Friday, February 16, 2007

The Education of Children

A hundred years ago children, who were being educated, read real books. They were often taught to read using the bible and according to one reading list, Fingerposts from 1916, at the age of five were capable of reading Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. By six they should be reading Kipling's Jungle Book and Francillion's Gods and Heros. By the ripe old age of nine it was time to introduce Homer's Odyssey.

Today we have somehow reached the conclusion that children aren't capable of reading books that require any great deal of thought. When I was in 2nd grade, some 24 years ago, I remember getting into trouble for my unwillingness to check out Dick and Jane books from the second grade shelf at the school library because they were far too young for me, even though that was what the school believed I should be reading. By the second grade I was reading books written for adults. I would routinely pillage my mother's collection and we shared many a conversation about the books we had both read and what we thought about them.

One of the most unfortunate losses for society, in my opinion, has been the devaluation and end of interest in reading (both in adults and children) for it provides the mind an exercise and respite that cannot be reproduced by today's more common amusements, the television and Video games.

Is it that we believe our children are less intelligent than they were a century ago? Has there been some catastrophic event which has leached from them the ability to comprehend and respond to information more sophisticated than "See Spot run"? I drive many children to and from their schools through the St. Louis Desegregation program and am appalled by the lack of literacy I see in them. Last year, when I worked for different company and had a regular student I took each day, I would have my 10 year old passenger read to me on the way home from school sometimes. She was in the fourth grade, in a good school district, and was having a great deal of trouble reading Suess's Cat in the Hat... she told me she was much better with Green Eggs and Ham. All I could do was wonder how she managed to progress to 4th with a reading level I would assume to be at first grade.

And I guess this is why I have, for some time now, believed that I will not send my child to any public school, or likely even private, to be educated. I have no faith in their ability to engender and sustain any curiosity or love of learning. When education becomes a chore of rote memorization and the object is of stifling original or unusual thought then how can any child want to learn? Then there are schools who have gone too far in the other direction. Who, in their quest to free children from the terrible bonds of the above, try instead to give them total freedom and control over their own learning. This, too, is problematic since many children would rather play a game than learn, if given that choice.

I believe that the proper education of a child should be directed and have expectations which are appropriate to that child. There is no one set which can adequately be applied to all and no norm that will work to meet the needs of all. I believe that children should be allowed to learn at their own pace, but that they should be expected to progress at the best of their ability. Understanding their ability allows one to set goals and assign content which is challenging but not impossible, and through the challenge they can learn responsibility, diligence, and a good work ethic.

And I also believe that there should be no subject of education left unattended to. Philosophy is now rarely taught at even a high school level, but may be one of the most important courses a child can master. A foundation of logic and general philosophic ideas can be one of the best safeguards of individuals. It can protect them from faulty thought patterns and arguments, give them the tools to know what to do in any given situation (or more importantly, to know how to decide what should be done). But we neglect this in our children, and it shows, all too clearly, in their inability to think for themselves, or think in a logical manner. It shows in the lack of reason within the adults we have produced since the modern age of education has dumbed us down to incompetence.

Not that all of us are dumbed down. Many intelligent and reasonable individuals do exist, but the problem is that real education, today, must take place outside of the formal educational environment (before college at least), and so many people are disillusioned and convinced of the monotony and senselessness of learning that they re unwilling, or ignorant of the means, to educate themselves in meaningful ways once their formal education is complete.

And what does this mean for society? It means that the gap between the educated and uneducated is widening ever more. That we are becoming a nation of sheep who are incapable of true independent thought because we are forced to learn what to think instead of how to think. It means that we don't believe in our own ideas, that we feel intimidated by the "experts" who are often no more logical or knowledgeable than ourselves, that we are deprived of the great pleasures of rumination and understanding and that we are vulnerable to a whole host of dangers, like loss of freedoms and are susceptible to being taken advantage of because we lack the intellectual tools of evaluation.

And how does this put us in danger of losing our freedom? Because if we do not have the tool of logic we cannot see that freedom is a vulnerable thing that can easily be taken away by nibbles. That by allowing one person's freedom of thought to be taken from them we are putting our own in danger. To illustrate; there was a man, in Florida I think, who was barred from joining the Barr Association because he held racist beliefs and was a member of the KKK. Many people felt that this was as it should be, that he should be prevented from joining, even though he met all requirements, because they disagree with his values and beliefs. I also disagree with him but It frightened me beyond words to read this story and I was both amused and gratified to see that a lawyer from the Anti-Defamation League was representing him and fighting for him to be allowed to practice law. Many were appalled, "How can you represent a man who hates you?" and his reply was perfect... I don't remember the exact quote, but to paraphrase, he said if we allow one man to be persecuted for his beliefs, no matter how heinous, we are all in danger of persecution and the loss of liberty.

This is the use of logic and good thought. To be able to anticipate the consequences of our actions and the actions we permit and support. This is what we have been deprived of in our education (if we have not learned it independently) and what our children are deprived of in schools today (well, that among other things).

And this, perhaps, scares me more than any other issue that is relevant to life today. For I value, above nearly anything else, the freedom of thought that we are afforded in this country. Many of us have no real idea of what that means, I didn't until I was friends with people from cultures without such freedom (next post will be on this subject), and don't really understand that there are many places in the world where even thought cannot be free.

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