Saturday, November 14, 2009

Thoughts on education

So, I've been reading some more of this man John Taylor Gatto, whom I posted about below. I hit on him by accident in the course of my blogreading, but on further research, I'm discovering a thinker who voices (much more clearly than I) my own views on education. I'm reading one of his books, which luckily is available free online: The Underground History of American Education. It traces our current state of education all the way back to Plato, and with fascinating conclusions.

His basic point is that education, as practiced today, teaches very little that children cannot learn with relative ease outside of school. However, what it does teach is the concerning part: unthinking acceptance of information presented to them, the stratification of society (through class rankings and grades), blind obedience to authority, and sameness. These things are very useful to the leaders of society -- it is good for them to have a populace which is ready and willing to obey and slow to question, and handy as well to have adults appear on the scene already pre-sorted into "gifted" and "delayed." But they are not particularly good for the children themselves, and they are certainly not good for the American ideals of individual ability, responsibility, freedom, and self-government. We complain constantly of how the general mass of people accept unquestioningly what is offered to them by the media or the government. Yet I have not often realized that this acceptance has been taught to them from the age of six, or even earlier, in our schools.

(Note that I do not say public schools. Private schools fall prey to many of the same problems. In many ways, it is near-unavoidable that these problems be continued in order for school to do the job it is "supposed" to do.)

Anyway, that got me thinking about alternatives. Another part of my reading that has touched on school lately was my rereading of the Little House books. Laura Ingalls Wilder was a teacher, after all, and so education comes into her books a lot. In those days, school was pretty different from the way it is now -- John Dewey hadn't yet appeared on the scene, and there weren't any other interests deciding what children learned besides the practical interest. The school boards were local, and the purpose of the schools was basic: teach children to read, write, and cipher; have them learn something of history; introduce a little literature. The students were all the same building, but they weren't expected to be on the same level. The stratification of students didn't happen to the same extent as it does now.

So I pondered what qualities of the one-room schoolhouse might be introduced to today's schools. Would the mixing of grades together help? Small class sizes? Or can the results of those schools be duplicated without the universal standards of discipline and good raising that the children arrived at school with?

It occurred to me then that Laura Ingalls Wilder learned most of what made her a great writer outside the walls of any school. She didn't even go to school until Plum Creek, when she was around eight. She could not read a single word before she arrived at school, either. However, she knew dozens, perhaps hundreds, of songs by heart. She knew how the words came together to make something beautiful. She also knew more about nature, about everyday life, about basic survival, than most of us ever learn. If her education had been expected to come exclusively out of that one-room schoolhouse, she never would have been the great writer she was.

The book I read last was Farmer Boy. This, of course, is the story of Laura's husband, Almanzo Wilder, and his childhood on a farm in New York. What amazed me about that book was how little Almanzo went to school. He started at eight. Then he was allowed by his parents to miss school for his birthday, if there was work to be done at home, or to learn some new aspect of farming. Then he dropped out of school as soon as he could get away with it. Very little of the book takes place in school.

One day he is sitting at the dinner table, thinking about the business of the farm, and says absently, "Fifty bales of hay at two dollars a bale is one hundred dollars," or some such math problem. His father smiles and says he can stay home from school, because he is putting his learning to work. Many times Almanzo begs to stay home to bale hay, or break oxen, or go to town and sell their crop, and his father just says, "You won't learn any younger," and lets him. Almanzo learns how to follow his dream -- being a farmer -- by watching his father farm, by helping out on the farm, and by taking on responsibilities himself. Half the time he is not even told how to do what he does: he learns by doing the work wrong, and then figuring out how to do it right.

If there were an ideal educational system, this would probably be it: a small amount of book-learning -- preferably based on the child's interests as much as possible, as Almanzo is motivated to succeed in school by knowing a farmer must know math -- combined with a large amount of real life.

We tend to isolate our children from the grown-up world and give them special children's things to do and places to be. Instead of real things, they are given toys and games. This is all very well, but it does not force the child to stretch out and try something beyond him. He is given something exactly at his level -- and therefore he remains at his level. He further learns that what he does does not really matter. If he messes up, he will lose points in his game or perhaps break a toy, but none of his actions have serious consequences. This artificial children's world leads to a delay in adulthood. While maturity used to be considered reached in a person's teens, now it is pushed back, not just to eighteen or twenty-one, but indefinitely.

Grown children live at home years after they are capable of moving out. Then they do move out, but live a sort of bohemian existence with friends for years more. When they finally have their life "put together," at the age of thirty or so, they still don't have the air of an adult, of someone who takes full responsibility for his life. Instead they blame others for their failures, move from job to job and relationship to relationship, delay marriage and children, and in response to criticism, answer, "But I'm only thirty-five. But I'm only forty."

I know it is a little risky to allow children access to real, grown-up things. The world is not as safe as it was. And it's not just the children we worry about harming. We don't want to trust real things to children for fear of messing up our own projects. It is much easier for a mother to cook the dinner herself than to step back and let her child try to do it. She's got to keep an eye out for danger, to answer questions, to deal with the possible failure. She has to leave herself open to the possibility of having peanut butter and jelly for dinner, in case the pizza burns. And this is only a small instance -- what about bigger things? If we give children real responsibility, we will have to accept that they will not succeed on the first try. It is a good deal easier to give them a video game and go about our own business.

On the positive side, however, children are incredibly eager to get their hands on real responsibility. It seems to be innate, and indeed it makes sense for it to be: where would our species be if we were born preferring games to life, the false to the true, meaningless competition to meaningful success? These twisted preferences are born from habit rather than nature. It takes years and years of giving games to children to break them of their desire for work. But it is what we are teaching them, isn't it? Isn't this the way the average Gen X-er or Y-er is tending?

Now, I don't think I'm an unschooler in my outlook exactly, even though what I have laid out sounds a little like unschooling. I do think that book-learning is important, especially in our modern day when things like SAT scores can determine our destiny. And, though I think children should be encouraged to follow their interests, I know it is bound to happen that a child will truly need to learn something that he would rather not learn.

However, more of school needs to be directed toward life, and less toward "educational goals" or the framework of a certain curriculum. Obviously I am a fervent believer in homeschooling. But I will go a step further and say that there is no need for homeschoolers to "justify ourselves" by assigning twice as much book-learning as the public schoolers are doing, or spending seven hours a day on school and giving homework at the end, simply because the public schoolers spend that much time on it. I truly believe that, without the trouble of "classroom management" (a job which is 90% of any teacher's job description), the essential things can be learned in a fraction of the time schoolchildren spend. The rest of the time can be spent on other essentials: life skills, the adoption of responsibilities like chores and jobs, watching adults at their work, following interests, studying things not in the curriculum which might someday blossom into a career or might not.

This is just the overflow of my mind at the moment, filled with all I have been reading and pondering. Later, I hope to develop my ideas further and have a more organized statement of my educational philosophy. Suffice it to say that I have had a fire in my belly for years about education, and I am still waiting for a chance to try things my way. I am just hoping that, by the time the opportunity is ready for me, I am ready for the opportunity.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend Charlotte Mason. The book I have on her "method," a Charlotte Mason Companion, I think I will re-read throughout our children's education. I am also very eager to have you read it so we can discuss it, and I wanted Daddy to, also. There's a lot about nature study, "living books" (books by authors who wrote about what they loved versus wrote to make a textbook), character education, and culture.
Another comment is that I was just, just writing to Emily Uhl, whose son Simon is incredibly similar to Joseph, and saying, Hey, it's okay our sons don't sit still and are incredibly competitive to speak out in class, because they are excited to learn and-- although courtesy and kindness are definitely skills they need-- they don't need to become classroom automatons, either.

Andrew Stine said...

I remember that book, it's been years since I've read it. My old highschool felt a lot like those old schoolhouse with one teacher and students of every level in the same class. It actually works surprisingly well. I a person wants to learn, he'll likely find a way, and if he doesn't, putting him in a classroom will likely be an excercise in futility. What's left is indoctrination, and it's a problem that so many children are subjected to the same indoctrination.

Some things, you have to go to class to learn. However, I don't think that our huge entrenched educational system is the way to teach those things.

Charlemagne said...

Yes, it is true, Lincoln and Washington had little formal education, Patrick Henry practically none. Michael Collins never finished secondary school, and Chesterton was a college dropout. No one questions their intelligence, or their accomplishments. I do worry, though, about your emphasis on "useful" education, if only because it seems to lean dangerously close to the utilitarian world-view that Dewey so cherished. An over-emphasis on the "useful" leads to a deprecation of the humanities, art literature, philosophy--the things that sum up our values and identity.

And yes, boredom is a major problem in the modern school system, and it also tends to squash creative teachers who manage to make their way into the system (my school lost one of our best history teachers that way). When eager students come into contact with a good teacher, however, the planets align and great things start to happen. Take away institutionalized education, perhaps, but we will never have effective education without mentors and tutors, people willing to challenge and exercise young minds.

Sheila said...

Charlemagne, by "useful" I mean useful to the student. If the student dreams of studying literature, introducing him to great novels will be "useful" to him. For history buffs, giving them plenty of history to learn will be "useful" to their goal of finding out about history. I don't mean useful at all in a vocational or money-making sense -- guess I should have clarified that.

Andrew and Charlemagne both mention the importance of a good teacher. I agree completely, and I don't see a necessity for the good teacher necessarily to be the parent. Good teachers are found all over the place: they are coaches, bosses of high school jobs, givers of apprenticeships and internships, and the wise and experienced of the community. It is just that "school," as we think of it, is not necessary for bringing the student and the teacher together to learn. Think of the young of Athens who gathered around Socrates to learn. Charlemagne, I know, learned a lot from Dr. Buck (is that the right name?) and Andrew learned in a classroom that wasn't regimented in the modern way.

I probably should read Charlotte Mason next. Looks like the topic of education will be hovering around this blog for some time to come!

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