This is the last weekend before the commencement of the new school year for me. I am using the word commencement because as a high school teacher this word is overly associated with the end of the school year as a general rule… but really it means beginning. However, this morning I am considering the notion that the practice of celebrating the end of traditional (read American public (and institutionalized private) secondary educational programs as a commencement (a beginning) might be doing those of us who choose to participate in education quite a disservice.
Of course I did not wake up thinking about this. No. I woke up pleasantly enough, detached from the impending reality (doom? You know you have something to think about when the conventional humor around the return to school held by both students and teachers is something along the lines of the death of fun, relaxation, and time to grow in ways that truly nourish us…) of going back to school(work). No, I woke up and reread some of Anna Deveare Smith’s book Letters to a Young Artist, which I am teaching this year as a way to show my vastly talented art students that the kind of rigor required to make it (read ‘make it’ as survive beyond cup noodles and automotive domiciles) is the same sort of rigor that us banal work-a-day types rely on. It is a great text. Then I made some coffee. I watched Max make biscuits in the air for a good five minutes wondering what he must be thinking about and didn’t get up when I wanted more coffee because Matilda was in my lap. So, you know, my standard non-working morning.
But then I read a post someone had put on the Facebook about “unschooling.” That, by the way is not a word, and please do not get me started on the totally unsubtle and unhidden meaning of such nomenclature because I will never get to my point. I posted a comment to the post that said this:
The downside of perpetuating this idyllically presented narrative of non-traditional education is that this parent is neglecting to articulate how completely unusual he and his partner are. Not that I personally do not know people like this, but the majority of Americans who will take up this call to be “unschooled” are the same who rail on about liberal brainwashing in schools, shop for all their food at Walmart, feel the need to fight for their gun rights, and watch reality tv, which they mistake for the news. The kind of consciousness this sort of thing requires is deep, complex, and labor intensive. How many parents, especially the working poor, or people who simply lack the ability to think abstractly, or themselves are not curious but just pissed off at anything resembling government influence in their lives, could manage this?
But that wasn’t really the whole of what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say also was this.
If I had a even a penny for every time I heard someone, (usually my kids to be fair because I am working with the part of the parent population that has not totally turned on public education) say that school should be built around what kids are naturally interested in and that they should only have to do what they like to do… I could buy myself a car. Seriously. Not a new car, but I’m trying to make a point absent my usual hyperbole. From the pennies of those thoughts I could for sure by a nice used Honda. Seriously.
So I often think about this idea, this fantasy that by cultivating – exclusively – the desires of children and teenagers (do you really even want to go there??) somehow we would grow more creative, motivated, curious, productive adults… And without LOL’ing (and I am using that neologism intentionally too because teenagers think that is a real freaking word) this true story comes to mind:
When I was six years old, I was already quite sophisticated in the relative world of six year olds. I could read. Well. I loved practicing my handwriting. I flew on airplanes alone, and regularly, to visit my grandparents in LA. I was comfortable around most adults because I was around them all the time. I believed I was great draw-er and thought being a ballet-er and an ambliance driver were perfectly compatible life goals. I loved animals, especially – wait for it – cats. I was pretty articulate as things go and had a lot of ideas about the world. I was definitely curious about things ranging from how grown ups might participate in things that cause their faces to become fully engulfed in flame (seriously) to divorce to the relative significance of inanimate objects. I observed that people are all weird and different and strange in their own way, and experienced the nuanced distinctions between my former kindergarten community school and my new school that had bells of an unknown significance. And most of this was because I was an only child to exponential degrees: the first grandchild, first niece, etc. who had a lot of direct, international, interested interactions with people around me (in spite of attending school, apparently.)
It was at this point in my young life that my aunt made a proposal to me. This aunt was an amazing globetrotting person who was doing things that at six I realized were basically spectacular. Her proposal was this: When you turn eight, I will take you on a trip anywhere you want to go in the world.
I died (as much as a six year old will) and promptly answered: LA!
Consider this. Just back from Bangladesh or India or who knows where, my aunt makes this proposal and my six-year-old mind knows LA. This was not a product of oppressive schools, a lack of curiosity, or waning creativity. This is the result of the simple fact – which i reiterate to my high school students all the time – that there is no way to really know what you might like/love/be inspired by if no one pushes you out of your known universe of likes by exposing you to new things. Some of which you might not like. The world of possibilities grows through experiences that you might not ever even know to take without the guidance and even pressure of those around you.
The trip we took took me out of school for a month or so and ended up being a train ride across the US from La to New York, then off to London by plane, the to the Netherlands – then more usually Holland – by boat. Then I flew home from Heathrow to LAX on my own.
Now consider my adult life (well, at least those of you who know me can do this, and frankly I assume most of my readers do know me) and think about how it might have turned out differently if I were allowed to make all of my own choices based on my known likes, dislikes, and interests. We will just say it might have been more limited in order to avoid more judgmental terms. I would have gone back to the Valley.
I think about all the things that move me and inspire me now, and the experiences I am grateful for having, often in hindsight, that I would have never sought out or undertaken if left to my own choices and devices because I was simply ignorant to all of the possibilities that were out there. I was six. Or thirteen. Or sixteen. Or 21. Just consider your priorities at those ages.
Often I hear people (myself included) say something along the lines of school not being about teaching students information, but rather how to think. In some ways I believe this, but in an effort to be more precise I would say that it is not about teaching how to think… It is about teaching why one would want to think. Or about the myriad ways out there that people do think. I also believe that school gives students a wonderful opportunity to hone in on things that they really don’t like or that don’t work for them, and that is also important. School also teaches us about the infinite number of frustrations that are out there at the commencement (and beyond) of the no-more-school life. It helps students understand that there are innumerable ways to deal with people and situations and they all beget unique results – and that with only a very few exceptions – you are going to have to deal with people and situations out there on your own, and the trial and error method is far safer in school than say, in a new job. I am not suggesting that Fin and Rye (really dude?) are not going to be able to deal with people and situations, but understanding human systems (bureaucracy if you’re feeling like casting aspersions) is necessary in the modern world and this requires practice with actual bureaucracy. Not because you have to participate in it, but because you are going to be a part of it regardless. Plus, You cannot effectively break and then change the rules of a system – any system – you do not like if you are unfamiliar with those rules or that system to begin with. Living totally off the grid is nice for some folks, but not a reality for most. And I would go so far as to say the ones who can make it work have real experience ON the grid.
It is clear that assessment based teaching is garbage and makes everyone miserable – and my theories as to why this has become such a point of emphasis in America belong in a different diatribe (and I am not even going to touch the implicit suggestion in most alternative education circles that anyone can be an effective teacher because… they have kids or draw breath, or whatever.) But the idea that school is a great oppressor and that kids should never have to endure that which they do not love is equally ludicrous. School has great potential – I think more than homeschooling or unschooling or whatever you want to call it – for the simple opportunity that it affords for varied experiences of world views. It is why I have to share so intentionally with my students what life outside the Berkeley Bubble is like. Life in Dhaka, or Alice Springs, or Appalachia, or Fresno for goodness sakes, is nothing like what they are used to in the day to day of living in Berkeley, California. Nothing at all.
The more ideas, experiences and ways of thinking that people are exposed to – whether they agree with them or not – the more likely the possibility that we might actually create a more tolerant, contemplative – dare I say enlightened? – world. Fin and Rye are missing a lot of the realities of the modern world. And as I said, those might not be great realities, but there it is in the word itself: they are real.