(Autobiographical junk follows. I’m just venting, for the most part. Could be interesting, maybe not. Be warned!)
Happy New Year!
How does one come to doubt virtually everything one “learned” in school? How does one recover from 12 or more years of institutionally administered Stockholm Syndrome? How does one get a smidgin (a very small smidgen in my case, I am painfully aware) of real education, despite every institutional effort being made to prevent such an outcome? In short, how does one get to be as intellectually weird and culturally marginalized as I am? I’ll tell you how, just stop the pushing, form a line:
I was part of a small group of people who got together 17 years ago and founded a tiny (42 students today) “alternative” school. In the capacity of ‘Founder’ and, more often than not, ‘President’, I have often been put in the position of hearing people’s educational theories and having to expound my own. This has been a disconcerting experience. Most people are wed to a mythology of education that is simply impervious to though, evidence and experience.
The standard myth goes like this: School is absolutely necessary to the good life. You MUST do as much school as you possibly can stand if you are going to succeed. Sure, a lot of school seems pointless and boring, but none the less, you MUST endure – failure to do so will cripple your ability to do unpleasant tasks in the future, and life, we all know, is mostly an endless succession of unpleasant tasks. Schoolwork is more important than your family life, more important than your friends, more important certainly than your faith or any personal or spiritual development – those can come later, AFTER you finish your homework and get that graduate degree.
Childhood and young adulthood are for school.
In ritzier areas, add: you MUST get into a GOOD college! Failure to do so will condemn you to a life of want and misery. All other desires must be set aside for this one goal.
Think I’m overstating it? Seen this movie?
Does it matter that most of what we need to know at work we learn on the job or in some VoTech or other, not in the classroom? Does it matter that as often as not the most successful and happy people we know were indifferent students in school, or had no college, or dropped out? More subtly, does it matter that educated people – especially *very* educated people – cannot, in general, think their way out of a damp paper bag?
Does it matter that kids from alternative schools and home schools tend to do better, often much better, than kids from classroom schools?
No, it does not. In my experience, almost no one can even hear this – even in the unrepresentative sample of people who I’m talking with, who are there *because* they are interested in some alternative to classroom schooling, the vast majority are terrified of the prospect of letting their kids do anything other than what they, themselves, had to do as children. Only a tiny percentage ever break through and see that there’s nothing sacred, scientific or even reasonable about how we 21st century Americans pretend to educate our young.
So, how do those people do it? How does that small number of people, to paraphrase Churchill, succeed in refusing to let schooling interfere with their education? That’s a million-dollar question, and I have not figured it out in a couple decades of trying. One idea is Alice Miller’s sympathetic witness – she treated cases of childhood trauma, and discovered that chances for recovery were greatly enhanced if a sympathetic witness was present to acknowledge the child’s suffering. Lacking such a witness, a kid will strongly tend to assume that his unhappiness is his fault, that his experience is just the way things are. The literary example of a sympathetic witness might be Kip’s father from Have Spacesuit Will Travel, whose investigated Kip’s high school, deemed it nonsense, and handed him some real books to study.
So, did I have such a witness? Nope. as far as I can remember, my ‘suffering’ was limited to extreme boredom. But some people seem to have had one.
Another presumed indicator is a left-leaning consciousness – you distrust the man, see through the power dynamic, and speak truth to power by not putting up with the nonsense at school.
Boy, is that one a hoot! Again, via my experiences with our school, I’ve spoken with any number of Progressive parents, and – nah. These people absolutely cannot let go of micromanaging their kids’ lives. In my experience, they are the worst examples of slavish conformity to the accepted myth. At most, they want a kinder, gentler kid jail for their kids. So, no, in schooling as in so many other areas, Progressive means doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
All I can say, from my experience, is that, at some point or points, I became aware that All Was Not as It Seemed at school:
– in 4th grade, I discovered the tiny school library, which had dozens of those Time-Life Science books and other cool stuff. Sr. Rosanne was a stickler for turning in homework – you had to stay a half hour after school if you failed to turn ANYTHING in on time – I did that once, and that was enough. So I cherished time in the library and did my homework during class.
The contrast was stark: I could do busywork homework which, in addition to being no fun, approached 0% retention in my little head, or I could read Time Life Science books, and build a working electric motor out of paperclips and thumbtacks. For example.
This was not a hard decision.
In fifth grade, after having had ‘hand in homework’ drilled into me, I somehow got the Merit Pin (in primitive times – this would have been the ’60s – schools actually rewarded top performers, ignoring the damage done to the other little egos. Dark, dark times!). For about a half hour I was thrilled and proud. The the buzz wore off, as I found out that nobody else gave a hoot. So, even though my body was still there, I’d effectively dropped out of school in 5th grade. My mind and soul were elsewhere.
Note, however, that times were very different then – in a Catholic grade school in the ’60s, teachers actually considered children to be free human beings with immortal souls, so they were not unduly threatened by a kid who spent his days reading books at the back of the class, popping up only once in a while to take tests or whatever. I didn’t cause any trouble, I knew how to read, write and do basic math – so, I was pretty much left alone. That doesn’t happen anymore, evidently. Teachers now days are threatened by any kid who doesn’t at least pretend to go along with the program.
Kept this up through my junior year in high school. Unfortunately, we had to take pre-SATs. This triggered a call into the dean’s office – he wanted to know how somebody who could get the score I got could also be pulling C+ and B in all my classes. Well, I played hoops, I did theater, sang in the choir – and, again, I didn’t cause any trouble. Didn’t do any homework or study, either. Not good enough – I was shamed into actually trying for a whole semester. Got As. Got bored.
By halfway through senior year, I’d been accepted at St. John’s College’s Great Books Program. This seemed to me a match made in heaven – you read books! Few tests and papers! Discussion classes!
I did spotty, but did manage to read all those readings (almost – hey, some of those books are really long!). Graduated 5 years later. This experience confirmed what I’d long known – you don’t need to be lectured at and micromanaged in a classroom in order to learn. It also established a strong bias toward not believing what people say some writer said if what they said is available to be read directly.
Once you start reading source materials, you become aware of being immersed in lies and half truths. Even history – especially history – is up for grabs. I suppose that’s part of what being a fallen human entails. More dramatically, I discovered the utter disinterest of almost everyone in this fact. Just try to establish one point with most educated modern people – anything, so long as it’s not totally meaningless – and see what happens.
This disinterest in truth, this claim of open-mindedness coupled with a complete disregard of any facts or even of any method of establishing facts – this is truly the defining characteristic of the educated modern mind.
So, back to the top: want to be alienated and marginalized from most all our culture? Want people to consider you a meanie and a bore (at best!) when you fail to laugh at or otherwise abuse their tribal targets? Want to drop into the world of History and Culture?
– Read books. Include a lot of old books. Include Great Books.
Realize that to be multicultural, you must have at least one culture st start with – and an ability to quote Happy Days (or its modern equivalent) does not equal having a culture. Hey, how about the one you’ve grown up in? How about getting into it deeper than a coat of paint?
– Believe that you can check stuff out on your own, that Truth is not a matter of simply establishing whose side you are on and then swallowing whole the accepted wisdom of that side.
This is a really troubling one, one that hit me in the face the first time I came home from college. Met up with my buddies and acquaintances from high school, after their first semesters. I had been unsettled by Plato and Homer – unsettled, both in having my head filled with ideas about which I was uncertain, and in the more basic sense that my home was no longer my home. My peers, on the other hand, had received their first inoculation against ever having to think again.
Think I’m being harsh? No group is as rigidly conformist as a bunch of college freshmen. They have been introduced into a new society – college – different from and presumed superior to their home. They MUST fit in – it’s a human drive as powerful in most people as sex and hunger. The keepers of this society are largely the professors, and those who can play the professors’ games. So, college freshmen are exceedingly unlikely to question ANYTHING their professors and peers tell them – they are painfully aware that they are the provisional junior members of this tribe. So, they not only accept Power Dynamic analysis, deconstruction and relativism without question, they become their staunchest defenders. Problem is, their defense consists entirely of pointing out that any questioner is not a member of their tribe – no argument is made (in fact, it’s difficult to imagine a 19 year old traditionally educated college freshman having the intellectual chops to even make a rudimentary argument about anything at all. Assuming they’d want to, which they don’t). Mockery, insult and presumed intellectual and moral superiority are the tools.
– love the truth more than the tribe. Careful, here, because this will push you in unexpected directions. Many people are alarmed and off put that a disproportionate number of people who love truth and study beauty and the past end up Christians and particularly Catholics. Well, it turns out the the Church, unlike most groups, doesn’t ask you check you mind at the door. Realizing this is a dizzying experience. More to the point, being Catholic has a way of ruining lots of other tribal relationships. It’s hard to be passionately partisan when you are passionately Christian. At the very least, faith gives you a place to stand from which to judge your party – an exercise highly recommended.
Now, it’s not absolutely necessary to be Christian to be cultured and educated, but it is generally found to be difficult to avoid.
– get some history. And not just stuff written by moderns of the last century or 2. Particularly, history written by enlightened Englishmen tends to be bigoted nonsense where Christianity and especially Catholicism are concerned. Also, beware the ubiqutous reboots under the aegis of power dynamic analysis and other PC BS. almost never can history or current human relationships be meaningfully broken down into monolithic oppressors and oppressed, where everything the oppressors do is evil and anything the oppressed do is good or at least forgivable. Start with Herodotus, Thucydides and maybe Tacitus, to get a flavor of history written from a completely other, non-PC perspective. It’s fun!
And enough for now.