But in this my childhood (which was far less dreaded for me than youth) I had no love of learning, and hated to be forced to it, yet was I forced to it notwithstanding; and this was well done towards me, but I did not well, for I would not have learned had I not been compelled. For no man does well against his will, even if that which he does be well. Neither did they who forced me do well, but the good that was done to me came from You, my God. For they considered not in what way I should employ what they forced me to learn, unless to satisfy the inordinate desires of a rich beggary and a shameful glory. But You, by whom the very hairs of our heads are numbered, used for my good the error of all who pressed me to learn; and my own error in willing not to learn, You made use of for my punishment— of which I, being so small a boy and so great a sinner, was not unworthy. Thus by the instrumentality of those who did not well did You do well for me; and by my own sin You justly punished me. For it is even as You have appointed, that every inordinate affection should bring its own punishment. St. Augustine, Confessions, Book 1, Chapter 12.
My serious reconsideration of education began, I think, when I read this passage probably thirty years ago.
Not that I’d given a lot of thought to pedagogical concerns before that, taking for granted the system as it was. As I’ve pointed out, I come from a School Family, and as such, valued institutional education, but also accepted its limitations and did not in anyway mythologize the system or teachers.
But reading Augustine here clarified a question or two. What is the value of compulsory education – not just in general, but in terms of content? Is it not true that by requiring something we immediately devalue it?
Mass, even compulsory education has been important in raising literacy levels and helping people discover deeper levels of freedom because of it. There’s a reason that “educating the ignorant” is a corporal work of mercy. There’s a reason that oppressors limit access to education.
But it’s also true that the current model of mass education (public and private) we experience today evolved in order to meet certain needs but also to serve certain purposes – to turn out good citizens, to supply competent workers, and so on. And so the curriculum and system evolved. With some exceptions, evolved into a place in which it is assumed that we are all best served by an educational “system” with common goals, content and methodology.
And, I think, this is what is starting to crack. Yes, there are specific issues related to problematic content and the sociological hothouse aspect of school as well as safety issues, but the bigger questions are really about uniformity and scope.
I don’t want no school. Not at all. I want school. I want schools. In fact, I want lots and lots of schools coming at life from a myriad of angles, all free to set up and operate as they will, gathering students, teaching them from whatever perspective and using whatever method they choose, and then sending them out. Schools that run all day, five days a week. Schools that meet a few mornings a week. Schools that emphasize classics or tech, music or trades, entrepreneurship or basic literacy. Schools that have sports teams, schools that don’t. Schools that are part of a wider system of social services, schools that shut the doors at 3…or 2…or 1…and let you go on your merry way. Schools that pile on the homework, schools that forbid it.
What – ever!
(Insert discussion of the obstacles and challenges and yes, even weaknesses of that vision here. Funding will be mentioned, as will regulation, separation of church and state, and then, once again, funding. Maybe Obamacare, while we’re at it. I mean, I have no clue as to how one would set up a tax-supported public school system with that level of diversity. Answer: you probably can’t. So……)
I’ve run across a few dozen schools across the country that I would love to send my children to. I’ve toyed with the idea of moving so they could attend one of them. But that’s a risky proposition – moving for the sake of a middle, or even high school. There’s bound to be disappointments, problems and surprises. Probably not worth the risk.
The Catholic schools in my area are all good, but they tend to be cut from the same cloth, and I got to a point at which I just wondered if there couldn’t be a better way. A way that was not on the Blue-Ribbon-School/Achievement wavelength. A way that used good books and great literature instead of committee-constructed readings and impenetrable comprehension questions. A way that utilized more hands-on and concrete experiences, that paid more attention to detail in some areas and relaxed and let go in others. A way that allowed for skipping through material that’s already mastered and spending more time where it’s needed. A way that wasn’t occupying family time with tasks like “find an article about X” or “make a poster” or “sell these tickets and catch a fever of greed for a cheap plastic prize from Oriental Trading.” A way that was free of increasingly circuitous pedagogy. A way in which administrators and teachers held attitudes of both openness and skepticism in regard to pedagogy, rather than faddish boosterism. A way that gave an 8-year old obsessed with pre-Columban cultures all day to sit and read, draw and talk about that if he chose. A way that allowed for connections to be made, all day, throughout the day, for conversations to happen, observations to be made and conclusions to be drawn.
A way that left you tired at the end of the day, but in a generally satisfied, not frustrated way.
This “season,” as the Mommybloggers like to say, won’t last forever. One of them might be heading back to school next year, and I don’t have a problem with that – I feel confident that we’ll have completely knocked out what was a growing association between “learning” and “obligation” in his spirit by then, and he’ll be able to get what he needs from school without being too deeply shaped by the dynamic of traditional schooling.
Because – this brings me to the title of this post.
As I was thinking of what I wanted to discuss next and trying to figure out a way to do it without writing for five hours, I thought hard about what it really is that I resent about institutional schooling. I realized (and this goes back to the “school family” theme) that my problem is in the all-encompassing presumptions of education (and I’m talking both public and private here.) The insistence and assumption that the school be the center of a child – and by extension, the family’s life, and that no one has anything better to do than attend to the business that the school sets out for us, even after we leave. The conviction that education = schooling. The territorial expansion beyond teaching content and skills. The determination to teach everyone everything, fix everyone and build awesome diverse communities.
I mean, I just want to say, Educational System? Yeah, you. BACK OFF.
(Because, as St. Augustine several hundred years ago – it doesn’t work.)
You know, there are people who are into all of that, though. Who dig their pursuit of the Blue-Ribbon School and have fun doing it. Fantastic. That’s not me. I want a school that knows its place. That allows teachers to teach, respects students and families, is expansive and interesting, but also accepts limits and doesn’t presume.
So, yes, that’s what I wanted. A way that’s sort of Classical – Montessori- Charlotte Mason – Catholic – Unschooly Roamschool. There’s no such school around here, not even close, not even half of that. So although I really didn’t want to, I took a look at life, saw the space that was there, and sighed. If that’s what I wanted, if that’s what I knew was the right thing, I guessed I’d just have to start one.
IN MY HOUSE.