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April 25, 2008


Discussions like these, which stress the need for boning up on "the basics" or "math, science, and technology," make me uncomfortable for a reason that perhaps underlies your question, or is at least related to it. They seem to remove us from a three-dimensional view of our society, making the discussion so laser-focused as to leave out many things that are requisite to a healthy society. The skills of creativity, divergent thinking, communication of many kinds, even the ability to ask questions, do not seem to me to be represented in this discussion although they are necessary to us collectively.

I think a lot of the official discussion of education is shaped by the thinking that has gone before -- for more than a century, the argument for taxing people to educate them has been based on the accepted wisdom that educated people are more productive and productive people make more money, on a community-wide basis.

When academic types study education and progress in the field, they end up coming back to that idea. It's more persuasive than reasoning that educated people are more likely to be creative, open-minded, humane. When it comes down to persuading the pizza-shop guy on the corner, you have to put it in his terms.

But after the official discussion, there's a big disconnect with real families. Most of the parents I know want their kids to learn enough to live safely and comfortably, but I don't know anybody who wants HIS kid to necessarily be the next Bill Gates or Sam Walton. I know I'm torn between wanting my daughter to learn to yield to teachers' requirements and wanting her to grow up with some strength of character. I think facts are important -- creativity is basically a leap from facts and ideas to new ideas that lead to new learning -- but I think they're not the whole of education.

We parents have multidimensional kids and are not comfortable thinking that education is all about making a good worker and nothing more. I'm not sure anybody in the educ-cracy really cares about us, though.

MB and Peter, thanks a lot for these comments and your affirmation that I'm not crazy. Peter, do you feel like education has become more fact- and rule-based than when we were young, and if so, why?

I once had a 'heated discussion' with my then-7 year old's teacher concerning the reason for her attendance in class, my argument was that she was in school to develop a love of learning, to explore the world around her and to acquire skills and abilities that would enable her to become a good human being. The teacher repeated at least 5 times, "No, she is here to pass the govt tests and fulfill our quotas"
That's education in England today
Sadly I suspect that education the world over is concerned with providing the fodder for the machinery of commerce and industry to that rich men stay rich

Do I think education is more matter-of-fact? I think it depends on whom you ask.

Outsiders talking about education talk about making money as a goal -- either individually or as a community. Ohio is short of college graduates, we're told, and must get more to be able to prosper. A skeptic would say there's more to making money than getting an education, and a student ought to be able to tell you there's more to education than making money (well, there used to be. An education costs so much now that money is a lot more important than it used to be.)

A thoughtful student ought to be able to tell you about the benefits in terms of open-mindedness, creativity and understanding that his or her studies bring. Most likely you wouldn't hear about that until several years after the experience is over, though; during the school years, one's goal is to get through the process with a minimum of pain.

My daughter would sooner eat mealybugs than confess pleasure in learning anything; her world is shaped by her efforts to defy unreasonable requests and to do unreasonable things with assignments that fire her imagination. (She was influenced more than I like to think by Harry Potter. Currently, she wants to be either a comic-book artist, a video-game designer or a sushi chef, and she doesn't recognize the pleasure she takes in telling her friends things she knows, nor does she recognize the amount of learning required to do any of those jobs well. Personally, I still think she would make a gifted labor lawyer; listening to her brilliant variations on the theme "why I lost my homework" makes me imagine her tying the Workers Compensation Board in knots. She's almost old enough for "The Merchant of Venice"; I think she would like Portia.)

It would take a particularly idealistic teacher to talk about intangibles. I don't know any of Ann's teachers well, but I don't think any of them are philosophical. They sure never express ideals in public. It may be that elementary-school teachers tend toward the practical.

The materials pushed out by the school for parents are framed entirely by an institutional point of view that hasn't changed since 1960 -- handouts my parents inadvertantly saved aren't really different in tone, though details have changed. Basically, they tell us what we must do, or else, and the institution's desires rule. They still tell they consider parents to be partners, but it's still not true, unless they mean "silent partners." On the other hand, the district will let you bring a cell phone to school now. It was a big deal in Bainbridge when they put a pay phone in the front lobby.

I know two or three teachers who bring a lot of energy to the work and seem to enjoy kids in spite of how frustrating they are. There's that moment when a kid "gets it" and you can literally see the light go on in their eyes that's very satisfying. I know an art teacher who draws brilliant work out of grade-school kids, and finds clever ways to showcase it. I know a music teacher with no imagination at all who relies too heavily on a boom box he has trouble operating. I also know a couple of other teachers who are frankly hanging on to get their pensions and seem to hate very minute they spend on the job. I wish there was such a thing as an honorable, involuntary retirement at 40 for them.

I do think the materials available now are much better -- the readings that come home from fifth grade are pretty good on an adult level, for example, and the "Everyday Math" system they use is very impressive (but some teachers use xeroxes from old books because they don't want to change their lessons).

Relations with families and the public have changed. I think one of the reasons -- aside from the fact that people who've seriously screwed up their lives tend to gravitate to the poorer parts of cities, but still must educate their kids -- that there are so many knuckleheads in classroom seats is that parents are skeptical of schools and say so; it makes the kids skeptical and that much harder to control. One idiot can ruin a whole day's lessons, but since the late 60s, it has been difficult to do anything with disruptive kids, since they're entitled to checks and balances to keep the officials from misusing their power.

So much of learning depends on attitude, and sometimes kids learn the wrong ones from each other. That's different. Or maybe not; I can remember some knuckleheads in my own classes, including a few that applied their knuckles to my head -- something so forbidden now that while violence is still common, only the bullies get away with it.

That's a rambling reply to a straightforward question. I hope I haven't just raised more....

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.