Public education contains tension between individual, collective

John Hise

The promise of public education is about to be renewed. When school doors across the nation reopen, the liberty of summer will transform into the obligation of autumn. Students and staff will trade the independence of self-directedness for commitment to the community. From one to many. The start of school surfaces this dichotomy between the freedom of the individual and the duty to the collective that lies at the heart of the American identity.

Historically, Americans have benefited from a sense of rugged individualism and a reliance on community. We celebrate both the success of creative entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and the achievements of collective effort such as the interstate highway system. Our two-party political structure rests upon this philosophical divide between a belief in self-reliance and a faith in the good of association. Society versus self. The American school system is one of several, very public arenas in which these ideas compete.

In our past, education was the responsibility of the family – whether parents taught their children or tutors were hired to educate the young. The Puritans were the first Americans to toy with the idea of a public education that would instill the ideals of their society. Through time, this principle permeated our nation until public education became the norm. Districts, governed by locally elected school boards, focused education on the values and goals of their respective communities.

But recently that approach has been questioned, as American students have underperformed on standardized tests compared to other nations. We worry that our children can’t read, calculate or think as well as kids from Finland or South Korea. So we work to fix the problem. We deliver standardized statewide tests based upon state-accepted standards derived from nationally created expectations like the Common Core. We assess both learning and instruction with instruments required by Colorado. And in this quest for more systemic and measurable achievement, communities relinquish their ability to instill their unique values arising from the distinct character of locality. Durango gives up its independence for the good of the nation.

I am reminded of a particular souvenir-hunting expedition during our family vacation to Boston two summers ago. My children had already picked out their own mementos of the trip, including a purse that was one continuous zipper and a shamrock baseball cap. Among the kiosks orbiting Faneuil Hall, my wife and I found a trinket cart festooned with a variety of T-shirts. From the front of the cart, my lovely wife chose a top of deep blue with “Boston” emblazoned across the front, while I struggled. I couldn’t decide because nothing seemed to match the importance of this place – the cradle of our collective desire for independence. But then I found it.

The backside of that cart displayed two different shirts. You would recognize both. The first had a chopped-up rattlesnake, each piece representing an original colony, with the words “Join or Die” beneath. Ben Franklin crafted that image in 1754 to represent his belief that we are stronger together and our future depended upon our cooperation. The second displayed a coiled rattlesnake, prepared to strike, underscored by “Don’t Tread on Me.” The Continental Navy adopted this image in 1775 to represent the strength and resolve of Americans to fight against monarchical oppression, to fight against the ill will of the collective. These shirts spoke to me because each represented something important in the American identity: personal liberty and the strength of the commonwealth. Each had history and heft. So I struggled again. Which is me? The one or the many?

I usually end that story by saying I did what all Americans do when faced with that political conundrum: I gave up, turned around and bought a Boston Red Sox pennant. But that isn’t true. I didn’t buy any of those things because I don’t like the Red Sox and I believe in both views –“Join or Die” and “Don’t Tread on Me.” Both have made me who I am.

I couldn’t choose because we need both for our nation and schools to succeed. As public educators, we must foster self-reliance and social responsibility in every student. To achieve, our children must be creatively independent and dependably cooperative. I believe that whatever good has come from this American experiment regarding the one and the many is the result of the dynamic between the two beliefs. Individual freedom without regard to the will of the community is anarchy. Blind allegiance to the will of the collective without thought of individual liberties is totalitarianism. Schools must navigate between these two extremes. Educators must balance their instruction to foster both courageous independence and respectful collaboration within our children. We must choose both.

At bell’s first ring, spelling the end of summer, my colleagues in districts across the state will give their heads and hearts to support your children in attaining the mandated and measured achievement our nation demands. We will do this by tailoring Colorado’s state standards, derived from the nationally accepted Common Core, into a flexible and personalized experience for each child: by attending to the learning strengths and needs of every student; by caring for the kid and the community. Each teacher will work to accomplish what the collective expects by tending to the talents of every individual. We promise.

John Hise is an instructional coach at Escalante Middle School. Reach him at

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