Since I beat on compulsory graded classroom schooling non-stop, perhaps I should describe what good schooling, directed toward the good of the child, would look like. This will take a couple of posts.
First, it is enlightening to see how extraordinarily well-educated people got that way. I suggest that, in your reading or other consumption of information, you keep an eye out for the educational experiences of people you admire. In my experience, there is no one answer to how people become well-educated. Take, for example, the 5 Founding Fathers I chose to give short biographies of in the course materials for the US History for teenagers class I’m giving:
George Washington: “The death of his father prevented Washington from crossing the Atlantic to receive the rest of his education at England’s Appleby School, as his older brothers had done. He received the equivalent of an elementary school education from a variety of tutors, and also a school run by an Anglican clergyman in or near Fredericksburg.” With this in mind, read the 1st State of the Union Address – makes one pine for pithy, direct speech.
Benjamin Franklin: “A noted polymath, Franklin was a leading author, printer, political theorist, politician, postmaster, scientist, musician, inventor, satirist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. As a scientist, he was a major figure in the American Enlightenment and the history of physics for his discoveries and theories regarding electricity. He invented the lightning rod, bifocals, the Franklin stove, a carriage odometer, and the glass ‘armonica’. He facilitated many civic organizations, including a fire department and a university.” Yet “Josiah (his father) wanted Ben to attend school with the clergy, but only had enough money to send him to school for two years. He attended Boston Latin School but did not graduate; he continued his education through voracious reading. Although “his parents talked of the church as a career” for Franklin, his schooling ended when he was ten.”
Patrick Henry: “Henry attended local schools for a few years, and then was tutored by his father.” But: “Young Henry was an idler and by many accounts a derelict; though everyone knew he was bright, he simply would not lift a finger except to his own pleasure. By the age of 10, his family knew that he would not be a farmer, and tried instead to train him toward academe. He would not apply himself to studies either. At age 21 his father set him up in a business that he bankrupted shortly thereafter. Finally the general public disgust in Hanover and pressure from his young family (he had married at the age of eighteen) caused him to study for six weeks and take the bar exam, which he passed, and begin work as a lawyer.”
John Adams: “Adams began his education in a common school in Braintree. He secured a scholarship to Harvard and graduated at the age of 20. He apprenticed to a Mr. Putnam of Worcester, who provided access to the library of the Attorney General of Massachusetts, and was admitted to the Bar in 1761.”
Thomas Jefferson: “He was tutored by the Reverend James Maury, a learned man, in the finest classical tradition. He began the study of Latin, Greek, and French at the age of 9. He attended William and Mary College in Williamsburg at sixteen years old, then continued his education in the Law under George Wythe, the first professor of law in America”
Two of these men would make any modern upwardly-mobile parents proud: early admittance to an elite college, intern with a prominent lawyer, pass the bar, and the sky’s the limit. There is a lot of what would be called homeschooling going on, as well as on the job training.
What strikes me about these men:
– Their lives were meaningful and connected. They saw themselves as part of a family, a community, a church and a country;
– Their families had expectations that they would learn, and tried, within their means, to help;
– They aspired to greatness. Well, except for young Henry, who sounds a bit like Garth and Wayne, but even he came around;
– The bulk of their education was self-learning and tutoring.
And note: Even the formal schooling they did do was unlikely to involve graded classrooms or age segregation, since those ideas only came into vogue with the Industrial Revolution. You were in a group because you needed to learn the same things as the rest of the group – learn it, and you move on. Compare and contrast how modern schools keep the 6 year olds who can read in the same group as the 6 year olds who can’t, and the 10 year olds who can’t with the 10 year olds who can. In the colonial days, this would have rightly been seen as insane. More to the point: reading cannot be the goal if being able to read does not excuse you from the group.
A common objection at this point is to point out that these people were geniuses, and we can’t expect the kinds of education they got to work for us commoners. Two answers: first, a saying tossed about by the founders of the St. John’s College Great Books program: the best education for the few is the best education for everyone. How could it be otherwise, for a free and noble people fit to rule themselves? Second, as John Taylor Gatto once remarked, genius is as common as dirt. Or, as Einstein put it: “Everybody is a genius.”
The next objection is usually to point out that not everyone has Jefferson’s or Adams’ parents. Yes, guys like Lincoln and Thomas Edison didn’t. Besides, what if it turns out that strong families in strong communities are the *cause* of good education, not the result? Historically, that certainly seems to be the case. Then efforts to educate kids from destroyed families and communities is like trying to set the parking brake on a car that’s already driven off the cliff. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a schooling success story of the kind beloved by educators, wherein an impoverished child with no parental help (because dad has run off, and mom is on drugs, is the usual set-up) gets through school, stays out of jail and maybe goes to college, where the key step wasn’t some sympathetic adult or adults connecting with the kid, providing the sort of support and protection a parent normally would. The recent book & movie the Blind Side is an example of this, as are the KIPP schools beloved by Malcolm Gladwell.
Mentioning the presence of supportive and loving adults raises the real question: What is the good of the child toward which schooling should be directed?