I don’t know how to mark this occasion. I looked around Target, but they didn’t have any greeting cards for this sort of thing.
Also, the discussion for this post might get a bit hot. Before anyone gets pissed off I’d just like to remind you to be cool and don’t post mad. Everyone agrees kids should be educated, we just differ on the details.
Looking back on my school career, I see that the vast majority of the hours I spent in school were squandered. Most classes washed over me with no effect. I listened to the lecture, took the test, passed, and then never thought about the material again. For many classes, I have no memory of the lessons and it’s as if I never set foot in the classroom. I still retain some learning in a few subjects, although these were things that captured my interest at the time. I likely could have learned them without attending school, and perhaps bought the lessons with less pain.
The point is, I could have dropped out of school after sixth grade and it would not have impaired my abilities with regards to my career in the slightest. I suspect this is true for a lot of other people as well.
This is not to say that education is bad or that people shouldn’t get a diploma, only that getting a diploma is not for everyone, and that we should not have a narrow view on what education is and how it should work. A large portion of my grandparent’s generation dropped out long before graduation, and those folks did fine. They went on to hold down careers, start businesses, and even invent things without the benefit of a diploma. You might say, “Those were different times, and people didn’t need as much education back then.” Okay then, how do we explain my situation, where I was pretty much on the cutting edge of technology?
A great deal of my story has revolved around public education, and if you’ve read this far then perhaps you’re curious what my thoughts are on the matter. Here it is:
Homeschooling works. People should be allowed to do it.
For some strange reason, this is a controversial opinion. Perhaps even inflammatory. It shouldn’t be. I’m not advocating abolishing public schools, or altering them. In fact, I’m offering to take my own children out of the system and educate them at my own expense, leaving more for everyone else.
Allow me to field a few common objections:
The school isn’t as bad as you make it sound. I went to public school and I got a great education!
In my thirteen years of public education, it did not escape my notice that I was abnormally ill-suited to school. I sat in numerous classrooms where I was surrounded by people who were quite happy to memorize and regurgitate any information presented to them, and do any task to maintain a grade, no matter how mundane, boring, or pointless. I realized that I was afflicted with severe handicaps like:
- I won’t work for arbitrary rewards.
- I won’t do work that is clearly pointless or counter-productive.
- I’m keen on finding ways to accomplish tasks efficiently, without a lot of wasted time and effort.
- I am highly motivated and interested in a small number of subjects, and apathetic to other topics.
Of course, these faults are often virtues in the real world, the one we are ostensibly priming children to inhabit during their years of schooling. In school there was no reward for being able to memorize things by hearing instead of needing to take notes. There was no bonus for students who could learn faster, or with less repetition. Everyone moves at the same pace, and everyone is expected to do all the work.
Saying that school works for “most people” sort of misses the point. It’s like a midget or a bodybuilder complaining that they can’t find clothes in their size, and a person of average size replying that they must be bad at shopping because suitable clothes are easy to find.
Some schools are bad. Some kids are ill-suited to schooling. Allowing people to homeschool provides a safety valve for kids in either situation.
But, how can kids learn without doing schoolwork?
Well, how do you learn? If you want to learn something, do you fill out worksheets and administer tests to yourself? Probably not. Adults have this strange idea that children learn best in a rigorously structured environment and that you can’t learn on your own until you’re an adult. The opposite is true. Kids usually have difficulty coping with the rigidity of school, and adults are the ones capable of sitting still and listening to lectures.
Keep in mind that worksheets, quizzes, essays, curriculum, answering questions in class, graded notes, and tests are not learning. Here, let me put that in a paragraph all by itself for emphasis:
Schoolwork is not learning.
Schoolwork is not learning in the same way that sitting around in a restaurant is not eating. Sure, learning takes place at school, but it’s entirely possible that you can accomplish the same thing elsewhere with less time, effort, and expense. Schoolwork is given so that the teacher can measure learning. Some schoolwork is given as part of “classroom management” – the discipline of keeping kids busy so that they don’t misbehave or disrupt one another. You do not need these trappings if you’re simply trying to learn something you already want to know. In that case all you need is access to information. Between public libraries and the internet, most of us have access to all of the information we could ever want.
You make a big deal about bullying, but sometimes adversity builds character!
“Building character”? Are we talking about a generalized ability to endure and accept hardship? If so, then you can use this to excuse any suffering or abuse. Sexually abused? Physically abused? Poor? Disabled? Homeless? Robbed? They all “build character”, but it would be pretty monstrous to use that as a justification for ignoring these problems.
Maybe years of discouragement and injustice will teach a kid to fight back and try to make the world better. Or maybe they will teach a kid that life sucks, there is no justice, and mercy is for fools. It might make them more idealistic and passionate, or it might make them bitter and cynical. It might make them fight harder. It might make the kid give up. It depends on the abuse. It depends on who performs it. It depends on the kid.
Even if we accept this awful notion that we should allow children to run little kingdoms of cruelty, sustained by violence and ruled by the alpha males in order to “build character” among the gentle, what about the bullies themselves? A lot of those kids who bullied me were doing it simply out of peer pressure. At school they rallied around the leader and picked on me to win the approval of the group. Outside of school they ignored me. Two were even nice to me on the odd occasions when I encountered them away from the pack. Even if we entertain the notion that the bullying was of benefit to me, it was poisonous to their hearts.
What about socialization?
Looking back on my school experience, I can’t say there was anything positive or affirming about my “socialization”. Bullying, cliques, rumors, and other petty cruelties were the norm.
This is one issue where I believe homeschooling has an unambiguous advantage. Whatever you may think of it, putting kids into groups of same-age peers does little to teach them how to relate to others in a mature way.
I’ve tutored some homeschooled kids, I’ve met others, and of course my own kids are homeschooled. Without exception, these kids have been far more socially capable than their public-schooled peers. They don’t hold slightly older kids in awe. They don’t scorn and sneer at kids who are slightly younger. They’re less concerned (or even aware of) matters of class and pecking order. When they relate to adults, they don’t suffer from the mumbling, shoulder-shrugging, eye-rolling awkwardness for which teenagers are notorious.
In my experience, homeschooled kids do not suffer from peer pressure to the extent that public school kids do, because they don’t see themselves as part of a herd. This will make them less likely to bully others and less likely to make foolish choices with regards to sex and drugs.
You were an abnormal kid with a bad home life, so it’s not fair to blame the school system for your failures.
It’s true that I didn’t have a “regular” home life. But is growing up under the care of a single mother really some exotic fate? Is being medicated all that rare? (I’d suggest it’s actually a lot more common today than in was in the late 1970’s.) If public schools can’t handle kids from broken homes, or kids with odd behavior, or socially awkward kids, then what should be done with those kids, if not give them over to some other form of education?
Don’t kids need proper schooling to get a well-rounded education?
We’ve all seen those “man on the street” interviews or surveys where we find out that an alarming portion of the population thinks that Abraham Lincoln was the first president of the United States. Or that most people can’t solve for X in 5 = X + 2. How many people wrote a book report at 16 years old and can’t remember anything of substance about the book ten years after graduation?
I think having a “well rounded” education has more to do with the student and less to do with the curriculum. Some people have a love for learning and an interest in many diverse subjects. Some people will only learn as much as they need in order to pass, and forget it as soon as the test is over.
The point is, the traditional school system is obviously failing to “round” people in a lot of cases. Rather than force people to memorize things they won’t remember or care about in two years, it might be better to let them follow their passions.
You’ve been successful in more than one career. You may not have liked it, but school actually worked for you!
I was a smart, highly motivated kid with focused interests. It wasn’t just that school didn’t help me to reach my goals, school was actively in my way. It was an impediment to my education.
Yes, lots of kids learn in school. The question isn’t “Did this kid get a diploma?” If that’s all we care about then we have set the bar of success very low indeed. The questions should be, “Did school help this person to reach their full potential? Could they have learned more on their own? Could they have learned faster using some other system of instruction? Could this all have been done more cheaply? Are all of these costs (time, money, and and sense of individuality) a required cost, or is this simply what we’re used to paying for education?”
What about parents who want to keep their kids home to indoctrinate them with strange beliefs?
Parents are always free to teach their kids whatever they like. So what you’re really asking is, “What if parents don’t send their kids to school to be counter-indoctrinated to MY beliefs?”
If your beliefs are worth anything, then you should be happy to let them compete for mindshare with everyone else’s beliefs by persuading other adults to your way of thinking. If you can’t persuade adults to embrace your way of thinking, then it’s pretty tyrannical to attempt to impose your ideas on their children.
There are crazy people in the world. Some of them will have kids. Public schooling cannot correct this, nor was it designed to do so.
Okay, if you know so much: What do you think they should change?
Oh, I’m sure there are many, many things that could be done to improve schools, and you can hardly hear yourself think over the roar of people shouting for different (and often mutually exclusive) education reforms. I’m not going to leap into the debate and demand everyone else alter schools to suit my tastes at everyone else’s expense. This is the problem with the educational debate. We’re not allowed to try anything new until we can all agree on it. Our education system is a doctor that insists on leeching and bloodletting patients because these are traditions that have stood the test of time and nobody else can agree on what we should be doing instead. If you want to try something new, you have to lobby the government and enter the highly politicized and emotionally charged arena of education reform.
I remember there was a debate in the 1990’s when Outcome-Based Education was proposed. I followed the discussion, trying to get a sense of what this new thing was and what school would look like. Everyone seemed to have a different idea of what OBE would be. Some said that grades would be replaced with simple pass / fail. Others said that all grades would be abolished in favor or self-esteem building. Or was it an attempt to change the textbooks to be more “liberal”? No, it was about more standardized testing! Mandatory school prayer! Cuts for music and sports programs! Gay activism! Creationism as science! Sex education for kindergartners! Sensitivity training! Free condoms at the nurse’s office!
It didn’t make any sense. Most of the things I was hearing were contradictory. Eventually I realized that none of this had anything to do with “Outcome-Based Education”, whatever it was. Someone had proposed reform, and then a million activists and special interests seized on this moment of brief malleability to try and enact their own pet projects.
I don’t think there is a simple answer that will fix everything. Human beings are all different. We have different interests and skill levels, different approaches to learning, different social needs, respond to different forms of motivation, and develop at different speeds. Sorting kids by age and jamming a broad spectrum of learning into their ears is probably the most obvious, clumsy, and ham-fisted technique for imparting knowledge. It works tolerably enough for a broad selection of the population, but fails people occupying the high and low areas of the performance curve, and people with unusual skill sets.
Babies learn to walk between 9 and 18 months. That’s a really large window. Most learn at about a year, but a few occupy those fringe positions. Imagine if we sent babies to school to teach them to walk. Imagine the hassle of of trying to make kids learn to walk before they were ready, and the hand-wringing over all of the “under-performing” babies. All of that time and effort would be spent to get kids to walk just a couple of months sooner. Just picture how wasteful this would be, since by two years you can’t tell the difference between the early walkers and the late walkers. This is public education.
In the kindergarten portion of my story I talked about how I couldn’t replicate numerals, so I was sent to a special class. In ninth grade, I scored in the top two percent nationally on the portion of the standardized test that asked you to match shapes that had been mirrored or rotated in convoluted ways. Like a late-walking baby, I wasn’t keeping up with the other kids, and no degree of remedial education was going to correct it, because that part of my brain was still developing. Years later that slight lag in development had been erased not through education, but through maturity. I simply developed differently from other students, and that was only a problem because I was in a classroom designed around the idea that all children develop identically.
So my “solution” for education is simple: Be tolerant of others. Let people take chances. Let people homeschool. Let people go to private school. Allow people to enact experimental programs, particularly if they’re voluntary. Don’t reflexively defend the status quo just because it “worked” for you. You don’t know what it was like for the people who struggled, and you don’t know how much better you might have performed in other circumstances. If you’ve got an idea or an agenda, try it out on your own kids instead of foisting it on everyone else. If it works for them, maybe they will lead the change a generation from now.
If you’re hiring people, break out of the mindset of looking at grades and sorting applicants by the stature of the university they attended. Look at people and figure out which ones are smart, motivated, knowledgeable, and personable. That’s what your managers and human resources people are paid to do. If all they do is sort people by grade transcripts, you might as well fire them and give their job to a computer.
Learning is a wonderful thing. It begins long before preschool, and it continues long after your schooling ends. It’s the process of observing the world, comparing new information with what we already understand, and using that data to draw new conclusions. The only important difference between a modern-day pediatrician and a stone-age hunter / gatherer is the learning between their ears. Learning makes us powerful and capable. It guides us and enriches our lives. The process itself can be deeply satisfying, and when applied the gained knowledge can give us a better future. All of this is crucial to our existence as human beings, and all of it has very little to do with sitting at desks and filling out worksheets.
A lot of people thought they were helping me in school, even though their efforts did me harm. Even Mrs. Grossman. Don’t be like them. Don’t assume you know what’s best for everyone. Let people seek out education as it suits them, and judge them by what they do, not by how they were taught.
Thanks for reading,
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