As a follower of this blog, I will assume that you have a child of school age, or that is about to enter school. Or perhaps you have grandchildren, or you are just thinking ahead.
Either way, when it comes to the educational options for your loved ones, perhaps you are confused by the avalanche of contradictory advice that fills the Internet, bookstores, and coffee shops everywhere.
The problem is, there are as many ways to raise to your child as there are children on Earth. And, in reality, education is merely the process of exposing your child to the world, and preparing him or her to live in it.
Today, I’m not going to try to cover all of the ways that people raise their kids. But I am going to talk about education, what it is, where it comes from, and what role it ought to play in your child’s life.
What Are Schools?
Why do we have schools?
Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it. We need schools to teach our young people the knowledge and skills that they need to succeed in life. Schools also provide contact with peers, and opportunity for children to develop socially.
But is all of that really true?
To understand what schools are, why they exist, and why you send your child to one every weekday, you have to understand where schools came from.
How Today’s Schools Came to Be
Years ago, say two hundred years, most small communities in North America built a school house if they could afford to. Or at least there was a teacher in town who ran a private school from his or her home.
In those days, very few homes had books. Protestant Christian and some Roman Catholic homes had a Bible, but often little else. Only the very wealthy could afford to maintain a library at home, and public libraries were almost unheard of.
Most parents lived simple lives, and generally worked as subsistence farmers. Many were illiterate. The majority of people in those days never traveled more than ten miles from home in their entire lives.
As a result of these conditions, a child who stayed home was likely to repeat the lifestyle of his parents. And many did.
But those parents who were determined to improve the lot of their children often pulled together what funds they could and paid for those children to attend the local school. Some had to travel farther to find a school, and actually boarded there during the week, or even for longer periods.
These parents knew that schools had books, and books were the primary repositories for knowledge in the world in those days. Schools were also led by a schoolmaster, someone who was presumably educated in the classic wisdom of the Ages, as well as in the basic three “Rs”. While attending these schools, their children had the hope of discovering new abilities that might propel their prospects beyond the conditions that they were born to.
In the old world, many people were stuck in their station in life. Upward mobility was often impossible due to rigid class distinctions that were determined by the accident of birth.
As a result, a great deal of the motivation of immigrants to the New World was the possibility that they, or at least their children, might improve themselves and their life’s prospects through improving their knowledge. North America in particular became, at least to an extent, a “meritocracy” – a land where you could rise as high as your abilities could take you.
In this environment, you can see just how important it might be for a humble subsistence farmer to pay for his childrens’ education at a school.
The Rise of Industry Effects The Character of Schools
As time passed, however, circumstances changed a bit. Throughout the nineteenth century, farmers and other common families continued to send their children outside of the home for education. But also during this period two movements grew that influenced how this education was delivered, and exactly what sort of skills and values were being taught.
The nineteenth century saw the growth of the Industrial Revolution. This explosion of industry and technology led to the growth of cities, as former farmers came looking for high paying jobs in the factories.
Factory owners needed skilled workers as well. Or, at least, workers who had the kind of attitude and the basic skills necessary to be a part of an efficient industrial enterprise.
The Rise of a New Social Movement
At the same time, a social movement grew, mostly among among upper class women, to improve the conditions that many “poor” children were facing in these new factories.
Traditionally, children worked on family farms right beside their parents and other relatives. So it was natural that, when these families moved into the cities, these same children would be working in the factories beside those same people. However, these social crusaders believed that the dangerous factory conditions were no place for children, who needed a healthy environment in order to grow, and who also deserved a proper education so that they might someday better their lives.
Industrialists quickly realized that, if they were going to lose these children from their factories as a result of this growing social, and now political, movement, at least these same children should be learning skills and attitudes in school that will make them better employees once they graduated.
The Free Public School System
The result of this movement was the free public school system. Industrialists, who played a key role in designing these new public schools, made sure that education was standardized around those skills needed in a factory. The day was split up into neat 45 minute sections, separated by a ringing bell. Attendance was mandatory, and tardiness was dealt with harshly. If parents did not comply, “Truancy” laws were enforced to make them send their kids to these new schools, or else. The model for the school’s design was that of the factory itself. Children, the raw material, were fed into the system at an early age, in order to be processed into identical “cogs” that would fit nicely into the industrial “wheel”.
The 3 “Rs” were emphasized in these public schools so that these future workers could read a machine instruction manual, for example. Simultaneously, children were conditioned to take instructions well, to listen to superiors, and to squash socialization, as that cut into productivity. Children were graded by letters (typically A through E or F), much like a factory quality-control team might grade the product being produced there. The children pumped out by this system were meant to be obedient, eager to please those in authority, focused on their work, and able to complete tasks assigned with a minimum of outside assistance (to talk during a test resulted in a grade of “F”).
Nineteenth Century Schools in a Twenty-First Century World
Regardless of your opinion of these new public schools, it is hard to argue today that the skills, habits and values that well served a nineteenth century industrial economy are still those best suited to the twenty-first.
And, the idea that social engineers with political power and influence can force a particular style of upbringing on every family smacks of an abuse of power today.
So, what is so different today that the role of traditional schools in your child’s life should be questioned?
Well, lets go back to the eighteenth century world that we started in. In those days, knowledge was rare, expensive, and accessible only by associating yourself with those few people who both had it and were willing to share it. This usually meant attending a school outside of the home.
Today, Information is Everywhere
Today, we are awash in information, as well as in the means of converting that raw data into useful knowledge. Books are ubiquitous. And the Internet has brought the world to our fingertips. There is practically no bit of knowledge that you cannot now discover merely by keying an innocent question into Google or some other search engine.
Schoolmasters are no longer the gatekeepers to knowledge for our children.
And the nineteenth century rationale that children need to be protected from being exposed to dangerous conditions in the dark depths of a factory no longer apply in a post-industrial world.
The valuable skills that were, and continue to be, taught in mainstream schools may have been helpful to a prospective factory worker. But in today’s free-agent world, being taught to sit still, listen carefully, repeat back verbatim what is “taught”, and then to follow orders carefully, is actually quite destructive.
Children today need to learn independence, self-reliance, cooperation, leadership, creativity, and spontaneity. These are nearly the opposite skills to those still being taught in mainstream education.
Where Do We Go From Here?
But what’s the alternative? Our entire society is built around the assumption that kids spend their days locked up in a government-run building, being kept busy while both parents (or the single parent) works his and her a** off just to stay ahead of the bill collectors.
If our kids aren’t in school, then where are they, and what are they doing?
Join me for the next installment in this series as I discuss how twenty-first century families need to approach “education” for their children.
Until then, all the best,