Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Education for the Individual

Now that I’m no longer a teacher, I’m beginning to look at Education differently.  There are two ways to look at Education.  Firstly, it is an organized human activity.  All social animals—in the case of mammals, they tend to be the more evolved, usually—have a certain degree of social education; though in the case of elephants, it is more like pre-school, or daycare.  Secondly, it is important, I feel, to look at Education from the point of view of the child, or the student.

If anyone were to say: Nobody can teach anything to someone who does not want to learn anything, most of us would agree, though of course some would say, too bad; there are things kids have to know, even in those evil years when they don’t want to do anything.  As the Bible (that much abused book) quotes Jesus as having said: Nobody is as blind as those who don’t want to see.

This is sad, but interesting: some schools steadily turn out kids who are eager to learn, others turn out kids who want to get out of class as quick as possible.  I know this.

Our school had a brilliant program that gave a total free ride to the Valedictorian from every school in the local area.  Why?  Because they were a good bet.  I have had students from certain local schools for decades, and they were invariably a good bet.  There was something in those schools that made their students not prone to reject formal teaching as authoritarian.  They sailed through my courses, and it was too much of an effect to simply dismiss as coincidence.

Now, of course it is possible for an ultra-authoritarian teacher to turn off the most receptive students; some teachers do have a gift for it.  (I mean, I have insisted, for instance, that my students do not wear earphones during class, which might have come across as needlessly draconian, but I felt affronted by their attitude.  But if I was ultra-authoritarian, I have to admit that as a fault.)

I have said often: all children are born curious and receptive.  To some of them, just the usual stuff we teach in class is interesting and magical!  But there are at least two sources of the jadedness that seems to eat away at their natural receptivity to learning.

Firstly, the social pressure to regard formal schooling as essentially boring.  This is a consequence of the fact that the kids who dominate classes early on are those who are backward educationally, and it is a way for them to continue to dominate their classmates even when they arrive at grade levels where they’re intellectually out of their depth.  This is a sort of bullying, but it is hard to see in that light because it does not have any associated physical violence, and it very successfully proceeds by persuasion.

Secondly, it is the parents.  Without being helicopter parents, I think parents—especially if they themselves had never bought into the belief that learning is boring, but such parents are probably a small proportion, after centuries of anti-learning propaganda!!—can effectively, and tactfully, convey that the material their kids are learning was interesting, and useful.  My mother used to do this; she would say: have you come to compound interest yet?  Oh, that is fascinating!  She showed me how to do problems using algebra, long before we were supposed to use algebra.  (This would never work these days; the kid would bring home a strongly-worded reprimand to the parents.)  Parents often don’t realize what a huge influence they are, because the kids often learn from their peers how to keep their uppity parents in line by expressing scorn about their parents’ mental capability.  You can’t “thump it out of them;” it has to be addressed indirectly.

There certainly are a large number of people around us who have been totally successful in school, certainly in the lower grades.  But unfortunately, this success of these individuals is bad for education, because teaching being such a low-paying job, these people (who could make all the difference in our schools) get more lucrative employment, and forget to even inspire their own children to have a positive attitude towards learning, let alone a good attitude towards school (which is also important, obviously).  But because of human nature, we’re more likely to hear the negatives, rather than the positives.  There certainly are some young people who loved their teachers, love school, who go into the teaching profession, and resist all the negative influences in their schools, and resist the tendency for the administration to draw successful teachers into the administration as well.  I don’t know how that works, not having taught in secondary school.  But individuals with great attitudes are all around us, but they’re smothered by others who simply hate school, and hate everything.  At least 10% of the time, try to hang out with friends who have a good attitude towards things, including a good attitude towards kids, and learning.

One last thing.  Of course it is important to get a good general education; to learn to write well, to be able to make a presentation to a gathering of your peers; to explain some new thing that you have figured out, for instance, but your friends have not; to be able to manage the finances of at least a small charity, say.  Apart from this, it isn’t really important what branch of knowledge a child or youth wants to pursue, provided he or she doesn’t choose to pursue it to the exclusion of everything else.  This is a tricky point to make, because of the professionalization of the hiring process; HR people do tend to depend too much on surface qualifications, because they deal with such large numbers of applicants, and the people who will actually work with the new hire are only allowed to give token input into the process.  But in my humble opinion, the value of the pursuit of an area of knowledge that a student is genuinely interested in is too much to sacrifice in the name of employment.  Perhaps the thing to do is to allow your student to major (or minor) in the area dearest to her or his heart, and let her or him minor (or major) in some area perceived to enhance her or his “employability” such as engineering, or accounting, or (god forbid) business, or accounting.  Why should idiots have all the fun tanking the stock market?


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