At a time when some schools are failing to teach even the bare essentials of reading and math, a new problem is rearing its ugly head: commissar-style management of school supplies.
Comrade Parent, do not expect to take your kids shopping for their own school supplies this year. It was a pleasant fall ritual while it lasted, but now parents are likely to be presented with a list, some of it quite specific, of supplies.
A statement at the bottom will inform you that said purchases are not for your own little scholar but rather will be pooled for the use of the entire class.
While it is to be hoped that well-to-do parents won’t be churlish about this mandatory sharing, it must be noted that charity must be voluntary if it is to have any moral meaning whatsoever. This goes for the receiver as well as for the giver. Nobody really wants to take what is not freely given-unless this healthy, natural reservation is bred out of them by programs such as this one.
There are so many things wrong with this idea. If it is designed to spare embarrassment for children from low-income households, it won’t. In the tooth and claw world of young children, you can rest assured that no one will be fooled. Kids will know whose parents bought supplies and whose didn’t; the elaborate scheme to conceal this information can only serve to convince kids that there is something inherently shameful in being poor.
Instead of being expected to hold your head up high, poorer kids are told that they own what other kids’ parents supply. Or maybe it’s the haves who are being shamed-your pencils and glue must be confiscated because you shouldn’t have them. It is very unlikely that communal school supplies will encourage kids-rich or poor alike-to take good care of these expensive supplies. “For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it,” Aristotle, that great teacher, once noted. If you think class supplies are inadequate now-just you wait!
Some of the lists provided for parents are agonizingly detailed. An article in the Dayton, Ohio Daily News, for example, reported on one that stipulated “Fiskars-brand scissors (5-inch size, sharp), Clorox-brand clean-up wipes, two Dry Erase-brand black markers with wide tips, 36 No. 2 pencils, yellow only.” One teacher specified that only crayons made in the USA were acceptable. “I’m all for buying stuff that’s made in America,” a conscientious mother was quoted saying, “but I had to go to three stores to find them!”
Apparently, the teacher figured it’s never too early for a lesson in protectionism! If I had a child in school, I might prefer that she diagram sentences rather than absorb the teacher’s seemingly innocent but somewhat misguided management techniques. This whole business reeks of being a well-intended attempt to instill values, but at what cost?
One value I’d like kids to embrace is caring for their property. Ironically, it may well be the case that if school administrators were more adept at balancing their own budgets they might not need this form of parental largesse.
To go back to ancient history, only slightly later than Aristotle, I recall that my public elementary school provided a lot of the supplies that are on these want-lists, while we kids bought our own satchels and other implements that screamed our individual identities. (What were those pencil nerds thinking with their plastic pocket penholders?) We have become accustomed to thinking of schools as being in dire financial straits, but it’s becoming more and more apparent that many school districts in their efforts to meet competing priorities use their funds unwisely. Should parents be required to rescue them?
For me, though, the real issue is what the communal pencil says about the values our educators-and to a greater extent we as a society-seek to instill. Among these values is the idea that financial inequality is destructive. It isn’t. I’ll never forget a great moment in my own high school, a private girls school, that showed just how un-destructive it can be.
There were quite a few girls whose families were well to do, a category that did not include my friend Jane or me. One night we were coming back from a movie in the school bus, and everybody started talking about what they were getting as a graduation present. You know, cars and trips to Europe.
“What are you getting?” Jane was asked. “This education,” she said. It was the right answer-and it was a proud one. If the school had forced us to pool our graduation presents, Jane and I would not have learned something important. Along with reading and math, kids need a chance to learn that we don’t all start out in life with material advantages-and then learn that this is not what defines us.