Education: Buying Manhattan, Square Pegs & Round Holes

We’ll use the well-known legend of the Dutch buying Manhattan from the Indians as a jumping off point. Similar stories abound.

In order to buy, as the Dutch understood the concept, an island, there must be someone or some group that owns the island as the Dutch understand ownership. If a Dutchman owned a piece of land, he’d assume he could put a wall around it, say who can or can’t use it and how, say who can pass through it and when, and so on – and the law would back him up.

It’s an open question, I think, if the Indians the Dutch bought the island from shared this understanding. (It’s been argued that the particular tribe they cut the deal with were not even from Manhattan, but lived out in Queens. It’s the original ‘want to buy the Brooklyn Bridge?’ story.  I’ll leave it some native New Yorker to insert an appropriate quip here.)

In American history, there are a number of stories about treaties with the native Americans where the two sides had a very different understanding of what the treaty meant, even apart from any dishonesty or double-dealing. To put it perhaps a little simplistically, Europeans were, naturally, looking for the Indian equivalents of kings or landed gentry, from whom they could buy land fair and square, to own, use and enjoy European style. Regardless of how the Native Americans organized themselves and viewed ownership, our Europeans ancestors were almost fated to see them through a filter.  It would have been hard for the settlers to grasp that, while the Indians may have had very clear ideas about whose land was whose, and who could use it and for what, those ideas could be very different from and incomparable with European ideas.

When modern Americans think of school, we have a similar set of assumptions about what education looks like. For generations now, the kings and landed gentry of education have been a set of professional ‘educators’, who sell us graded classrooms and standardized tests – and the law backs these educators up.

But is that the only way it can be? Here’s where true ‘multiculturalism’ can help us – we can ask the very enlightening question: in other cultures we admire, how did people educate their young? Or, in other cultures we loath, how did people educate their young? Because real multiculturalism passes judgment – not all cultures are equal.

So, how did Athenians in the Golden Age, the Medieval English, and late 18th century Americans educate their young? Short answer: not in graded classrooms managed by professional educators, with attendance enforced by the police power of the state. (Socrates: “Anyone who charges money to teach what any competent adult knows commits fraud.”)

How about cultures we loath? Say, National Socialist Germany, China under Mao and the Soviet Union under Stalin? Hmmm – every single one of those cultures DID use highly trained educators, compelled attendance, graded classrooms, and standardized tests.

But, you may object, that’s because the cultures you like are all OLD, while, in modern times, ALL developed countries use the compulsory graded classroom model! 2 responses: Sort of – except they don’t always. In all developed countries, the little people get these schools – the upper crust, not so much. The children of the powerful are notoriously NOT in these schools. Further, American colleges and universities – still the envy of the world – don’t follow this model – they’re not compulsory, for one thing, the students choose their classes and schedule, and much if not most of the learning is assumed to take place outside the couple hours a day the student spends in class.

And, so what if my positive examples are old? The question is how well children got educated. If we like what we find, THEN we ask: can that work today?

So, even in modern cultures, the children of the powerful and the ambitious college kids get educated outside the standard model. That should give us pause. (Aside: elsewhere, I address how, contrary to the official party line, even ‘good’ high schools typically fail to prepare kids for college – they end up taking remedial course to learn what all those AP classes and hours of homework failed to teach them.)

The point here: like the Dutch, we won’t even see the differences if we restrict ourselves to the filter we’ve inherited – if we think that education = graded classrooms, standardized tests, tons of home work, layers of bureaucracy and truant officers, we can’t see that, in fact, people as illustriously well educated as Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Adams and hundreds of thousands of others never took a standardized test, never sat in a graded classroom, never spent a minute being taught by a officially certified and scientifically trained professional – yet, they learned.

In the words of Captain Taggart: “Let’s do that!”

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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