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Tampering With Ignorance

November 30, 2010

In the tumult of house-moving (I’m moving house, you know), and with everything being turned upside-down (you have to understand the physics of my house: for 21 years, things have been going in but very little has been known ever to come OUT, save the occasional person and its sandwich), I’ve rediscovered an old set of CDs called  ‘Educating Your Child in Modern Times‘, unexpectedly and inexplicably among my brother’s possessions.

Anyway, this isn’t a story of how my belongings come to be in his possession, however mysterious and compelling that question might be. These CDs are of the Education Conference held in 2003 at UC Berkeley, at which one of the main speakers was John Taylor Gatto, the author of The Underground History of American Education, Weapons of Mass Instruction, and more. A disillusioned Gatto had left a 30-year award-winning career in teaching to pursue the motives behind the American compulsory school system, and at that conference presented a talk entitled, ‘A Short Angry History of Modern Education’. The conference handout contains the following list:

Some Reflections on an Educated Person

1. An educated person writes his own script through life, he is not a character in a government play, nor does he mouth the words of any intellectual’s utopian fantasy. He is self-determined.

2. Time does not hang heavily on an educated person’s hands. He can be alone. He is never at a loss for what to do with time.

3. An educated man knows his rights and knows how to defend them.

4. An educated man knows the ways of the human heart; he is hard to cheat or fool.

5. An educated man possesses useful knowledge: how to build a home, a boat, how to grow food, how to ride and hunt, etc.

6. An educated person possesses a blueprint of personal value, a philosophy. This philosophy tends towards the absolute, it is not plastically relative (altering to suit circumstances). Because of this, an educated person knows at all times whom he is, what he will tolerate, where to find peace. But at the same time, an educated person is aware of and respects community values and strange values.

7. An educated person can form healthy attachments wherever he is because he understands the dynamics of relationships.

8. An educated person accepts and understands his own mortality and its seasons. He understands that without death and ageing nothing would have any meaning. An educated person learns from all his ages, even from the last minutes of his life.

9. An educated person can discover the truth for himself: he has intense “awareness” of the profound significance of being, and the profound significance of being here.

10. An educated person can figure out how to be useful to others, and in trading time, insight, and service to meet the needs of others, he can earn the material things he needs to sustain a wholesome life.

11. An educated person has the capacity to create new things, new experiences, and new ideas.

As you may know, I’m an unashamed Maggie Stiefvater fangirl. Unashamed, because I don’t think there’s any shame in admiring or feeling unrequited friendship for a person who is basically pretty awesome and admirable. She’s together, talented, smart and keeps it real. Recently, Maggie was invited by NASA to give a 12-minute talk and ‘be profound’ at the TEDx NASA conference. Starting there, I’ve been listening to the series which is asking the question, ‘what happens next?’

Because all of these things went into the blender of my brain at about the same time, I’m certain there’s a significant connection between them. Maggie speaks about school, schooling and education (and is profound), John Taylor Gatto about the failures of the American education system in producing responsible, thinking individuals, Frans Johanssen (author of The Medici Effect) about how education forces us to disconnect knowledge into units of meaninglessness, and all three conclude that success depends on writing your own script. Successful education, they agree, is one which results in true intellectual autonomy, and intellectual autonomy – marching to your own beat – is the hallmark of every successful (possibly slightly famous) individual.

So after all of this slipping slantwise and lengthways and obliquely (and possibly perpendicularly) in and out of my mind, and after poring (coolly) over the list above, I want to somehow be able to answer the question, ‘am I an educated person?’ and I want to answer it ‘YES PLEASE’, even though that’s not the type of question you are meant to ask. Although, since I am the most easily-duped person alive (please don’t test it, it’s devastating every time), I guess I already know the answer.

The problem with education is…well, the problem with education is everything. And also school – which in my opinion is often little more than the battery-farming of humans. Ask Maryam, who is unschooling, or my many friends who are homeschooling, dropping out of school, starting schools, starting school, finishing school, stuck in school, getting thrown out of school, trying to get into school…are you confused? It’s CONFUSING. And expensive, frustrating, possibly heartbreaking, stressful, distressing, disturbing, and somewhere in the gaps, we all hope some kind of education is occurring (however it occurs), with the take-home evidence of a piece (or several pieces) of paper and a fistful of letters.

Even after a postgraduate degree mostly about education (and also somewhat about psychology XD), I have no idea how to begin to go about ANYONE’S education – and is education even the same as schooling? – beyond the fact that my speculative kids are NEVER going to actual school, as I’ve decided I DO want them to be well-adjusted and (eventually) self-actualised, intellectually autonomous human beings and that really isn’t happening in schools right now.

Where that leaves us (and my speculative children), I don’t know – outside the gates seems most likely. Education – and schooling – is such a slippery thing that you can hardly grasp it either by corner or edge to make sense of or speak about.

But…I think saying ‘I know nothing’ is a great place to start. For anyone. Whether or not you are a man who desires to get married.

Lady Bracknell: I have always been of the opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing. Which do you know?

Jack (after some hesitation): I know nothing, Lady Bracknell.

Lady Bracknell: I am pleased to hear it. I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.

– The Importance of Being Earnest (Oscar Wilde)

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. Chuuurls permalink
    November 30, 2010 2:30 am

    wahoo, I liked this a lot. It really makes me feel better about any sort of schooling I’ve undertaken, or not, or am currently engaged in, and whether or not I was any good at any of it or every will be.

    Oscar Wilde cheers me up also!

    • Chuuurls permalink
      November 30, 2010 2:31 am

      oh my, EVER will be

    • November 30, 2010 9:35 pm

      I like that you like it!

      See, that is another problem with school. It makes people feel rubbish. If school does that, it ain’t good schooling.

      I would just like to note the hilarious irony of the ‘acts of violence in Grosvenor Square’. Lady Bracknell should see what’s happening here. She would be more aghast than she was about the handbag.

  2. Allumer permalink
    November 30, 2010 10:24 am

    I love Gatto. End of story.

    And I don’t believe in education the way it’s classified today. That is to say, a great deal of people I know who are “highly educated” don’t know s*** and live what I consider to be stilted lives, and many people I know who aren’t highly educated have a breadth of knowledge that is simply astounding. If you’re narrow minded, no amount of FORMAL education is going to crack open your dark, little mind. It might push you successfully through the meat grinder of the status quo, but nothing more.

    Do I want my kids to be the status quo? No. Could they ever be anyway since in all respects they fall so far outside of it? No. Why bother trying? Why have them aspire to mediocrity?

    That being said, obviously I think it’s important for children to be well equipped to deal with the world and it’s educational foibles. Unless your child is planning on losing themselves in the Alaskan wilderness (which, actually, sounds totally good to me right now), they do have to be able to navigate somewhat. I just don’t think it’s the MOST IMPORTANT THING. I homeschool – I’m making sure my daughter is on par or ahead of her grade level because that’s the least I can do. Once that’s over for the day, the real life education begins. I think any parent can do this, whether their child is in a physical school, or learning at home.

    Sigh. I could write 10 more pages. I’m reigning myself in. Also, that list about educated people is the best. Sigh again.

  3. November 30, 2010 6:01 pm

    I agree completely (and intend to seek out Gatto for myself now, thank you). I was a bright, friendly, confident child who went to school and got crushed by everything. By the teachers, the other students and most of all by the educational system itself, which rewards neither merit nor hard work nor good behaviour but only conformity. In classes where I did well I was left alone to get on with it. In classes where I struggled I was left alone to get on with it. I can honestly say that no one within that system – not even teachers that I liked and admired – ever encouraged me to be ambitious, aim high or believe I could accomplish anything important in life.

    Looking back I can see that while many teachers were grateful to have a bright, friendly, well behaved child in their class, none of them saw it as their responsibility to nurture or protect that brightness. As a result, it almost went out forever. I shudder to think how many others were extinguished permanently by the impersonal, results focused, one-size-fits-all British educational system. Running schools like businesses, only caring about percentages and league tables, doesn’t work. It’s never going to get better until they realise that and change it.

    *Rant Over*

    • November 30, 2010 7:31 pm

      Zoe, my heart is breaking. When I talk about homeschooling I make sure I say there are so many good teachers, because I do think it’s true… but I can think of a very, very small number who have ever crossed my path. I think a basic element of this is that there is one teacher for so many children. That in itself is a major failing point. Of course, there is, in my opinion, much more wrong with the way we view what education truly IS, which brings me to the awesome list above. Such good points in that.

      Saya, (squeeee!! I’m in a post of yours!!!) great post. John Holt (my hero) mentions John Taylor Gatto which has intrigued me but I haven’t read him myself yet.

      It’s funny to see how people react when they ask what curriculum we use and I explain that we don’t, that my kids learn in the same way that toddlers learn: through exploration, play, and following their curiosity. Some are just dumbfounded, which I understand, while others say they so wish that had been their life (with this wistful longing in their eyes that is really almost painful).

      More later, off now to pick up the unsocialized danger-to-society curriculumless gnomes from my mother’s where surely the copious amount of french toast has gone to their brains and made them SUPER GNOMES!

  4. November 30, 2010 7:49 pm

    Thank you, Maryam. Ultimately I did survive, and I have my family to thank for that. I feel very sure that your children will thank you too.

  5. November 30, 2010 10:40 pm

    Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments (by which I mean ‘they made me think a lot’). The following is addressed to everyone (and perhaps also no one) in a vague and shapeless way.

    Hamza Yusuf, one of the other main speakers at that conference, said that education was on of the few things about which everyone, almost without exception, can have a valid opinion, because we always experience it – or its lack or defect – in some way.

    After 21 years of formal education (21 years!!), two degrees and endless grades, facing the overwhelming reality of everything I don’t know – and everything I once knew but forgot – does make a person seriously question the utility and value of what we are taught and how. This is what I mean about the conveyer-belt mentality of schooling: you want to fit in as many laying hens as possible, have them squeeze out the maximum number of eggs, and then they roll on out to die. It’s a bum life, being battery-farmed.

    I had the vague idea that formal education should be more free-range and organic, but think about it a moment and you realise that can only work if a significant proportion of parents are willing (or able) to take responsibility for their children’s education by investing themselves – their own time, their own personal resources. Another problem with school – or perhaps with parents – is that they (parents) think that education’s sphere is limited to school, and that it begins when you enter the gates and ends when you leave, and that they have no role in it. Anyone who has taught anyone, particularly young children, knows that kids are absorbing everything all the time. They don’t switch off outside school.

    ‘Why have them aspire to mediocrity?’

    Well said, well said.

    Zoe wrote a wonderful post a little while ago, ‘Teenage Superhero’, which was a really moving, brave, raw piece about her own experiences in school (thank you again, Zoe) – exactly the kind of thing that makes you think ‘not for my kids, tyvm’. But my own school experience was radically different – I was lucky enough to land a government assisted place (i.e. they pay the fees) at a private girls’ school. And guys, they were the nicest people imaginable, teachers and students. Teachers REALLY taught, and they nurtured an attitude of aiming high, believing in yourself, and that anything was possible if we were willing to work for it.

    The problem is, my insanely positive experience of private schooling clashes quite badly with the belief that education shouldn’t be exclusive. I would want to support the state system, but at the same time, I am unwilling for it to be at the expense of my own (speculative) kids’ wellbeing. If I were to put my (speculative) kids into the school system, I would definitely hope to go private, socialism be damned. The private circuit does much better at nurturing eccentricity, meaning that that vulnerable minority is always protected.

    Despite all of that, I believe school isn’t the answer for everyone. People are so different that it would be impossible to find a single ‘right way’. It works for a lot of people – I think it works for me (or at least, I made me work for it, which may not be exactly the same thing) – but for some people it is definitely a case of square peg/round hole. Because the number of those people is comparatively smaller, they fall through the gaps to the ground, and that is that, for them. Life fail, everyone says.

    It would be great if people could make themselves have enough time to watch their children and figure out what they work best with. Learning is, of course, important, and maybe as parents, people should learn how their kids learn best, even if that is wildly unconventional, socially unacceptable, or involves small animals.

    • Allumer permalink
      December 1, 2010 10:25 am

      Saya, I think it’s great you had a positive experience. I wonder how much of it had to do with the fact that it was a girls’ school? There are numerous studies that suggest girls feel more comfortable and learn much better in an all girl atmosphere. Maybe this also motivates the teachers?

      Even though I was a good student, I was miserable. Kids were regularly “paddled” in our schools for any misbehaviour. One of my teachers threw a girl up against a wall (we were 10) and broke her glasses. My mother was told repeatedly that my younger sister was “retarded” (yes, they used that word) by her teachers when she’s a slow and thorough learner. I knew a guy who couldn’t read because they hadn’t figured out in all those years of schooling that he was severely dyslexic – he was locked in a coat closet for “acting out.”
      The stories go and on. It is always surprising to me to meet anyone who has had a positive experience at public school. Maybe I should also mention that because of my family’s socio-economic status, my public schools weren’t the best. ‘Cause we all know that poor kids don’t deserve the same education as rich ones, right?

      It’s not always possible or even the best thing to do to homeschool. But like you said, it IS incumbent upon parents to understand how their child learns and do the best they can to nurture that along whether they are in school or not.

  6. December 1, 2010 3:26 am

    Saya, all well said as usual. There’s a great book called, um. What’s it called? I found it: http://www.amazon.com/Guerrilla-Learning-Education-Without-School/dp/0471349607 Messy link. It related to what you said about learning not being something that only happens IN school. And for what it’s worth, paths are rather windy (not windee, whine-dee, they wind in curves I mean) which makes it all so interesting. I never thought about homeschooling until one day Allumer mentioned she’d be doing that for her family. My baby was young enough I hadn’t thought about it. But my man doesn’t like the idea of private school and I’m not into public school style, so homeschooling happened. I think schools are valuable and necessary and good in a lot of situations. I also wish there was a more open-minded presence in public education policy (or whatever we should call it). Working within the system in a way that leaves more room for different ways of learning, absorbing, and exploring. Maybe this is already happening more than I think. I read a great article somewhere at some point in the last few years about alternative schools that are not private, where parents roam the halls and where being a nerd is actually celebrated (like you win the right to carry a geek staff for a day). I’d love to hear more stories about schools like that if anyone comes across them.

    • Allumer permalink
      December 1, 2010 10:08 am

      What!? I never knew that! How funny. I was radically unschooled and my mom’s guide was The Teenage Liberation Handbook, by the same author. I’ve never read Guerilla Learning, I’m going to have to check it out. I loved unschooling, but I have to be honest and say it didn’t work as well structurally for my younger siblings (they are all far less motivated and less uptight) and my mom had to facilitate/yell/force a lot more. It’s probably more difficult with 5 children! I also think math is often a problem; it certainly was with me. I notice with my oldest that she needs a lot of prodding, so while we definitely go in the direction she’s interested in, I do feel I have to sort of force her to learn certain things. I know I haven’t necessarily discovered all the right ways as of yet – as you say, the path is windeeeee.

      Also, relating to your earlier comment – hardly anyone I know uses a curriculum. In the Philly HS group, a lot of people use a math and science book (though not always) and just go to the library or craft their own curriculum out of need. I think it’s a total money waster, plus the whole point of learning outside school is not to be tied to what a set of books written with an agenda in mind is trying to teach your child. I know that I am anxious about them being up to grade b/c of the testing that is required, but I also know that I don’t want their learning experience dictated by a school district where half the kids are drop outs and the other half are barely literate.

  7. December 1, 2010 4:03 am

    Now this math class I could enjoy: http://www.stumbleupon.com/su/2Kt3R1/www.boingboing.net/2010/11/29/learning-math-by-ign.html

    I may never surface from the pit that is Stumbleupon. Help me.

  8. December 1, 2010 7:14 pm

    Allumer, your school experiences were just awful. I know you know that, but man.

    And… I don’t consider it to be unschooling if the parent is yelling at or forcing the kid to learn something. LOL I guess your mom wanted it to be unschooling but didn’t like where it was going (or not going) with the kids in control of their learning. I can see that. But that’s not unschooling to me. I think it can be confusing to homeschool with the idea of life-learning but feel your kids aren’t doing or learning enough and sort of—panic about it.

    I’m sorry I wasn’t clear when I said everyone I know uses curriculum. In my mind curriculum means anything other than purely child-lead learning. So parent-based curriculum where the parents choose what the kids will do or learn, following a year-by-year book about grade levels, requiring subjects or workbooks, that’s all what I mean about curriculum. I do know people who are unschooling in a totally child-lead way, but they aren’t the people I see often or live near. Guess I don’t know enough crazy hippies 😛

    • Allumer permalink
      December 1, 2010 9:46 pm

      I really admire your devotion Maryam, but I have to say, when I think of totally child led unschooling for me, I just want to beat myself into blissful unconsciousness with a hammer. DO NOT HAVE THE PATIENCE.

      Also, in my mom’s defense (ha!) ” child led” unschooling was pretty much unheard of when I was a kid. And John Holt and J T Gatto were her heros – so she was not unfamiliar with these concepts. Unschooling has become more defined over time, but 20 years ago it meant working without a curriculum and learning from life experiences. It didn’t mean that you absolutely never made your kid read anything. Even now the definition of unschooling varies wildly from person to person, some feeling that they need to guide somewhat, and others feeling like instituting a bedtime, bathing, or brushing teeth, to say nothing of teaching an uninterested child math, is just straight up “coercion.” Yeah, I’m quoting an actual unschooler. I think the majority of unschoolers are somewhere in between. I also don’t think that unschoolers have the market cornered on following their children’s natural inclinations – most people who are interested in learning at home want to encourage that. I know you don’t feel that way, but the rhetoric can get very heated and divisive on both sides and I don’t see any point in that.

      That being said, I don’t think child led unschooling and my mom were a good fit, as it is not for me. She had 5 children, one with a chronic, lifelong disease as well as a learning disability and some mental issues, another child she had to nurse through chemo and she has never not worked outside the home for economic reasons. She also had no family close by. I don’t have the same excuse – I just know that I don’t wholly believe in that way for us.

      I think like everything else, you just have to find what works for the child and the family : )

      • December 2, 2010 8:15 pm

        well put. and i’m sorry your mom had such struggles, and you kids as a result of it. i’m sure you’d say that that’s life, which it is.

        and ha, i’m constantly making my kids do things. i just don’t make them read or do math or whatever. life is full of crap you don’t want to do but have to. avoiding all of it would be like trying to swallow the moon.

        and this is why i don’t really like talking about homeschooling… it ends up seeming like there are these big walls of difference (because once the labels come out there are), but i really don’t care.

      • December 2, 2010 8:21 pm

        and for what it’s worth i’m not more patient than you, we just have different personalities. thinking about keeping my kids up to grade level (ie making them learn specific information on a certain schedule) makes me want to borrow your hammer when you’re done with it! i don’t have that kind of patience at all.

      • Allumer permalink
        December 2, 2010 9:22 pm

        Oh Maryam. You are so kind. I’ve seen your patience in action – have you seen mine? No. That’s because Allumer + Patience = nonexistent. I TOTALLY agree with you about the discussions and labels though; I got into some online talk a few months ago and it was so ugly! And weird too, since overall don’t we all have the same aim for our kids (happy healthy adults) just different ways of going about it?

        Oh and I wanted to say that your fairy houses RAWK! I forgot to comment the other day. I’ma have to get some pointers.

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