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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Some suggestions re: education

Again, replying to a comment on the recent series of posts about Holt, Gatto, and alternatives to schools.

Gatto’s solutions (that word is too big – maybe “suggestions” or "proposals" would be more accurate) include things like:

Easyish stuff:

  • Shorten the school year. If schooling is bad, then less schooling is less bad. Free up the summers or winters for kids to work, play, volunteer, or study alone or with a group of their choosing.

  • Vary the school year; mandate only that kids have to attend school, say, 180 days a year. That way, kids who are interested in some seasonal activity, or whose parents have jobs related to the seasons can be free to attend or help out.

  • Turn one school day per week into a volunteer day on which kids visit farms, gardens, habitat for humanity projects, orphanages, old folks’ homes, hospitals, or something else. They can learn hands-on, on site. Plus, this will help to reinstate the sense of community that is largely lost when kids are pulled our of real life so that they can “learn” from books and blackboards and abstractions.

  • Replace one day a week with an apprenticeship day. Kids can visit and hang out with parents, parents’ friends, or other professionals or tradesmen as they work. Again, children are more likely to develop curiosity about and interest in something if they actually see, smell, hear, feel, and manipulate it.

Tougher ones:

  • Don’t make school compulsory. As it is, parents and children who disobey schooling laws are threatened with jail time. But it’s undeniable that, for many kids and in many cases (though probably not yours and mine), school is completely useless. If a child or family feels that such is the case, let them make their own decision about it. (Holt cites statistics, albeit old ones, that show that dropping out of high school doesn’t correlate with career failure, once you’ve controlled for other variables like race, family income, and location.)

  • Revive the idea of apprenticeship. If a child has an adult who’s willing to take him/her on, let it be. Chances are the kid will learn all the relevant science, math, social studies, etc along the way, once he/she has seen the need.

  • Give money directly to students, rather than to schools. This serves two functions: first, to reduce the amount funds wasted by excessive admin and corruption at the higher levels; and second, to increase the consumers’ amount of choice. Gatto doesn’t speak of vouchers directly – maybe that wasn’t a hot word pre-2000? - but the idea is that, again, individuals can do a better job of deciding what’s good for them than the government can. If children hate or fear their school, it’s unlikely they’ll be learning anything there; but as it is, schools have no incentive to make them happy, only to make them work. (Of course, it’s impossible to “make” twenty-five kids happy by shutting them up in a room with an adult they don’t know and then trying to control them,) Then, families will be able to influence schools with their dollars(/vouchers), rather than with mere complaints.

  • Increase the amount of cost-free, condition-free public facilities like libraries. Expand libraries to include places to practice music, art, carpentry, or to show films and have group discussions, etc. Many of these resources are now locked up inside of schools, where they go largely unused. This has the benefit of opening up learning to everyone and anyone, not just those who have been deemed the appropriate age for learning.

  • This one is a little more vague, but: reduce the competitiveness of school as much as possible. It seems to me that the whole point of grading is to make it easy for colleges to pick students to admit, and the point of colleges is largely to give companies a shortcut in deciding who to hire. Why should the beneficiaries of the grades, the backbone of schools, be the companies who will employ individuals, rather than the individuals themselves? Why not put the onus of finding a good employee on the company? To quote Jeff's last comment, some teachers are "able to get their students to perform "better" than others." Certainly there are some good things about this; but one should admit that for every winner who manages straight As, there is a loser who can't and who will suffer in the college and employment processes later. However, had the "loser" been given an opportunity to explore his own interests and develop his own potentials, he might have managed something a little better.

Granted, none of these suggestions can be instituted overnight or without first making some changes in transportation, safety, and other kinds of infrastructure.; perhaps even in the nature of work and our ideas about the importance of efficiency. This may all be difficult, but it's also all worth aiming for. I can’t think of a nobler goal for a society than cultivating the intelligence, creativity, and happiness of its youth. Nor can I think of a better way of creating a society worth sustaining.

Is Gatto being unrealistic?

This is a response to the previous post, Wisdom #11, which provoked some thoughtful and much appreciated comments from two of my most dedicated readers. I hesitate to post my reply here since it seems to give me the upper hand in the discussion; but if I relegate it to the comment page, which as far as I know isn’t tied into the RSS feed, it’s possible that it will go unseen.


Andy and Jeff, thank you both for your comments. I realize that it's hard, for several reasons, to have any sort of substantial back-and-forth via a blog. This has been increasingly frustrating for me as my posts have grown more critical and less lighthearted in nature. For that very reason, I'm happy to have a chance to engage a little more deeply.

First of all, the quotation I chose was of course one of the more provocative, rhetorical ones. If I were able to post the whole book, or several of them, I would; then you would see more of the technical side, by which I mean details about what's wrong (for example, historical figures about literacy rates, social mobility, incarceration...), what alternatives there are (open schools, home schools, un-schools), and how those alternatives have played out in practice. Holt's “How Children Learn” is a fantastic analysis of what children are really learning inside of the elementary school classroom; his “Freedom and Beyond” looks more at the system as a whole and also discusses some alternatives schools; and Gatto's work unveils the history of the institution. All of the books are short (ie 250 pages or less) and well-written.

I have to say, I think that the "I turned out alright" argument falls flat on its face and amounts to ignoring the fact that different groups of people experience the school system in different ways. Of course, some make it through OK - but is that because of the system, or in spite of it? Remember, the three of us are upper-middle class white guys. Most of our parents have post-graduate degrees, and all have stable, relatively high incomes and a lot of choice in life. I'm lucky that my parents had the luxury of considering the quality of the school district in question when choosing where to move; and then, even after buying a house in a relatively good district, they worked to get me enrolled in an advanced program, open to only about twenty-five kids in my age group (out of the the thousand or more at the four schools in my county). I know your stories are to some degree different, but I also know that your parents went to great lengths to get you into the best schools they could. Not everyone is so fortunate.

You're right to point out that an alternative system might fail to prepare children for a lifetime of participation in the modern economy - but that's exactly the point! Life in the modern economy means, for most people, doing work that they don't care about for bosses that don't care about them (and who are in the same predicament). Not to mention that most modern work involves somehow degrading the ecosystem (not to mention the worker) in order to create and distribute products that nobody really needs. Conventional schools train people, emotionally and philosophically, to accept this state of affairs. Why support an institution that supports such a terrible system?

You both argue that school is about learning to think, not about learning specific facts. I agree - as does Gatto, as does Hoolt - that that's the way things ought to be. But that's not what most modern American schools are teaching most modern American children. They teach children obedience to authority that doesn’t care about their well-being; to evaluate themselves in terms of the grades they receive; to accept and complete arbitrary assignments; that the fundamental rule of life is competition; and, above all, that learning is work and work is boring, painful, and without meaning or joy. Most of these ideas are so repulsive and so unnatural, it’s hard to believe that anybody would buy into them if they hadn’t been closed up in a school for twelve years. Once they have thoroughly internalized what schools have to teach, though, it’s easy to see why alternatives would look so unrealistic.

Of course, you can’t change an institution as gargantuan as schooling and keep the rest of society static. The point is not to stop all schooling and then expect the world (or rather, our part of it) to continue as normal. That’s what I love about these writers – they do a great job of tying together a lot of problems. Resource depletion; environmental destruction; vapid consumerism; persistent racial disparity; urban destitution and suburban malaise; and so forth. If any of these problems are to be solved, starting with the institution that does the most to mold our populace's attitudes, abilities, and expectations about the world seems like a good idea to me.