There is a beautiful concept in the Hebraic scriptures known as tikkun olam. The translation literally means “to repair the world” and it is held in close kinship to the idea of olam haba (“the world to come”) where justice (mispat –meaning “to save from oppression” and linked to the idea of defending the weak, liberating the oppressed, and doing justice to the poor) and righteousness (sedaqah—the active intervention in social affairs in order to rehabilitate society, to respond to social grievance, and to correct every humanity-diminishing activity) are the continuing refrain of a religio-political, economical, and social way of life that confronts and critiques power here and now. What these ideas point to is a way of living rightly within a world oppressed on all sides by systems of domination, cruelty and injustice, systems that are often replicated in and through the ways in which we educate our young.
Michael Apple (one of my favorite writers in the field of curriculum ideology) writes in his book, Education and Power, that “Our problems are systemic, each building on the other. Each aspect of the social process in the state and politics, in cultural life, in our modes of producing, distributing, and consuming serves to affect the relationships within and among the others. A fundamental problem facing us is the way in which systems of domination and exploitation persist and reproduce themselves without being consciously recognized by the people involved.” What Apple goes on to critique is the way schools act as social reproducers of inequality and injustice by sorting some students into lives where creativity, innovation, and analytical thinking are valued while others are given rote tasks to memorize and regurgitate, trained for meaningless work with no passion or purpose. Apple writes, “Schools are still seen as taking an input (students) and efficiently processing them (through a hidden curriculum) and turning them into agents for an unequal and highly stratified labor force (output). Thus, the school’s major role is in the teaching of an ideological consciousness that helped reproduce the division of labor society.”
That this is so is evident when one spends any amount of time in the many failing schools in the inner city. Bright, eager, loving, wonderful children are educated out of any concept of beauty, passion, purpose and meaning by a system that does not see them as valuable beyond their consumption in the marketplace. Schools for far too many students become places where, at an early age, the message is loud and clear: “We do not value you.” This is a message that is passed on through both the overt curriculum (what we choose to teach) and the hidden curriculum (the messages sent by faculty who give up on “those” students because “they can’t learn” or “don’t need to know this stuff”; by administrators who give up on “troubled” kids because of their behavior problems; by parents who refuse to send their kids to “that” school; by a society that refuses to pay a living wage to its working poor; etc.).
In light of this, what might the olam haba look like if we took seriously the Hebraic mandate to be architects of repair in the world, intent on living out mispat and sedaqah? What if we saw the work of education reform not as holding “higher standards” but as working to liberate the oppressed, defend the weak, and do justice to the poor? What if we reframed the discussion of education reform by seeing the systems that hold progress at bay? What if we started asking deeper, more humane questions of our schooling? What if we intentionally designed every facet of schooling around the question: “What does it mean to live a meaningful life?” What if we asked students to think about meaning and purpose rather than success and consumption? The olam haba–the world to come–might just be one worth fighting for after all.