"CLASS, TOMORROW'S ASSIGNMENT IS . . . ."
"Thomas Jefferson approximates perfection. The only flaw in him is that his vest was occasionally stained by morsels of food." "Those who died at the Alamo were mere fortune hunters." "All religions are diverse paths up the same mountain." "Abraham Lincoln's presidency was marred by his suspension of habeas corpus." These are a few of the statements which my high school American history teacher sought to pass off as fact. How foolish she was!
Yet what can a seventeen year old student do when exposed to such an opinionated exposition of ideas other than to keep taking notes and praying that the school year will quickly end? It has been almost a half century since I sat in the woman's class. The more history, religion, and philosophy I have read since that time, the less I am inclined to accept anything she proclaimed as true.
It occurs to me that this is, in microcosm, one of the problems with the educational process in this country. Education should be more about questions than it is answers. The questions should also be formulated by the student.
When I was growing up during the 1950s and 60s, my parents urged me to "apply" myself and to "work hard" in school. Report cards in each class were given to students every nine weeks. A parent, or custodian, was required to sign each of the cards. It was serious business. If you were failing a subject, you were forbidden to participate in extra-curricular activities of any kind. Grades were a way of life and central to one's present and future, not to mention his or her identity. There was no shortage of discipline and regimentation.
A student was generally on the campus around 8:15 in the morning. The final bell did not ring until 3:30 in the afternoon. If one participated in a sport, he or she was usually not home, eating supper, before 6:00 in the evening. Then, there was homework – always several hours of it! One seventh grade math teacher was fond of saying, "There's no homework in my class; only tomorrow's assignment." I spent hours each and every night working on "tomorrow's assignment." Occasionally, students were up until 11:00 or after at night doing so.
The entire educational process was, for lack of a better word, dry and laborious. In retrospect, I cannot think of a single class, except twelfth grade English, in which I was inspired to evaluate ideas and to think for myself. In elementary school, I prepared for junior high school. In junior high, I was busily anticipating high school; and in high school, I was thinking about college. Each succeeding hurdle was always a bit steeper than the last. But memorization and rote learning predominated at every level.
Education was drudgery, and in large measure a waste of time. My colleagues and I did not exactly "hate" it, because the alternative prospect – i.e., being a "nobody" – was always worse. If we had dropped out of school, we were told repeatedly that our lives would implode. The specter of sacking groceries or pumping gas was too outrageous an outcome for our collective psyche to absorb.
So some of us continued in school until our thirties! During much of that time, we were trying to figure out what to do with the rest of our lives. A few of us even worked for a few years and later returned to school. The comfort of the womb forever beckons.
So far as we know, this life is a one-shot deal. By the time we understand it, we are ready to wave farewell. But, for whatever it is worth, let me make a few observations, with the hope that they may help others.
Formal education is primarily about reading and thinking. I am talking about books! The world would be a better place if parents were to purchase a set of the Great Books and read them along with their children. I cannot think of anything more ennobling than reading and reflecting together upon the greatest works of literature, anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, philosophy, religion, and science.
I wish that I had been told, "Boy, go to school for some math and science; then, come home and spend the rest of your time reading the books. In five years, we'll see where you are." I wish this illuminating process had begun in the ninth grade and continued throughout the first two years of college. With any luck, I could have continued my formal education for two or three additional years in the same volumes, writing a few essays along the way.
Instead of learning how to think and to write, my colleagues and I learned how to make acceptable grades, to excel in questionable extra-curricular nonsense, and to build fraternity with those who belonged in a reformatory or on a chain gang. We wasted a ton of time that is now beyond recovery.
Public schools have failed along with most other institutions in American society. My advice to the serious student is to get an education by circumventing this vast wasteland and never looking back. Attend a school only if you must and, then, try to find one that is more concerned with the meticulous formulation of questions than with the indoctrination of conventional answers.
Are my ideas elitist? Yes, I guess so; but true education has never suited the mob. All is not lost, however, for public school systems. They are made to order for future government bureaucrats and other mindless creatures. These "schools" are places where a coach can teach mathematics or a star football player, who has not learned to form a complete sentence, may still be elected "Most Representative" or "Most Popular." Three cheers for John Dewey, the architect of American public schools! Ain't they great?
July 14, 2009