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If Modern School Is A Prison, It’s a Minimum Security One
A hopefully uplifting post to end the week.
As long time readers know, I have no love lost for our current industrial, one-size-fits-all model of schooling, and think it’s nuts to drug healthy children to fit them into it. I would also add that, as anyone can see, it’s not like the current mass system is producing great results (well, at least not if a well-educated, virtuous citizenry is your goal; if soulless groupthink is your aim, congratulations on a job well done).
One of my goals is to show that our educational moment is a mere blip in historical terms, a dramatic aberration from past educational models, and there is no need to blindly accept the status quo. We don’t have to be stuck in this moment forever, and you most certainly do not have to pharmaceutically reengineer your children simply because they happened to be born when this odd system predominates.
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What could an alternative educational environment look like? Well, let’s look for inspiration to a period of American history not that long ago. Arguably no society in the history of the world has been as intelligently literate as colonial era America. Neil Postman convincingly writes that they “were as committed to the printed word as any group of people who have ever lived.” If you love David McCullough like I do, you no doubt remember his description of John Quincy Adams – who, by seventeen, had mastered Roman history, knew French and English poetry intimately, and could translate Virgil and Tacitus – being denied admission to Harvard “until he completed several months of tutoring in Greek.” Even a couple decades after John Quincy’s death, this was the sort of test you had to complete at Harvard – not to graduate, but just to get in:
Trust me, you don’t have to know any of those answers – or even understand the questions – to graduate from Harvard today, let alone get admitted.
So what was the educational atmosphere back in those days? Was their academic excellence premised on copious supplies of Ritalin smuggled in via the Louisiana purchase, or on some Colonial Common Core Initiative? Not even close. Here, let Stephen Mansfield elaborate:
Colonial society offered “Dame schools,” Latin grammar schools, tutors for hire, what would today be called “home schools,” church schools, schools for the poor, and colleges for the gifted and well-to-do. Enveloping these institutions of learning was a wider culture that prized knowledge as an aid to godliness. Books were cherished and well-read. A respected minister might have thousands of them. Sermons were long and learned. Newspapers were devoured, and elevated discussion of ideas filled taverns and parlors. Citizens formed gatherings for the “improvement of the mind”—debate societies and reading clubs and even sewing circles at which the latest books from England were read.
The intellectual achievements of colonial America were astonishing. Lawrence Cremin, dean of American education historians, estimated the literacy rate of the period at between 80 and 90 percent. […] A seminarian was usually required to know Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French and German just to begin his studies, instruction which might take place in a log classroom and on a dirt floor.
This culture of learning spilled over onto the American frontier. Though pioneers routinely moved beyond the reach of even basic education, as soon as the first buildings of a town were erected, so too, were voluntary societies to foster intellectual life. Aside from schools for the young, there were debate societies, discussion groups, lyceums, lecture associations, political clubs, and always, Bible societies. The level of learning these groups encouraged was astounding. The language of Shakespeare and classical literature—at the least Virgil, Plutarch, Cicero, and Homer—so permeated the letters and journals of frontier Americans that modern readers have difficulty understanding that generation’s literary metaphors. This meant that even a rustic Western settlement could serve as a kind of informal frontier university for the aspiring. It is precisely this legacy and passion for learning that shaped young Abraham Lincoln during his six years in New Salem.
Feel free to read that passage as many times as you’d like, you’ll find no mention of Common Core or Concerta…
What does this mean for us today? Well, notice the diversity of educational methods, the variety of schools involved. There was no one, fixed way. To a progressive educational reformer, it was absolute chaos. Yet it produced greatness. Whereas, after a few decades of those progressive reformers standardizing everything, we now have, well, let’s stay polite and simply say something a bit short of greatness.
What can be done? A whole lot!
Simply by chance, this past week I encountered a couple intriguing efforts at educational revolution.
Here, listen to this fascinating discussion between Jordan Peterson and the founder of Acton Academy. Acton might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but goodness, it sure is different. They use a one room schoolhouse model with mixed ages, they rely heavily on the Socratic method, they make extensive use of apprenticeships, and they have almost entirely student-run classrooms. It’s a fascinating discussion for so many reasons, I can’t do it justice here, but it’s worth listening to if only to demonstrate that alternatives are out there! We don’t all have to go to the same type of school – we most certainly don’t have to drug ourselves to fit into the same type of school – there are all sorts of incredible, creative, imaginative paths to pursue. Acton Academy’s original campus is right here in Austin, but it’s fast spreading all over the world, there could be one near you – or you can start one yourself.
Along similar lines, Aaron Renn recently had an interesting discussion with the founder of Christian Halls. Christian Halls is designed as a kind of modern guild where tutors and mentors from the community – pastors, businessmen, scholars – have gathered together to teach the next generation in a Christian environment. Again, might not be your cup of tea, but it’s just such an impressive and different project!
A couple weeks ago, I had not heard of either of the above educational endeavors. Now I have, and so have you. They are but the tip of the iceberg. Start to look, and you will find so many communities, small and large, with parents and children pursuing alternatives to the factory model. And if you, like me, have ever been to a homeschool convention, you know that all manner of alternatives abound!
If you have your own favorite alternative/hybrid models, please feel free to share.
Moral of the story: don’t despair. Yes, your child’s school may be a kind of prison. But Alcatraz it ain’t. The guards are fat, lazy, and prone to nap. The doors are unlocked. The electric fence has been left uncharged. Escape is possible. Godspeed.