Re: the right to pursue excellence

Cathy Pauline Lachapelle (aelin@leland.Stanford.EDU)
Fri, 2 May 1997 12:19:40 -0700 (PDT)

On Fri, 2 May 1997, Deborah Bartle wrote:

> > On Thu, 1 May 1997, Deborah Bartle wrote:
> > > Real education is not a very expensive venture. Real knowledge can be
> > > obtained quite cheaply.
> > Charles relies:
> > `Real knowledge' about what? Some kinds of knowledge are neither cheap
> > nor easy nor quickly attained.
> Real knowledge. The kind that isn't memorized to make someone else
> think they are learning. Like, learning for a 'test' in childhood.
> I worry myself all the time about not 'doing' enough for my kids, but
> they're perfectly happy without expensive gizmos & gadgets. Other than
> the cost of having their mother home with them, the cost of their learning
> from babyhood to age 11 has been insignificant (not considering my lost
> income). Children don't need all the fancy stuff that we think they do.
> Less is more.

but your lost income is a cost which should not be discounted -- an
important point in a society where a huge proportion of people cannot
afford rent and food without two incomes. I reiterate: learning is not
cheap. The socialization of young people is an investment that every
society must make, one way or another, or pay the price of rampant
psychosis and sociopathology. Human beings are inherently social and
cultural, which means that part of human maturation (it's the same for
most primates and many other mammals, by the way) is forming important
relationships with networks of people.

Unfortunately, I think many current schools are socializing for an
industrialized nation -- an economic and social system which is not only
demeaning, authoritarian, and impersonal, but is also fast becoming way
out of date.

> It is also very evident to me, by observing my boys, that the current
> 'method of schooling' ie, age seperations, classroom assignment, etc.
> would have been very demeaning to their spirit. They no doubt would have
> experienced 'behavior problems' along the way, according to some expert.
> But, of course, I could have drugged them into submission, since that is
> an a acceptable recourse today. (sorry, I got carried away) ;-)

No, I think you've got the problem well summarized. I have exactly the
same feeling with respect to my sons. The only difference I have with
what you say is in the details: that it is not all schools (*just* (sigh)
an overwhelming majority) that are like this. Most schools are far from
being communities, which is exactly what children need -- to be members
(valid and respected members) of a community.

I see it as a matter of history. A century ago, schools were not
mandatory. Schools were established across the frontier (the first such
project of establishing communal schooling) by ministers and parents who
wanted to ensure that children would be able to read the bible, and
understand their country's history and government. Children went to
school when their parents and ministers thought it important for them.
They stayed for as long as they felt it was worthwhile.

Then came the turn of the century, and waves of immigration, and
industrialization. The rich and powerful and puritanical of our country
were horrified by what they perceived as lazy, indigent people, and had
fits over the hordes of children running in the streets, scaring off
customers with their rowdiness. So they sentenced them to school, tied to
their desks, forced to obedience, beaten when not. A few decades passed,
and some of the educational elite (those at universities who produced the
superintendents of our country -- Cubberley of Stanford was one) decided
that the masses could be turned into good obedient, dutiful workers by
schools. They set out to make schools more efficient by age-segregation
and class-segregation, putting kids of certain "ability" level together
(of course this meant poor kids versus rich kids) and feeding them
different sorts of stuff -- the whole thing was based on the factory
model, really. The principal was overseer, the teachers were the
assemblymen (and God help anyone who didn't stay in line), and the
children were the little machines being put together.

We still haven't gotten rid of the remnants of this mentality. It remains
in our authoritarian stance towards children, and in the desks and
classrooms that form a billions-of-dollars landscape of physical structure
constraining change. Schools tend to think of kids as computers now,
instead of machines on an assemblyline, which is some improvement, since
at least they get some attention as individuals, and teachers get more
respect and professional freedom than they did. But it is still
dehumanizing -- because it is asocial, and anti-community.

But there have always been cross-currents pushing for a view of the child
as a person. John Dewey wrote lots of philosophy at the turn of the
century, talking about how the Vermont village he grew up in (children
learned by being around there parents and neighbors, who plied their
trades locally, and there was very little in the way of schools around),
and about how such communities were fast disappearing with the onset of
industrialization. He wrote about how we need to establish learning
communities for our children, where they would have resources of all
kinds, and teachers, for them to learn from and interact with -- because
during the work day the community disappeared. His ideal school was a big
house, with a library and workshop and art area and kitchen and garden --
where children would explore and teachers would be there for them, and
teachers would be continually learning and exploring themselves, and
showing the children new connections to what they were doing, helping them
to extend their understanding. Ideally, the school would not be isolated,
but would have relationships with home and workplaces, so that chidren
would have the wider community available to their inquiry and interest.

Dewey ran a laboratory school for many years that informed his philosophy.
He also inspired many educational movements, and the founding of
child-centered schools, among others. But in an era obsessed with
efficiency, people were unwilling to trust teachers and children to form
nurturing communities. They wanted results, according to standardized
tests. And so the schools closed, and after Dewey got in trouble with the
University for his politics (liberal and progressive), the laboratory
school slowly became a very traditional elite school for the children of
faculty (a must to attract upper-class whites to the middle of Chicago).

Now I see change coming once again. As more and more our economics need
skilled people, who demand flexible work (including telecommuting) and
respect for their expertise, so they want to be involved in their kids'
schooling. And more and more of them want schools that are not demeaning
of their children's selves. I see this especially here in Silicon Valley,
but I've also seen it in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At the same time,
there is a revolution beginning in the social sciences. Finally,
psychologists (who are the biggest traditionalists and positivists of all
the social sciences) are beginning to realize that people are not
machines, and not computers, but are fundamentally social. That children
build their self-hood through healthy relationships. And I am seeing more
and more teachers and schools that are pushing away from
authoritarianism and isolation, and toward a focus on the children's
interest, and learning through collaboration. (I am a doctoral student in
education, and do lots of field work in schools. My dissertation is on
how children learn by talking and thinking together about something that
interests them.)

And so, you see, I have hope for public education -- even though when we
looked into Massachusetts schools for our son (we're moving this year) we
found barely any schools at all that we would consider sending our son to
-- of which Sudbury Valley seems like the epitome of the ideal. :-) Thank