Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Brennen‘s been posting a multi-part essay (see part 1 and part 2) about the state of American primary education. He’s working very hard to make a case with which I generally agree. However, I want to argue two points.


Why punish children for using the language of their parents, their older siblings, and their culture at large? Does saying “fuck” actually render a person somehow less valuable? Contrariwise, do prohibitions on language actually do anything but lend a special power to supposed obscenities and encourage their use?

Our culture has codes of conduct. Note that I don’t mean arbitrary cultural beliefs; I’m talking about the standards embodied by the idea of dressing nicely when meeting with a customer. It’s a matter of good culture. We encourage kids to avoid swearing just like we encourage them to comb their hair.

Why? Because these things are important. Culture is important. When you belong to a group, it’s important to respect the cultural norms of that group.

I like the Rule of St. Benedict, because Benedict addresses these sorts of issues in a beautifully practical way: Societies need simple rules, and humans in those societies needs to humble themselves to obey those rules (unless harmful). The best societies mute power, and this is one of the ways in which they do that.

(Similarly, allowing any and all language unleashes those who use language to abuse others, both directly and indirectly. We all know people who, if given the chance, won’t shut up, abusing this power. Children have a particularly strong tendency towards this behavior.)

Anyvay. Two:

If children almost universally respond better to individualized attention, what purpose does an increased standardization of teaching (in methods, content, and testing) really serve? My best teachers were the oneswhose style was idiosyncratic and individual, the product of a personal craft -where does a mania for uniformity leave them? Where does it leave theirstudents?

The problem here, I think, is a matter of scale.

Brennen describes the democratic and free-form Tamariki School as a school that, overall, works in the way he’d like. I agree. However, as he points out, Tamariki has around sixty pupils and nine paid adults.

What happens when you have to serve, not sixty kids, but six thousand? Will you be able to afford the same adult-student ratio, and will all the adults be as good teachers as the ones at Tamariki? No.

So, how do you ensure that the poor teachers at least get across the basics? Hand them a textbook and say, “Make sure the kids learn at least this much.”

Seriously, I think that education of the sort Brennen is advocating does not scale.

Note that this can be okay, depending on the type of education you want. If you want a holistic education that prepares a child ethically and philosophically, you can’t find it in public education. That sort of thing simply doesn’t scale up, from what I can see.

This is why I’d like to see public education become much more focused on skills. In my opinion, public education works best when it’s teaching something relatively straightforward, rather than coaching a child in concepts of freedom, personal responsibility, etc.

(Put another way, asking why public education can’t be like Tamariki is akin to asking why McDonald’s can’t serve six-course French meals. French cuisine works on a restaurant-by-restaurant basis, but not when you’re trying to serve fifty million customers a day.)

At least, that’s my take on it. Thoughts?

Leave a Reply

I work for Amazon. The content on this site is my own and doesn’t necessarily represent Amazon’s position.