A while ago, I caught up with an eight part documentary series called, "Harrow, A Very British School," which aired last year on the Sky Network (I saw it on YouTube). The program follows the boys in a single "house" at Harrow, an elite British boarding school, through an entire school year.
The program offered a rare, friendly glimpse into a world that only exists to most of the rest of us in historical classics from Tom Brown's Schooldays and Goodbye Mr. Chips, and more recent works such as the films Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet's Society, set in exclusive American boarding schools. This documentary portrayed an insulated, close-knit world with archaic traditions, but one of the few places where a well-rounded education is the norm (offering numerous opportunities for artistic expression, in addition to sports).
In England, political power is said to be wielded by what is really the original "Old Boys Network" of graduates from schools like Harrow and Eton and Westminster School, and there's no lack of controversy about the very existence of these schools in the modern era. For the limited purposes of this particular blog, however, I won't address the extensive pros and cons of such schools, nor the concept of boarding, which here in California is extremely rare, even for the wealthy.
The richness of education that some (not all, I'm certain) of these institutions offer, and the demands placed on students have always fascinated me. Granted, wealth and privilege sometimes dictate just home much of a challenge certain students may feel the need to absorb, but the concept of a rich, challenging education intrigued me since childhood.
Public school administrations, teachers and students, of course, can create positive environments in public schools, but consistency across economic, geographic, religious and racial lines are ongoing issues.
At eleven years old, I moved from a New York suburb to a Los Angeles suburb, where I completed sixth grade. Perception, even at that age, was everything - I was conscious of the fact that the public elementary school offered by the gigantic Los Angeles Unified School District offered only a fraction of the programs and opportunities offered at the public elementary school I attended back on New York's Long Island. In Los Angeles, we didn't have the music programs, athletic programs, art programs and science programs offered at my old school - even though the areas were equivalent economically. Even then, I was aware that this elementary school didn't value education as much as my old school.
Today, elementary schools in Los Angeles enjoy a selection of outside enrichment programs offered through various organizations, but they're not offered consistently across the board. In today's world, these programs are sometimes considered extras, and not critical to a worthwhile education. "Charter" and "magnet" schools with smaller classrooms and subject specialties have created better models in many cases - but they're not offered everywhere.
Of course, the reality of public education is that prejudices of all kinds may always interfere with the creation of a unified vision of a well-rounded, challenging curriculum. Anytime I've visited a respected private school, I come away wondering what the world would be like if every kid had those opportunities.
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