Everyone is capable of learning, everyone is educable. That’s what we are, animals that as long as we are alive are learning.
We may be unique in that respect. In any case not all animals are learning animals. Many, if not most are only carrying out an ingrained program, and to have lived is in their case not to have learned, but only to have completed what they were programed to do.
So the schools have it right when they take all children into the classroom, and say that all children can learn. But what the schools have terribly wrong, or rather what they do terribly poorly, is to not fully recognize, and even worse cover up, the differences between children in regard to what they are learning, in regard to their interests, talents, and abilities, to their different levels of motivation.
And not to forget in regard to the serious physical and/or psychological handicaps that too many of our nation’s school children bring with them into the classroom from broken or at least disadvantaged home environments.
For very soon, probably within the very first year of schooling, while the curriculum will be the same for all, the children will have quickly separated themselves from one another in regard to how and how much they will have assimilated, how much they will have taken, learned, and understood from the school curriculum.
And these differences between the children will become more and more pronounced with the result that very soon, certainly by third or fourth grade at the latest, the teacher will pretty much know who’s at the top, who’s at the bottom, and who’s in between, in respect to how much each one will have learned.
But, and with this knowledge, perhaps even because of it, the school will cover up, not recognize these differences in accomplishments and move the kids on to the next year, all together, as if in respects other than that of chronological age they were together. And of course they’re not.
So what is to be done? Reforms, an endless series of them have proven futile. There’s only one way out, one thing to do. Schools have to become places where the different learning interests and abilities are fully taken into account. Ideally for thirty kids there would be thirty classrooms, thirty teachers, thirty curricula. But that can never happen, of course, in a typical school building of thirty times thirty students.
There is one place, however, where the differences between students can be fully recognized and properly confronted, and that is in society at large, a place where differences are already recognized and accepted. Instead of separating children by age groups in a single building until they’re old enough to return to that society, the chldren ought never to have left it.
Within all private and public spaces there ought to have been made available spaces where children could learn, the number and nature of these spaces being determined by the differences between the children and the need for them.
Now the good news is that this is already happening, not in the various reform movements, including the most successful of them, the so-called no excuses charter schools, but in the home schooling movement. And this movement is growing as I write. More and more parents are keeping their children out of the school building, and not as the name may imply simply keeping them in the single building of the home, but taking them into one or more, usually many more, places in the community where their children can best learn in respect to their needs and interests and motivation, in respect to their different learning abilities.
What if Milton Friedman’s idea were to come back now, some fifty or more years later, in full force? What if parents were given vouchers that could and would be used for schools, or rather learning places, that met their own children’s needs and interests? Wouldn’t that, at long last, mark the end of Horace Mann’s now failed common school movement?
For then learning rather than schooling would be the greater force, the force that would hold us together, for what, the next American century? Maybe, but more important for the enhanced individual lives of our children.