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Re-Educating the Prodigal Son: David Brooks on Community-Building, Applied to Schools

Growing up I attended Jewish day school from grades 1-12, so I didn't have a lot of exposure to the New Testament until I attended college. There, I first heard the Parable of the Prodigal Son from a sagacious old English professor who archly observed that if I really wanted to understand Western literature, I had to also read "that other, newer bible." Touché, Professor Rosenberg! At any rate, this all came back to me while reading David Brooks' column in the New York Times earlier this week.

Brooks relates the famous tale of a father and his two sons: The older son (in the manner of many eldest children, this one included!) is dutiful, hard-working, and helps his father run the family business, while the younger son takes his share of the inheritance and squanders it on prostitutes and other profligate living. When the younger son returns home, broke, the father welcomes him with open arms and holds a feast in his honor. The older son is upset--Hasn't he always played by the rules? Why should the younger son get a feast after wasting all his inheritance?--but the wise and generous father reminds him, "All I have is yours; we should still celebrate your brother's return."

It is from a social policy-making standpoint that Brooks re-examines this tale. He points out that often social policies are dictated by the "older brothers"--the educated, consistently employed upper-middle and upper classes--who look down on the "younger brothers" for not completing their education, being unemployed, and abandoning their marriages and children. Perhaps, he points out, we should see the wisdom in the father's choice: If the older brother had greeted the younger one upon his return, it would no doubt have been with scorn and indignation, and ultimately proven futile as far as teaching the younger brother to live life in a more productive, socially responsible manner. By instead inviting the younger brother to join them at the table, the father offers the gift of acceptance--or, "membership," as seen from the policy standpoint, in the chance to work collaboratively on infrastructure-building and strengthening of community.

I would extend Brooks' analogy to education, and take it one step further. Divesting from public schools in high-needs areas, urban and rural--either in the form of slashing budgets, offering private school vouchers, or pouring public funds into privately-funded charter schools with limited quotas of special needs or ELL students--is just another way of barring that "younger brother" from coming to the table and joining the family. Divesting from public education punishes the children of the younger brothers, who are often the unwitting casualties of their parents' difficult circumstances or, sometimes, poor life choices. Though it can be tempting to look at things from a Social Darwinist perspective--to focus on the parents alone, and say, "They need to work harder to provide better lives for their children"--the reality is that such thinking is not only uncaring towards the kids (who are perhaps the least at fault, and the most in danger of all problems endemic to poverty), but also counter-productive as far as creating a society in which all members have a chance to contribute meaningfully.

Critics of Brooks' article (and by extension, this one) will doubtless charge that such thinking represents high-handed, classist assumptions about society's neediest members, or--at the other end of the spectrum--that it is too "soft" and spendthrift with tax-payer dollars already stretched too thin. In fairness, both may be true. But only through sustainment and improvement of social-infrastructure-building programs--free, high-quality education being chief amongst them--can we hope to reverse the tide of poverty and unemployment. We should seek to better the educational outcomes of the children of the "younger brothers," to create a generation that not only surpasses their parents educationally and economically, but is also able to positively reinvest into society as a whole. Thus, as David Brooks shows, the Parable of the Prodigal Son provides a good lesson for all of us, about the value of "coming to the table" together with trust, open hearts, and common goals.

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