What Would Schooling Directed Toward the Good of the Child Look Like? 1

(Want China Times via the Daily Mail)
Problems? What Problems?

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’.[1] 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?

Schooling: What Are We Investigating Here?

1906 Felta School, Sonoma County, California closed on November 27, 1951. Note: I use one-room schools not because they were perfect, but because they represent a true grass-roots effort at education, and were widespread in America before the graded classroom model took over.

Herein we lay out the schooling research program of this blog.

20 years ago, when our first child was 2, I would have argued for rigorous academic schooling for their children as the duty of any parents capable of providing it. Now, as a graduate of the Great Books Program at St. John’s College,  I already had a somewhat different idea of what that meant in practice – in practice, the bulk of my education has consisted of reading books and talking about them with other people.

Then I met a woman who talked about Sudbury schools, and I instantly saw that I, at least, would have done very well in that environment, as I would have spent a lot of my time reading, uninterrupted by those pesky and stupid classes I had to take in grade school. At the same time I did a little co-oping at the ‘developmental’ preschool our son was in, and saw how little kids – 3, 4 and 5 year olds – investigated the world and interacted. Developmental schooling is the idea that kids will pursue whatever it is they need to learn if you put them into a rich, safe environment and let ’em loose – right up to the age of 5 or 6, at which point their education needs to be micromanaged  by the minute or you are dooming them to be homeless derelicts.

Something wasn’t right in this picture.

I don’t remember who turned me on to John Taylor Gatto, but his writing was a real eye-opener. He makes the following assertions:

1. Graded classroom model schooling is designed to make us stupid (Dumbing Us Down);

2. It works by imposing arbitrary rules and structures that, despite the efforts of any well-intentioned teachers, effectively prevent real learning and instead create more easily managed ‘product’ (7 Lesson Schoolteacher);

3. That this state – schools that produce stupid, easily managed people impervious to thought – is the result of a conscious plan worked out in broad daylight by a small group of ‘educators’ with connections to the rich and powerful in this country (Underground History of American Education).

Another of Gatto’s observations: the greatest success of the current model of schooling is that almost nobody can imagine any other way of doing it, even though the graded classroom model was all but unknown 200 years ago, and didn’t become ubiquitous in this country until about 100 years ago.

I’m focusing here on point 3: that the real purpose of schooling is to produce standardized product that will perform to spec – soldiers and workers who will follow orders, managers who do not question the goals of their management, and a population that can be counted on to think the same about central issues, the most central being that those in charge should stay in charge and given more power.

Gatto names names: in America, it starts with Horace Mann, the founding prophet of American public education. He links backwards to Johann Gottlieb Fichte, an influential German philosopher, and his near contemporaries Hegel and Kant. These Germans, in turn, link back a Swiss German pedagog, Johann Heinrick Pestalozzi. These characters, most especially Fichte and Hegel, influenced a boatload of people – people who became the heads of the university education departments and state and federal education commissions in most European countries and all US states.

It is in the writings of these men that the goals of modern education are revealed, according to Gatto. So, I’m reading them.

You can my thoughts on them under the category ‘Education History‘.



Booknado! Well, Not Really. But Little Boxes From Amazon…

… and its affiliates have started arriving. So far, got 3 John C. Wrights. one Michael Flynn, which I will eagerly read over the course of the remainder of this decade (hey, reality check) – and: Henry Barnard.  I may be the first person since his biographer Robert B. Downs’ immediate family and friends to be excited to see this book.

Twayne’s World Leader series, from 1977.

Henry Barnard was the first US Commissioner of Education, March 11, 1867–1870.

This nice cloth-bound book was published in 1977, and added to the Emmanuel College library in Franklin Springs, Georgia, where, judging by the pristine card pocket with places  for due date to be stamped, it sat undisturbed for decades.  Dewey decimal key on the spine.


Had to give it a quick perusal.  Has a chapter on European Influences, which names some names I haven’t investigated yet.  French names.

Let me say this about that: if I have to read a bunch of French educational theorists and philosophers on top of all the Germans I’ve plowing through, a double plenary indulgence will not be nearly enough compensation. OK, alright – the briefest examination of conscience makes clear that my sins do warrant this, and worse.

I’ve been a bad, bad, boy. Sure hope both my loyal readers appreciate all the work I’m doing here – for them.

Kidding aside, Barnard was an admirer of Victor Cousin, a French philosopher and educational theorist who said, among other things:

All men have an equal right to the free development of their faculties; they have an equal right to the impartial protection of the state; but it is not true, it is against all the laws of reason and equity, it is against the eternal nature of things.


The beautiful cannot be the way to what is useful, or to what is good, or to what is holy; it leads only to itself.

Which reminds me of our buddy William Torrey Harris (it seems American educational reformers, like serial killers, typically go by 3 names):

“The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places … It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.”

If we’re looking for somebody who emphasizes the 3 Rs, this may not be the place.

Anyway, more as soon as I get a minute to, you know, actually READ the book.

Beauty – Sam Maloof

Last post, showed pictures of natural beauty. Here, let’s discuss the Incarnational role of the human artist working with natural beauty.

Every since I found out that my name saint, St. Joseph, was a carpenter, I’ve always loved things made of wood, and have even made a few myself.  Mostly, though, I’ve just paid a somewhat heightened attention to wooden things, enjoying that sacramental relationship wherein a good craftsman takes something beautiful but hidden – the wood within a tree – and makes something even more beautiful from it. For example:

A Sam Maloof rocker. It is said to be as comnortable as it is beautiful.

This beautiful walnut and ebony rocker made by the legendary Sam Maloof (once called a ‘rock star’ of the craft world – sometimes, even *a hundred people* showed up at his personal appearances!) . This work stirs my soul – the more you look at it, the more details you take in, the more beautiful it is revealed to be:

In addition to the beautiful and subtle wood grain, note especially the organic way Maloof joins the upright to the chair back, and the three perfectly sized and placed ebony plugs, which could be the ends of dowels, but I think Maloof actually used them to cover screws (making him a bit of a heretic)

Chair building is like shipbuilding on land: unlike a chest of drawers or a table, the logic of the shape and the structural requirements of the joints flows from the unique stresses the chair or ship is subject to. In a cabinet, the stresses tend to be unidirectional or at least straight, as it were. You make a solid box that doesn’t often go anywhere (and is handled carefully when moved), and focus on making drawers and doors open well. For a chair, especially a rocking chair, one has to understand how human beings use chairs, how we drag them about, plop ourselves into them, lean back in them, rock them – much more like a ship tossed about on the waves than like a staid, square bookcase.

The chair above expresses the ideals of light weight – it looks almost airy, a seat suspended spindly limbs – with a sublime expression of functionality – every curve and joint is designed for comfort, strength and beauty.  In ancient times, ship builders would lay out the keel on the beach, and add the structural pieces largely by eye. Specking out curvy 3-dimensional pieces before CAD/CAM was difficult and, lacking 3-D printers, kind of pointless. Instead, by feel, the shipbuilder chose the materials, held it up to where it was to go, and worked them until they fit – with an eye to the stresses the ship would undergo once out at sea. In the same way, Maloof has some templates for some parts, but cuts and assembles others by eye. (In one of his books, he casually mentions that he drills the back spindle holes in the seat by eye – he just looks at the seat, imagines where the 5 spindles need to go to look and work best, chooses an angle (nothing is 90 degrees on a chair) and drills. When working with rosewood, which is about as flexible as wrought iron, he’s got maybe a millimeter of leeway – yet he’s cranked out dozens of these chairs. Dude was a woodworking god.)

Here’s how Maloof solves a standard woodworking problem:

close up of jointSay you need to join a leg to a seat. The leg is vertical, the seat horizontal, which means their respective strengths and weaknesses do not line up as one would ideally hope. Walnut is strong under compression in the direction of the grain, but comparatively weak against splitting along the grain. So the chair seat is designed so that the grain runs front to back, as the stress – especially in a rocker – tends much more to run front to back than side to side.

The standard solution for legs is to make the end of the leg into a cylinder, drill a hole, and shove the cylinder into it. A common refinement is to cut a slot into the top of the leg, which gives the cylinder a little give for insertion and provides a place to insert a very slightly too large wedge into the slot, thus forcing the cylinder tight against the hole, carefully arranging the grains of the various pieces so that the resulting forces do not tend to split them.

What Maloof does here is take that solution, and make it beautiful: the wedge is cut oversized and rounded, the chair seat itself is notched a bit, and the result is elegant and pleasing, while retaining full functionality.

God is foremost a creator. Man, in an Incarnational universe, becomes more holy and god-like when he creates. But as man must work with the materials God has created from nothing, all our works insofar as they are beautiful, give glory to God. Our role is not to merely praise God by seeing His glory in His works, but to also give him praise by our works – which always, by necessity, are the re-presenting  to Him of his own works as understood and manipulated by one of His greatest works, the free human mind.

The Heavens Proclaim the Glory of God

Milky Way
The Milky Way, pretty much as people saw it before ubiquitous light contamination. The definition of awesome.
Hubble Sees a Horsehead of a Different Color
Horsehead Nebula as photographed by the Hubble.

A while back, gave a rather stiff and high-falutin’ statement of why I’m Catholic. Now, there’s never one answer to that question for any person, unless it’s ‘because of the wholly unmerited grace of God’ – which, while certainly true, explains in perhaps less detail than one would want.

It’s a fundamental assertion of the Catholic faith that no one is so devoid of blessings and graces that there is no chance that they can be saved. That said, we also bow at that point in the Creed when we confess that Christ was incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit and became Man. God, in the fullness of time, chose, not to save us with a wave of His almighty hand, but rather to send Himself into the world as a very real, very human child, born of a very real, very human mother. Why? That is such a powerful question, with such terrible consequences, that all of Christian history has been haunted and cursed by attempts to either deny the Incarnation outright, or, at least, put it in a well-contained box where it can’t get out and mess everything up.

When Christ told his followers that His Flesh was Real Food, and His Blood Real Drink, and that unless you eat this Flesh and drink this Blood you will have no life in you – well, that’s the Incarnation hitting far too close too home. He had every chance to straighten out their ‘misunderstanding’, except they understood perfectly well, so He not only didn’t back down, but doubled and tripled down. Even when the crowds left Him, an opportunity He often took to explain to the Apostles what the crowd has failed to understand, He offers no clarification, but merely asks if they want to leave as well. Yet, it is traditional among many Christians to insist He was kidding, inviting the question: is there anything He could say, any other words He could use, to make it clear He wasn’t kidding?

File:Glacier Point at Sunset, Yosemite NP, CA, US - Diliff.jpg
He does nice work closer to home, too.

Take, for example, the readily-supplied passages that are held up as supporting Sola Scriptura – if they were half as clear and definitive as the assertions in John 6 about Christ’s Body and Blood being real food and drink, they would read something like this: “Truly I say to you, all teaching authority is in the written Word of God that my followers will eventually write; you need nothing more for your salvation. Any other source that claims to be my teachings is not of God. ” And then throw in a list of canonical books, just to cut off debate. Instead, we get claims, for example, that “useful for instruction” somehow means the one and only source of teaching, and, by the way, all that stuff about keeping to the verbal teachings, about keeping to the traditions handed on by the Apostles, for example, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter”  – well, that needs a bit of nuance to be properly understood.

There are many more ways the Incarnation is marginalized, where we rebel against the idea that God is right here, right now, working through messy and flawed matter. But that’s exactly what Jesus did, even to the point of spitting in the dust and using mud to cure, to letting His healing power flow out through the hem of His cloak,  and even to choosing a man he knew to be a traitor and entrusting him with the awesome office of Apostle.

The Church embraces the Incarnation following the example of her Spouse, so that no matter is too coarse, no building is too grand, no relic is too off-putting, no devotion too goofy, no person too crippled and sinful, that God may not use them as instruments of His grace. Based on the example of Christ, we should shocked if the Church did otherwise. That bread and wine should become Our Lord and Savior is indeed right and just.

I am Catholic because my faith allows me to share more deeply in the created beauty of this world.

My 2 Cents worth on Dr. Boli

In the course of explaining the paradox of people only willing to give a penny for thoughts that are your 2 cents worth, Dr. Boli wisely concludes:

If, therefore, you find that your opinions are undervalued even by your own meager standards, you may console yourself by reflecting that they must be pretty good opinions. If you were a complete idiot, you would be on the New York Times bestseller list with all the other complete idiots.

So, in this schema, where are the columnists and editorial writers for the New York Times? Oh, wait – many are also best-selling authors. Never mind.

Week 4 in American History for Teenagers – How’d It Go?

File:Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851.jpg
Sit down! Sit down! Sit down! Sit down! Sit down, you’re rocking the boat! Managed to mention the Little Ice Age in this context as well. Tee Hee!

Ruthless editing brought the handouts all the way down to 32 pages: an American Revolution to Constitution timeline, a map of key battles and troop movements, brief bios of 5 Founding Fathers – and, what the heck, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and  Bill of Rights.

Was way late – the stupid printer was off-line for some reason, took me – with IT help – 30 minutes to get it back going. This is twice in 4 classes that I’ve been late. Great model of adult responsibility, me.

Finally got going at 3:50. 2 kids skipped out because it was so late – they’d gone on to the next interesting thing. So, 5 kids. The only feedback that really matters is that they show up, but they did seem to get into it. Tried to emphasize how iffy the Revolution was, how support for it was hardly universal among colonists, and that some of the battles were basically colonists versus colonists, revolutionaries versus loyalists. It was only after France and Spain got involved that victory started to seem likely. The Founding Documents were given for reading on their own. We’ll go over them a little next time, as we cover the early Republic up to the Civil War.

So: picked 5 Founding Fathers for whom to give short bios. Which 5 would you pick?

Middle-School History: Today – Revolution!

What is it with geniuses and hair care? Or lack thereof? But wait – Mozart had tidy hair (or at least, a tidy wig) , as did Bach. Is it just Beethoven, Einstein and their imitators? Deep question.

America is Revolting! Here, we refer only to the events of the later half of the 18th century, Six years after Bach died, Mozart launched the whole baby genius thing.  and 16 years after that Beethoven was born.  But other things were happening as well.  Kant, Hegel and Fichte were all born around this time, too, although only Kant was doing much damage before the 19th century. The finding of the longitude got productized, making sea travel and trade much safer, more predictable and profitable.

The Enlightenment was grinding toward its ultimate expression, the Reign or Terror. Enlightened despots – roll that around in your brain for a bit – all over Europe were trying out all these cool ‘scientific’ ideas, using their own people as lab rats, something their poor unenlightened predecessors never dreamed of.  This project of enlightened, powerful people experimenting on us chickens (to maximize egg and meat production) goes on to this day, cheer-lead by the bastard spawn of the unholy union of Darwin and Hegel. The ideas of the Age of Reason succeeded, finally, in killing rationality entirely.

Somehow, representative democracy arose out of all this. Like the 1960s, only way more and way more truly, one can say: well, at least the music was good. How something as good and sublime as the American Constitution could arise from these roots is still a mystery to me. This is one point where history seemed truly balanced on a knife edge – it clearly could have turned out much differently – and much worse.

So, here’s the problem: in my original outline for a 10-week course of once a week one hour seminars on American History for teenagers, Week 4 was to be devoted to the Revolution up to the Constitution. For the first 3 weeks, my handouts were about 15 pages, mostly maps and timelines, just to give the kids a feel what was happening when and where.

Week 4? I’m up to 32 pages, and that ain’t close to done. I’m guessing 40 – 50 pages of materials, which are just a high-level overview. For comparison, last week’s class ran 10 minutes long, and the handouts were 14 pages.

The problem is I’m leaving work early to do this, which is why I settled on once a week for 10 weeks – that will fly under radar. If it gets any more frequent or longer, I fear it won’t.  So, what to tell and what to cut? Painful, and it’s not going to get any better going forward.