Monday, January 5, 2009

Re-Thinking Education

How it used to be...

    Upon our birth as a nation, "young people in America were expected to make something of themselves, not prepare themselves to fit into a pre-established hierarchy. Every foreign commentator notes the early training in independence, the remarkable precocity of American youth, their assumption of adult responsibility."2:5 There were no excuses here- ignorance and failure were thought to be due to poor character, not one's unfortunate, inescapable "placement on a biological bell curve."2:6 

    An introductory look at our history shows a nation busting at the seems with innovative, self-sufficient, creative, educated people- though school was of no consequence. We were brimming with impressive inventions and discoveries, because people had true liberty. They sought out knowledge of their own accord, and added their own value to society. Many common, unschooled people rose to greatness because they had the liberty to make their own way in life- seeking out knowledge of interest to them, and spending their early years in ways that would have led to police arrest today. 

    Consider the writer-politician-scientist-businessman, Ben Franklin, who left school at age 10, or George Washington, whose schooling was a mere two years, beginning at age 11, when he already knew how "to read, write, and calculate about as well as the average college student today... He had no father as a teenager, and we know he was no genius, yet he learned geometry, trigonometry, and surveying when he would have been a fifth or sixth grader in our era."2:31  And don't forget our founding fathers. "The men who won our Revolution were barely out of high school by the standards of my time: Hamilton was twenty in the retreat from New York; Burr, twenty-one; Light Horse Harry Lee, twenty-one; Lafayette, nineteen. What amounted to a college class rose up and struck down the British empire, afterwards helping to write the most sophisticated governing documents in modern history."2:25  

    What do these impressive young people have in common besides little or no formal schooling, and no on-paper certifications? Self-motivation and self-led open source learning through several common avenues including much advanced reading (coupled with some copywork), life experience, and apprenticeships. All the things that made these great men are those which can not be found in schools. "No public school in the United States is set up to allow a George Washington to happen. Washingtons in the bud stage are screened, browbeaten, or bribed to conform to a narrow outlook on social truth. Boys like Andrew Carnegie who begged his mother not to send him to school and was well on his way to immortality and fortune at the age of thirteen, would be referred today for psychological counseling; Thomas Edison would find himself in Spedial Ed until his peticular genius had been sufficiently tamed."2:32

Out with the old, in with the new... 

    Ingenuity and self-reliance were at the heart of "old" America. Businesses were small and local, selling quality goods to friends and neighbors. People sought to be self-sufficient- providing nearly all of their own food, clothing, shelter, education and entertainment. Communities were tight-knit and interactive. Upon the advancement in coal and eventually oil, all this changed. A new centralized, managed society was upon us with much at stake.

     "In the first decades of the twentieth century, a small group of soon-to-be-famous academics... decided to bend the government schooling to the service of business and the political state - as it had been done a century before in Prussia... The real force behind school effort came from true believers of many persuasions, linked together mainly by their belief that family and church were retrograde institutions standing in the way of progress."2:44 

      Young adults were, in early America, capable members of society from whom much was expected, and many new inventions arose. The "teenager" wasn't invented until 1904 by G. Stanley Hall of John Hopkins University. "He called it adolescence and debuted the condition in a huge two-volume study of that name... Trained in Prussia as behavior psychologist Wilhelm Wundt's first assistant, Hall (immensely influential in school circles at the beginning of the 20th century) identified adolescence as a dangerously irrational state of human growth requiring psychological controls inculcated through schooling... Hall's invention seemed to justify the extension of state schooling into the teen years, institutionalizing the most productive fraction of humanity for psychological treatment... In this dazzling coup, the teenagers who had helped build the new nation were now officially deprived of fully engaged lives such as Edison or Carnegie had once enjoyed."1:45

      So what has been the result of forced schooling and an extended childhood? As schooling increased in practice, intensity, funding, and length, we have seen marked results- just not the ones you'd probably expect. You can carefully trace the aforementioned increases of schooling to coincide with decreases in both literacy rates and US patent applications.1:9,46 Let that sink in a minute. The more schooling we've received as a nation, the less educated we've become. We can't read and write as well, and we aren't inventing as much. Education has yet to recover from the intrusion of forced mass schooling. In fact, our literacy rate has never been as high after compulsory schooling as it was before! If our schools are really in the best interests of developing our intellect and helping us aspire to our personal best, why do their results tell a different story?

Freedom in education...

    Look back to classical Athens for a moment. "What kind of schooling was behind this brilliant society which has enchanted the centuries ever since? Any honest reply can be carried in one word: None... The idea of schooling free men in anything would have revolted Athenians. Forced training was for slaves. Among free men, learning was  self-discipline, not the gift of experts."2:12

     In times past in our own country, we had more liberal rights- including the ability to manage and educate ourselves without government oversight. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, American education started to look like the Prussian/Spartan model of dominance and control over the general population by an elite few. Much of this had to do with the lure of a utopian society. State schooling was key to government control and the ongoing success of a mass production economy.

     "Highly centralized mass production economies can't function well without colonizing individual minds and converting them into a mass mind. The conversion works best if started early, in the lower grades of elementary school, in kindergarten and pre-kindergarten. The function of these collective rituals we call school has very little to do with intellectual development - consider only the familiar madness of teaching the colors and days of the week or months of the year to little people who come to school already knowing these things. The collective rituals of lower grades are about habit training, about practicing attention and fealty to authority. In this way, independent consciousness can be undermined in its formative stages."1:43

    What would America be today without the intrusion of mass schooling? It's hard to say. Judging by our past, our education, community life and family life would still be intact, but we also wouldn't have "the best space program, the best high-tech medicine, the strongest military, the highest material standard of living. These things could not have been accomplished without a kind of forced schooling that terminated independent livelihoods. That was the price paid for a gusher of easy prosperity."2:154   So where does that leave us now? We have both the blessings and curses of a mass production society. We can send our children to be mass trained through the school system; we also thankfully still have the freedom to provide them a rich education ourselves. The choice is ours.

Components of a rich education... 

    Since school doesn't teach the way children learn, how should we teach? Education is an adventure we're on together- it's not something for a child to sit back and receive through a schooling of separate subjects arranged by strangers. It is something for each person to take for themselves, as active participants.

    Open source learning is the most effective route to a rich education. Students are responsible, active participants through this method of education; anyone may be a teacher and any road may lead to a betterment of one's self through real-life, trial and error learning. This method of learning is messier then following a clear-cut prescription for schooling that someone else has written. It also allows for critical thinking, and leads to mastery. "The trouble with open-source learning, as far as policymakers are concerned, is that it almost guarantees an independent mind and character will develop - not a cosmetic simulation of those things, which schooling cultivates. Even worse, taking charge of mixing your own education leads to a healthy self-regard - and confident folks are considerably less manageable than anxious ones."1:42

    Some of the ideas I've picked up along the way in my journey to re-think education include: 
  • Reading plenty of biographies and advanced literature- choosing the real work over the diluted children's version. Read aloud together and also some to self, analyze to one's self, then engage in deep discussions over the reading. Allow children to come up with their own questions, and make their own personal response or conclusion, rather than providing a set of pre-made questions and someone else's conclusion. Employ the use of carefully chosen copywork and dictation. 
  • Encourage questioning and critical thinking. Teach children how to find the answers to their questions.
  • Use real tools and real life experience- not a watered-down simulation of them. 
  • Ask children what they wish to learn- letting them choose some things they want to be knowledgeable in, and weaknesses they want to overcome by the end of the year. This gives them an active role in their education, and allows the two of you to work together to accomplish what's important to them. By knowing that you're working with their educational priorities in mind, they should be more motivated to work with your priorities for them as well. In this way, you're both choosing important elements to include in their education. 
  • Seek out an abundance of apprenticeship opportunities. 
  • Give them real work, and real responsibility.
  • Seek out service opportunities. Also give children their own responsibilities at home.
  • Allow for independent study and solitary time.
  • Encourage self direction: "Growth and mastery come only to those who vigorously self-direct. Initiating, creating, doing, reflecting, freely associating, enjoying privacy..."2:43
  • In summary, education should seek to multiply the connections between real life experience, people, places, knowledge, and self. The keys to rich education are exploration and self-discipline and won't be found in a classroom setting. It must be taken for one's self, not passively received from strangers. As William Butler Yeats puts it, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire."

Works Cited:
1. Gatto, John Taylor, Weapons of Mass Instruction. Canada: New Society Publishers, 2009. 
2. Gatto, John Taylor. The Underground History of American Education. Canada: New Society Publishers, 2000.

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