11/13/2012 01:22 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

Post-Election Schooling Blues: Children Are Not Widgets

President Barack Hussein Obama was re-elected in a landslide. We progressives who donated time and money to ensure that this happened have a right to be pleased.

But now it is time for loyal critics to speak up. And one area that must be attended to is education -- at all levels. That unmentionable education radical Bill Ayers -- someone Obama once knew but had to repudiate -- wrote a letter to Arne Duncanexplaining clearly what is wrong with the current system, but it does not quite go far enough.

Radical education and radical politics do go together, because they both challenge the model of the person and the relations among them. So those suspicious of our president because of his ties to such a radical thinker may be somewhat correct.

What Bill Ayers has written might in fact be threatening to the status quo because it challenges the metaphor of education as "a commodity like any other -- a car or a refrigerator, a box of bolts or a screwdriver -- that is bought and sold in the marketplace." He especially challenges the model of inputs and "outputs" and "accountability" and the destruction of teachers' profession.

This mechanical model of children reflects a broader model of humans in general, as is true in any society. Anthropologist David Lancy has shown in The Anthropology of Childhood that three dominant images of children can be found in history and across the world: children as cherubs (the dominant white middle-class view), as chattel (when children are regarded principally as useful workers), and as changelings (as among colonial Americans).

But children as widgets -- uniform, blank, ready to be stamped and weighed and measured, discarded as they fail the test -- this is unknown anywhere else.

What is the nature of the person we are aiming to create, through all these measured hours of "seat time" and "credit hours" (Carnegie units -- deliberately developed in 1906 and modeled on factory time-discipline), through "common standards" and an attempt to impose uniformity everywhere? Who is entitled to be a person rather than a product?

I spoke recently to a friend whose fourth-grade son already knows everything they are doing in their Language Arts class. At the parent-teacher conference, the teacher admitted she, and the school, could do nothing for this boy. All their efforts were devoted to raising the test scores of the cohort on the bottom. The boy wrote haikus throughout the class. The teacher was completely demoralized and, after almost three decades of teaching, admitted defeat. The point is not that the needs of "gifted" children (whatever that means) are unmet; the point is that the whole system fails everyone: students at the top, bottom, middle, and teachers.

Students from the wealthiest families, living in suburbs with well-provisioned school systems or attending urban private or magnet schools, with tutors and verbally rich environments and summer college, do "succeed" in the sense of attending high-prestige colleges. But they too have to turn themselves into products available for scrutiny and evaluation.

Yes, I suppose it is necessary to ensure more butts in seats. Given the real needs of students, we may need more hours of instruction. If we accept the rhetoric about competing with other nations in an educational arms race, we may need more college graduates.

But Race to the Top, liked its predecessor No Child Left Behind, and like Pell Grants and loans of various types, is designed to provide more of the same. Whether that is more teaching to tests through drill-and-kill, fetishizing of scores of the countable, getting students into colleges where they aim to get by with as little work as possible, or providing actual scholars, none of these go to the heart of the matter.

And that is: aside from learning enough to get to the next level of schooling, inflating academic credentials all around so that each accomplishment individually means less and less, what is it that students should be learning? How should they learn it? And for what goals? What is the nature of the person we wish to welcome into what kind of society?

This is a conversation that could be a threat to the conventional wisdom. But it is a conversation for which the time has come.