s true, and I’m certainly not going to try to second guess Caleb Mills. But the way I experience the community created by our schools is a little more direct. For me, it’s also high-fiving the people next to me (or complaining together about a blown call) at the football and basketball games. It’s talking to neighbors while we sit in the yard watching the Homecoming Parade. Back when the kids were younger, it was chatting with other parents outside the school to walk the kids home and getting to know the younger siblings or maybe the dogs; driving to and from field trips with those other parents. It’s the band events, it’s watching the kids I coached in the rec leagues play on the high school soccer team. Hosting a bunch of my kids’ friends for movie night. Eating lo mein and strudel at “One Community, Many Cultures” after listening to kids rapping in French or playing a Spanish horn number. Being a practice judge with other parents for the “We the  People” civics competition. Reading in the paper about your how your friend’s kid did at the volleyball match. Maybe a night at the theater watching the school play. And I know my experiences are just the tip of the iceberg. Before COVID, I was taken by how much the high school, in particular, was a hive of activity for something like 16 hours a day. Clearly there is way more going on than even the long list of things I was experiencing.

Seeing that kids get a solid education is obviously first and foremost on my mind when I think of the schools. And, the abstract public good of the type Mills talks about is vitally important. But schools also provide that “third place” where members of the community can get together, share experiences, and form a common bond. That makes West Lafayette a better place to live. If I am elected to the school board, I will be mindful of this aspect of our school and work to preserve and promote its value as a source of community.

Doug Masson

Doug Masson

Father. Husband. Hoosier. Lawyer. Candidate.

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