Friday, September 14, 2007


As Melissa noted, I'm the "later worries" guy. I worry a lot about education, for one thing. There are two main reasons I worry about education.

REASON 1: The public education messed with me.
REASON 2: But all the homeschooling/unschooling folks I've met strike me as deeply unbalanced.

I'll get to reason 2 and continue massively offending folks at some later date. But for the moment, I want to talk about reason 1. Reason 1 is why I try to find books on anti-authoritarian schooling in the first place.

I'm not going to give you some sob story about how, in school, the MAN kept me down, but later my natural brilliance shone through.

Quite the contrary. I quickly learned how to be awesome at school. I dominated school. School was where I was a Viking.

Not, mind you, all the social stuff. No, there, I was useless. And, when you're useless socially and at sports, but awesome at getting As, a feedback loop is established that can be awfully difficult to break (I moved. Shortly after I moved, I finally got my first girlfriend.).

The problem was not that school stifled my natural creativity and I chafed beneath the wheel. The problem was that I learned how to do well within the system and that guaranteed a fairly constant stream of praise and reward.

What's wrong with that, you may ask? Well, lots of stuff. The basic problem is that school doesn't necessarily reward you for anything particularly worthwhile. It's kind of like those classes where they teach you how to get a 1600 (or whatever the max score is now that they've replaced analogies with interpretive dance, or something) on the SATs without actually knowing math or words. You can be really good at getting As without learning much or even becoming a better person.

I'm sure that it's different for kids who have to work really hard to get those As. But for me, it was fairly easy, at least through HS (I had a rude awakening as a university physics major, and I still wonder whether I went into Philosophy at least in part because it was a field in which I found it easier to get As). So it didn't represent me carving out a particular niche of interest and excellence. Rather, my As were evidence of having found the path of least resistance to rewards, and mining it for all it was worth. Frankly, this has made me lazy in ways that I still struggle with.

Now, I wonder how this could have been handled better. It's partly why I worry about normal schooling practices. Smart, dumb, or indifferent, most schools are set up to see if all students can hit a series of basic marks. If you can do that, great. It doesn't really matter whether it's easy or hard for you.

This is part of what I think the unschoolers get right - when your teacher assures you that you'll need geometry later in life, s/he is lying. You may not. I was really good at geometry, liked, it and actually learned much of it. I hardly ever use it. I got As in history, but there I was hitting the minimums for that A, and I retained very little. I thought history was boring. Now I use history all the time, and have taught myself a whole lot of it.

I wish someone had taken me aside and said, "Look, kid, I know your game. You're doing this because it's easy and people will be proud of you. They shouldn't be - this is easy for you. More importantly, you shouldn't be proud of it. Let's find something hard and see if you can do it." I mean, I dabbled in a couple of sports, but mostly gave up on them. I don't think I ever saw the value in the fact that athletics were hard for me (though I can honestly say I've worked harder on few tasks than trying to master the spin style of throwing shotput... and failing... and failing...).

Now, I don't blame anyone in particular. I'm sure it would have seemed churlish of my folks to look at my report card and say, "yeah, so?" My folks were great, and worked hard at being good parents. I mean, they fretted about how I wasn't challenged enough, but it's only in retrospect that I even started thinking that maybe the solution was not trying to find more challenges for me - which I could avoid if they were really challenging - but rather to make it clear that success in the unchallenging stuff wasn't going to wow people.

So it's not people, it's the way expectations are set up. I want to figure out a way to help my kid find things that are hard for him or her so she can have the pride of constantly expanding his/her powers. I don't yet know how to do that without just being a dick about it. But that's what I think is key to education - constantly challenging people to expand their boundaries. It's not about learning lists of stuff and figuring out how to game the classroom.

I worry that our kid won't get much of that in school. And again, I don't blame the teachers. I know elementary school teachers. The best intentioned ones spend most of their time trying to get everyone to hit those marks and going beyond that, especially in an "antagonistic" way that I just described probably isn't even feasible. And I'm probably too much generalizing from my experience - maybe I needed to attend St. Nietzsche's School of Hard Knocks, but not every child will. So how do we individualize their experiences properly? How do I make my kid's education challenging and rewarding and interesting while still shipping him her off to public school for 6 hours a day so I can put food on the table?

OK, the fact that my dream school could plausibly be called St. Nietzsche's probably puts me squarely in the "deeply unbalanced" camp, right?

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