Thursday, September 23, 2004

Problems with Public Schools

John Taylor Gatto has recently published an article called Against School: How Public Education Cripples our Kids and Why. It is an article well worth reading. Having said that, I would like to offer a bit of hope for the public school system.

It doesn't have to be that way.

It is not necessary for schools to be rigid boring places. And not all of them are. Technically, I am not homeschooling. The program that I am in calls what I am doing "distance education." On a practical level though it works out that I am homeschooling, but doing so with the assistance of trained and experienced professional educators. It is early days yet, and I am experiencing frustration, but the frustration is NOT coming from the system. It is coming from my struggles to get organized and figure out what I am doing. There is light at the end of this tunnel, and I am close enough to the end to see that it isn't merely a headlight but the end of the tunnel. Things are coming together for us.

One of the things I have noticed about the teachers I am working with is their enthusiasm. They don't sound bored and they sound genuinely happy to be working in this system. Not only that, they are more than willing to help adapt a program to the children, rather than force the children into a lock-step program. They also encourage innovative learning and life experience counts. Going to the gym, walking the paper route, flying a kite, etc., are all counted as physical education. It isn't just going to a class to learn the rules governing soccer. Fine arts means taking piano lessons or art lessons from the local gallery. My son Ben, who is in Grade 10, instead of just doing a textbook on history/social studies, has taken on the project of writing his own book complete with illustrations and maps, based on his research into a particular period of time in Canada. This book will be hardbound when he is finished and will become a keepsake of his year in Canadian history.

It is possible to find a creative way of delivering education in an efficient manner than most schools are doing.

Another thought I had while reading Mr. Gatto's article is that he tends to make public school as it is presently constituted sound as though the system is completely responsible for the way that children turn out and that it is completely wrong. Below I quote some of his article followed by my own comments.

1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can't test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.

Is it wrong to inculcate fixed habits of reaction? One of the things that we Christians talk about are "habitual sins." As Christians, one of the things that we need to develop as part of our sanctification is the "habitual righteousness" that the Puritans often mentioned in their sermons and writings. This does not preclude critical judgement. We don't want knee-jerk obedience to tyrranical governance, but a reasoned and steady judgement. At the same time, we also don't want the natural rebellion to authority that arises when children are left untrained and to themselves. Reflexive obedience is good as long as it is not a slavish obedience to wrong. We need to train our minds to discernment and train our wills to obeying that which is right on a habitual basis.

2) The integrating function. This might well be called "the conformity function," because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.

Schools are behind the times if they are still trying to train people for a stable labor force. Jobs where you have financial stability because of long term employment are now few and far between, mostly because of disruptive technologies. We need to develop students who can adapt to rapid change and who have an ongoing ability to learn.

3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student's proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in "your permanent record." Yes, you do have one.

What I am about to say will likely be viewed as heresy by those with egalitarian notions, but I don't believe all men and women are created equal. In the natural realm, some men are bigger risk takers than others and more likely to become entrepreneurs. Other men are risk averse and are more likely to settle into jobs that provide stability, like the military or civil service bureacracy. In ancient Israel, if you liked job security and didn't want to be responsible for yourself, you could become a lifetime slave by having your ear pierced with an awl, thus signifying your status. People find their status by what they do. People are also somewhat "plastic." Your status in society is not set in stone if you want to change it. Neither is it inevitable that if you were tagged as a drop out no-mind in school that you are fated to remain that way the rest of your life.

4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been "diagnosed," children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits - and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.

I would like to know how it is possible to escape doing this? Social roles of children are usually formed by their family anyhow. Families have their own culture which includes social standing, and it is difficult for children to escape it. That doesn't mean that one can't improve upon it. Our goal is not only for greater sanctification, but for greater improvement. The reason for doing this will differ from that of the school system. We ought to improve our standing in order to have more resources and tools available for fulfilling our calling to the best of our ability, which is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. The more resources we have available, the more good we are able to do provided we are governed internally by the desire to do all to the glory of God.

5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin's theory of natural selection as applied to what he called "the favored races." In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit - with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments - clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That's what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.

This seems to be extremely cynical to me. If this is explicitly taught to hopeful teacher trainees, then I would be extremely surprised. What I have observed from my own years in school was that many of my teachers liked seeing their pupils succeed and that remedial placement was not a punishment but an attempt to help students who were struggling. The fact that their peers used this as an opportunity for ostracizing them is a testimony to the corruption of human nature rather than the natural function of remedial classes. In addition, if we surveyed those who ended up in remedial classes, I would also be highly surprised to find that they were unsuccessful in obtaining mates and reproducing.

Now lest you think I am becoming an apologist for the public system as it is presently constituted let me reassure you. I am not. There is much that needs reform in the system. The problem that I see with articles like this one is that it has a tendency to induce hopelessness in those who read it. The task of reformation appears to be too large and too unwieldy. It also has the tendency to cause people to condemn the idea of educational institutions altogether. I have been around homeschooling circles long enough to have seen this phenomena. The truth is that a large proportion of children do end up in some form of mass public education at some point if they go beyond high school and want specialized career training. So it isn't public education or formal schools that we are against. It is the religious bias (and never doubt that "secularism" isn't rooted in a propositional faith) that we object to. However, history has demonstrated that when the Spirit of God begins to move, reformation can happen quickly and in all segments of society simultaneously. How else does one account for the widespread reformation that crossed national boundaries almost simultaneously in the 17th centure without the benefit of the internet and modern communication technology?

What am I trying to accomplish with this piece? I want us homeschooling Christians to stop thinking of the concept of formal schooling with classes as an invention of the devil and the Prussian school system. Instead I want us to think of it in terms of reformation. Division of labor is GOOD. Not all parents are naturally talented teachers capable of producing child prodigies. The future I envision is one where homeschools and covenant community schools flourish side by side rather than in opposition to one another. We want not only high quality doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, but ditch diggers, dish washers, homemakers, and mechanics who glorify God and enjoy Him in their callings.

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