Ideas about education: An exercise in oxymoronicism
In Monday's class (I would have blogged this earlier, but see the previous post on publishing issues), the professor took a minute to discuss the potential harmfulness of across-the-board relativism. This, I am totally in favor of. I noticed a trend towards ending an argument with relativism in my senior year of college, and I hated it. My anthropology class, for instance, had an online discussion forum (quite ahead of its time), which allowed us to talk about things we hadn't gotten to in class or have additional discussion about class issues. Someone mentioned Scientology in class, and this was followed up on the forum by a lot of posts along the lines of "well who are we to say they're a cult" and "but if it's true for them..." Of course my response involved links to some definitions of "cult" and a few choice sentences about how WORDS MEAN THINGS. I don't believe that every thought is equally valid, and I can't stand it when people try to use that "logic" to end or avoid an argument.
In my mind, the best example of relativism's dangers is intelligent design. The idea that we should "teach the controversy" requires the assumption that any crackpot cosmogeny must be put on an equal level with well-supported scientific theory -- it is this assumption that the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster so beautifully exploits. Instead of ID, though, my postmodernism professor chose to discuss relativism by way of an article in the Post about a nearby Sudbury model school. (If you can read that page without choking up, you had a better education experience than I did.) The assertion was that such a school is relativist because it derails the idea of expert knowledge and puts childhood desires on the same level as adult obligations.
The students, as students are wont to do, picked up on the fact that they were meant to find this ridiculous, and got accordingly derisive. They'll be forced into creative jobs... support them for the rest of their lives... never learn how to function in the real world... play video games all day... my friend teaches at a Montessori school and the kids are monsters.... Non-standard jobs were maligned, lack of enforced education was equated with discipline problems, and overall the students showed themselves to be true believers in the idea of education as a way of racking up employability points. At one point, a kid who I'd assumed to be quite bright said "What am I talking about, we're English majors, we'll never get jobs." I told him that was 100% false. Call me a relativist.
But of course, in a certain sense the kids were right, because if you didn't tell them what to study they really would play video games (or drink) all day. Learning is an obligation that they seek to be released from; the same students who snicker that Sudbury kids can't function in the real world complain about having to read, having to write, having to think. My comp students resent learning how to structure an argument, because for god's sake they're going to be engineers and how does this relate to what they care about. One of my lit students doesn't like literature because the characters aren't enough like him, so how can he relate? Others complain that they used to enjoy reading, but college "ruined it forever." Who's the real discipline problem -- a kid who goes to chemistry class but feels comfortable asking questions and doesn't call his teacher "Mr." or "Ms.," or one who no longer knows how to want to learn? I know which one I'd rather raise.
And which one I'd rather have been. Maybe the problem is that these kids had idyllic educations, or maybe they're just average smart. But I'm not ashamed to say that I really needed gifted education, and not just one pull-you-out-of-class session a day. I spent my elementary years being pushed aside and neglected -- "go find your own vocabulary words" -- and without my two shining years at the Program for the Highly Underserved by Regular Education and two summers at the Center for Badly Disaffected Youth, I would have dropped out well before I hit college. True, we still got grades in Ms. Lakomy's amazing 6th grade class, but we also spent our days inventing things; or doing lateral thinking puzzles; or making, burying, and digging up artifacts. At CTY things were more regimented, but we were only there in the first place because we wanted to learn, so we never resented doing our homework (Laura, you can correct me on this if I'm being too rose-colored, but I remember sitting in the Star Trek Room doing sorites, silently, and kinda loving it, even though I would have relished an extra hour of Mandatory Fun). All I needed, all we needed, was for someone to assume that we didn't have to be bullied into learning. And to believe that education wasn't all about priming us for acceptable, lucrative jobs.
Which is why, when I first found out about the Sudbury Valley school in 8th grade, I wanted to go there so badly my teeth hurt. Imagine being given freedom over what you learned, being treated like someone who's qualified to make such choices! Imagine getting to study subjects that weren't on any standardized test, just because you wanted to! Because I wanted to. And I don't think it's wrong to imagine that I was the only one. In the end, the Sudbury model is a little too hands-off, a little too hippyish, mostly because I doubt it will attract qualified science teachers, which will lead to a lopsided education. And it certainly wouldn't work for everyone. But in my mind, it's a few hundred miles better than the other end of the spectrum, the end where most public schools live.
Kids who are given freedom over their school day will only play video games 24/7 if they have come to think of learning as a chore. And I'm not saying that the concept of expertise should be fully eroded, or that a teacher shouldn't have a certain amount of guaranteed respect just because they know more, but I don't see that treating a child more like an adult is the same as treating adults more like children. I don't know any teachers I've respected more than Ms. Lakomy; Brian and Aeon and Jonathan at CTY; Mr. Donaldson who had us study history of science by designing water clocks; Bill Oram who led my mindblowing five-person Faerie Queene seminar. The teachers who acted as though, given a choice, we might still be there, wanting to know more.
Smart kids deserve more credit, and I think that if all kids got more credit, more kids would be smart. Maybe I'm making the mistake my family so often accuses me of making -- maybe I'm assuming that everyone is like me. Maybe students shouldn't be given more freedom across the board; maybe some of them need to see high school as something you endure so you can go to college which is something you endure to get a career which is something you endure to get money to retire on. But that seems joyless to me, and I know from observing my students (who are smart and dedicated and hate college and just want to get through it so they can make some money) that it will lead to a generation that doesn't value knowledge, that sees creative jobs as a burden, that believes your worth is determined by your salary. I don't want to teach those students. I'm glad I narrowly escaped being one.