I've been reading a lot lately. A potentially dangerous enterprise if your mind is closed and unwilling to embrace new ideas. Thankfully I rarely shrink from having my views challenged. I don't profess to have all the answers and I am eternally optimistic -- I think better ideas and answers exist, and I'm not threatened by the idea that I might be wrong.
Two of the books currently at my bedside include, Deschooling Our Lives edited by Matt Hern (1996) and The Teenage Liberation Handbook by Grace Llewellyn (1991). The former is a collection of essays by some of the great thinkers and writers in the unschooling, or really deschooling movement, including free-thinking giants John Taylor Gatto and Leo Tolstoy. Did you know Leo Tolstoy ran a school out of his own home that was essentially a democratic free school? He did not believe children should be coerced to learn a particular curriclum, instead they should be free to pursue what interested them.
The authors of this compilation of essays are diverse in their opinions, but they agree on many things, too. Mainly, that children are curious, innate learners, and that the current model of education is counterproductive, even harmful. I didn't have to agree with every essay in this book to be moved and changed by some of the ideas it presented. I dare you to read it and not question what you think you know about how children should learn.
I've just started The Teenage Liberation Handbook -- I'm only on Chapter 2, but Grace Llewellyn isn't messing around. She thinks school is a crummy idea, and she sets out methodically and deliberately to give you all the reasons why you should consider dropping out ASAP.
Llewellyn writes with an easy conversational style; she is writing directly to teenagers, after all. A former middle school teacher who taught at both private and public schools, and much like John Taylor Gatto, she couldn't bear to be part of the problem any longer. Feeling that she could not "work within the system" as it existed, she got off the merry-go-round of forced learning and wrote a book, encouraging young people to be masters of their own education destinies.
The book opens with "A Nice Little Story" -- a haunting analogy of the modern schooling system. If you only read this first part, you have a good idea of where Llewellyn is headed, and if you still want to keep showing up for school -- God help you.
Chapter 2 includes some great quotes. You may recognize them (or at least the people being quoted):
"My schooling not only failed to teach me what it professed to be teaching, but prevented me from being educated to an extent which infuriates me when I think of all I might have learned at home by myself." -- George Bernard Shaw
"It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty." -- Albert Einstein
Isn't it revealing that a nineteenth century Irish playwright and a German born theoretical physicist should have the same level of antipathy toward "schooling" and "modern methods of instruction"? Please bear in mind that this was the approximate time period when institutionalized learning was being introduced as we now know it. (Read the Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto -- the book is available for free on his web-site). Actually, why is it that some of the most creative and accomplished people never even finish college? I think it has to do with being bored by the endless years of repetitive, meaningless tasks and busy work. Some folks just want to get on with the business of living.
In fact, Llewellyn makes it clear that she is not sure anyone exists that actually enjoys school, and if there is, she doesn't understand you.
This got me to thinking about my own schooling experience. My memory is that I liked it. Gulp. I'm one of those passive, docile, can't-think-for-yourself people, I guess. Well, I liked it at some point. I don't remember liking Kindergarten all that much. In fact, I remember being mostly terrified, and confused over basic arithmetic. No matter how hard anyone tried (and they did) the numbers would stare mockingly back at me -- only figures that meant nothing and could not be manipulated to make sense. Two toothpicks plus two toothpicks equals HOW MANY TOOTHPICKS? Angry, stubborn tears prevented me from seeing the answer.
I don't remember first grade being much better. I was still terrified. I do remember bits of second grade. I remember craning my neck to see the answers of the math paper next to me -- the one the smart boy had. I was far too quiet to let anyone know I didn't understand basic math yet. The humiliation would not have been worth it, so I peeked at my neighbor's paper as long as I could. My memory is that the gallant lad did not seem to mind.
At some point the math-fog must have lifted, because I certainly did not continue to cheat my way through elementary math. I cruised along with straight A's in math until seventh grade when all hell broke loose and I got a D one quarter in Algebra. I never really recovered my math-legs and spent a good portion of my adult life cowering in fear of anything remotely resembling a calculation.
It wasn't until I started working on a trading desk in San Francisco in my mid-twenties that I started to use math on a daily basis. Something really curious happened. I started to get it. (Eureka! you mean when you start to apply something, you "get it"? What a concept!)
Other than my math "issues" I generally did well in school. Many subjects I liked and I liked to get good grades, because good grades meant approval and praise. I don't remember most of what I learned, but who knows, maybe some of it stuck. The best thing about being "schooled" were the teachers who really knew how to make learning exciting -- there were only a couple of those in high school and a couple in college. Otherwise, socializing was really fun. I'm very well-socialized.
We all take different paths on the road to enlightenment. My journey as a homeschooling parent has helped me become the person I never even knew I wanted to be.
For more on approaching math from a conceptual basis, see Stop the Math-Ness!