Three false ideas about Education

1. Education is what goes on in the schools. 

It’s not. That’s schooling.

2. Education is learning about the world, about what is going on now, and about what has gone on in the past.

Not true, while schooling is, or should be, learning about the world, education is learning about oneself.

3. Education is over when we take a full time job.

No, that’s when schooling is over. And that’s when education, or what is the same thing, life-long learning, ought to begin.

In fact education is being alive, education is learning. How alive we are varies directly with how much we are learning.

From these truths it ought to be evident that school buildings, classrooms, teachers, and a curriculum do not assure that education or learning will take place. To be convinced of that you have only to examine, to your own satisfaction, the graduates, let alone the dropouts, of our public schools.

The endless series of reforms of the public schools clearly recognizes this situation. And yet most if not all of the reforms that would improve student learning are not doing that. Why? Because the structure that the reforms would improve is the wrong one. The structure itself needs to be replaced, not just touched up here and there.

Homo Sapiens has been about a long time, somewhere between 50 and 500 thousand years. But only during the past, at most two hundred years, have the young been confined as now together in buildings and classrooms in order to acquire whatever skills and knowledge are deemed necessary by the old.

And just as it wasn’t like that during the thousands of years of our history and pre-history it didn’t have to be that way during the past few hundred years. For millennia children no less than wolf and lion cubs have learned by and large from the adults in their lives, from their parents, from the closest members of their tribe. For millennia children have learned from those mostly older than themselves and in possession of skills and knowledge they did not have.

In today’s schools, public and private, children are placed together with other children of their own levels of ignorance and knowledge and are expected to learn, not from the other children, but from the mostly boring words of a single adult standing up before all of them and explaining whatever may be the day’s lesson. And of course it’s the exception rather than the rule that some of them even in this impossible situation will learn.

Again, I do like to think it didn’t have to be that way. Children instead could have gone on learning from the adults in their lives, and also from other children, those older than themselves, perhaps older brothers and sisters, more knowledgeable than themselves.

But instead they were removed from the company of adults and older children and placed with other children of the same number of years already lived, and from whom they therefore had little to learn.

What might be done at this point in time? Reforms, such as No child Left Behind, A Race to the Top, Merit Pay, National Standards, et al. are not enough. The structure has to be changed.

If we have stuck with the bridge structure for river crossings it’s because people do reach the other side. But what if people, huge numbers never did reach the other side, wouldn’t we have changed the structure of the bridge?

Isn’t this what’s happening with the public schools. Huge numbers of the young are not becoming following a passage through the schools, as Thomas Jefferson and Horace Mann would have them, “a well informed citizenry,” —knowledgeable, competent and responsible citizens of the Republic.**

Shouldn’t we dismantle the present structure and build a new one? That would mean first of all that the children would not be taken from the knowledgeable older people in their lives but returned, returned to their brothers and sisters, their parents, their neighbors, their uncles and aunts, their grandparents, just to start with. That would mean, wouldn’t it, that in this manner everyone would join the homeschooling movement?

And that would also mean that whole communities would get behind an apprenticeship system of learning, generally recognized as how anyone best learns, in particular a skill from someone who, himself or herself, is practicing, living that skill.

And this is what home schoolers, the few million of them who are currently out there, are doing, seeking out adults with skills and knowledge who are willing and able to share what have to be their own most precious possessions with the young.

Finally, just as some do make it across the faulty bridge structure, some schools do succeed. And when they do succeed isn’t it almost always because an adult is helping a young person to do what he or she, the adult, is already doing well. And in fact you see this happening most of all in those areas, such as the arts, music, and athletics, where apprenticeship like methods are in these subject mostly the rule.

**Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Adams of December 10, 1819 that good government would only result from a well informed citizenry, or, as he says from: “minds … informed by education what is right and what wrong ;  to be encouraged in habits of virtue, and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments, …  in all cases, to follow truth as the only safe guide, and to eschew error, which bewilders us in one false consequence after another, in endless succession.  These are the inculcations necessary to render the people a sure basis for the structure of order and good government.”

Jefferson’s and even more Horace Mann’s mistake was to think that schools, as presently structured, would ever bring this wished for result about.

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