thinking about school...

Having a 10-year-old boy is fascinating.  Really.  More than anything, it's a practical lesson in genetics.  You remember all those 2 x 2 grids you filled out in seventh grade science class where you could predict eye color based on the eye color of the parents?  Well, those sorts of things work with just about every physical and psychological trait you can imagine. It's also humbling, because you get to see those things you dislike about yourself manifesting themselves in your progeny.  Take one of my negative traits, for example: laziness.  No one ever believes this about me since I seem to work so hard.  I'm very responsible when it comes to getting things done on time.  I will suck it up and do things I despise (I'm looking at you, yard work) because I know they need to be done.  And so far, I've been fairly successful in life.

As a boy, however, I couldn't be bothered.  I might do my homework on the bus on the way to school.  That report we got assigned three weeks ago?  I might start it the night before.  The eighth grade science fair project?  Ditto.  (That one is real, by the way.  I turned in what was quite possibly the worst science project ever done by an eighth grader.  To give you a sense of how bad it was, I used a gift box to manufacture a triptych on which I recorded my "results" with a ball point pen.)  So, yeah, I was kind of lazy and unmotivated.

More than anything, though, I was bored.  Fast-forward thirty years and I'm confronted with a modern-day version of a 10-year-old me.  That math homework:  he doesn't need to do that.  The story about his family:  meh, he'll get around to it.  It was especially bad when we lived in Mississippi (in fact, it was probably the single most important reason I started looking for a new job), where my son could sit there all day, doing nothing, and make the best grades in his class.  Gainesville is a different story; he actually has to pay attention and work here, and that's been a, shall we say, difficult adjustment for all of us. 

All of this got me thinking about one of the best essays I've read in the last 10 years.  It's called Against School, and you can find it here.  When it appeared in Harper's, I mentioned it to one of my friends in the history department and he agreed that it was one of the most correct things he had ever read.  So, read it now, and we can continue.

Done?  Good.  Maybe you doubt the veracity of Gatto's assertions about public education being designed to produce a massive, docile work force.  Perhaps you find it difficult to believe that leading public intellectuals would be in favor of a system that doesn't commit to the full development of children.  Woodrow Wilson's quote is particularly chilling, I think.

But you cannot doubt his assertion that our modern system churns out people who age but do not grow up.  This might sound lovely in a Peter Pan kind of way, but it's really insidious.  Why do we go to school for 12 years?  There's so much repetition that all the information could be handled in about 8.  I'm not suggesting that we should put 13 year olds to work, but couldn't we make their time in school more challenging and interesting?  No Child Left Behind means some kids have to wait, and if you've ever waited on a kid to catch up to you, you know how frustrating an experience that is.  And frustration leads to boredom.  And boredom leads to checking out.

Hence the emergence of gifted programs in public schools (and their counterparts in higher education, honors programs).  Some people denounce gifted education as "elitist."  I think their complaint is that super-smart kids will achieve on their own, and that we shouldn't waste scarce public resources on providing "extras" for them.  But I assert that if you're truly concerned with egalitarianism then you should support programs to make school interesting for every student, and not simply try to get as many kids over the lowest bar as possible.  Won't that just lead to a dumbing-down of the people?

Oh, wait.  If you believe Gatto's assertions, then that's precisely the point.  I have my own opinions about NCLB which I won't share here because they will just come off sounding like partisan carping, but what I hope we can all agree on is that the current system puts way too much emphasis on standardized testing.  We are turning out a generation of really excellent test-takers.  But can these students solve problems?  I mean real problems, not just finding the length of the hypotenuse of a right triangle.

Well, some can.  And I think it's mostly the kids who figure out early on that maybe school is just a series of hoops to be jumped through, and that if they jump through the hoops as efficiently as possible they can spend more time doing the things that interest them.  Take my son, for example.  You can't stop him from doing something he's interested in, but if he even catches a whiff of hoop-jumping going on he'll turn off in an instant.  That's the biggest problem we face (his mother and I):  convincing him to just jump through the damn hoops so he can get on with the real business of life. 

But it sure would be nice to not have so many hoops.

(Afterword:  Reading back over this post, I realize it rambles.  A lot.  As in, I really needed an editor on this one.  I'm not even sure what my point was, and it seems a bit like some sort of Bill Hicks-type rant (without the obscenities), but I'll post it anyway because (a) I spent 40 minutes writing it, and (b) sometimes it's fun to read rambling stuff.  Plus, I'm coming down with a cold which is making me lose focus, so, hey, give me a break.  I'll be more coherent next time.)