Ignorance is Bliss, until…

September 30, 2007

by Tammy Drennan

I’m thinking today about all the ways that institutional schooling, the state form in particular, destroys the potential of the human brain.

One of my favorite things about homeschooling my boys (they’re grown now) was the time they got to follow through on a topic. There were no bells, no tests creating deadlines, no guidelines that limited what they should know about a topic, no one saying stop here. There were some basic requirements that I considered foundational to a decent education – math up through pre-algebra, good reading skills, and lists of books I considered worth their while, a familiarity with geography in its various forms, though how each of these skills was covered was negotiable.

When my youngest was 11, I let him (at his request) take the year off from doing math so he could pursue to his heart’s delight his interest in the Civil War. He spent the year creating elaborate reenactments both inside and out, from strategy meetings to battles. He wrote and produced a very good little Civil War magazine that included articles, poetry and fiction that he wrote, a movie review by his older brother, clip art, and more. He read and read and read. And he produced an excellent and very moving one-man skit that he performed at a history event. (He also went on in later years to tutor other students in algebra.)

I could share other stories, too, about my own boys and many other homeschooled children I’ve known. But the point is that these young people learned to go the distance when it came to understanding a subject, not only because they were encouraged to do so, but because they were allowed the time to do so.

Good education takes unfragmented, uninterrupted, uninstructed, untested, unregulated time. Lots of it. Not the block schedule kind, but the real life kind. The kind you’d put into a personal interest or a passionate hobby.

It takes access to substantial and meaningful books and experiences. Not textbooks, not the internet, not Wikipedia, not newspapers and magazines, but real stuff written by smart people who researched and thought and researched and thought some more. Not career day speakers but people out in the real workplace and world.

Almost everything that contributes to an education that’s meaningful to life and liberty happens not in school but in other places and under other circumstances – places and circumstances that allow a person to devote the necessary time to understand a thing at its roots, instead of at its test-level.

The sad thing is that so many people never know it. They think they got a good education because they got good grades or because they graduated from college. They think they know and understand so many things that they don’t.

Ignorance is bliss… until you lose your liberty over it.


Bill Gates’ Bold Move

September 24, 2007

by Tammy Drennan

“Bill Gates Makes His Next Bold Move” says the front of this week’s Parade Magazine. I turned directly to the report. “Bold move” was an overstatement on the magazine’s part by a long shot. It highlighted two things: Mr. Gates thinks children should be taught to read phonetically and he thinks we should have a national standardized test that all students must pass, barring special needs.

Before I go on, I want you to know that I spent a considerable amount of time on the Gates Foundation web site and was impressed with some of their methodology. Assuming they practice what they print, when considering new ideas they research them, listen to multiple opinions, try them where they deem it wise, and refine them for further utility if they prove hopeful. That’s all good, sound strategy.

But clearly there are people they are not listening to, or maybe they’ve listened a bit and feel that their ideas are just a little too bold.

I wonder if they’ve listened to John Taylor Gatto. He’s worth listening to and asking questions of when he says things like, “Who besides a degraded rabble would voluntarily present itself to be graded and classified like meat? No wonder school is compulsory.” (The Underground History of American Education)

And from the same book: “Growth and mastery come only to those who vigorously self-direct. Initiating, creating, doing, reflecting, freely associating, enjoying privacy—these are precisely what the structures of schooling are set up to prevent, on one pretext or another.”

Mr. Gatto is no crank. He is a deeply thoughtful and intelligent man who has spent a lifetime experiencing, thinking about and exploring the way children grow and learn. When someone like John Gatto speaks, I want to hear more. I want to ask questions, because I know the answers will issue from honest inquiry and research and reflection and not from an agenda.

If anyone from the Gates Foundation stumbles upon this article, please, I beg of you, read Gatto. Give him a chance to broaden your horizons.

Someone else it seems researchers are not listening to is themselves.

When I’m working my brain around an idea, after doing some reading and research, I start my application process. First, I apply the idea as close to home as possible. I ask, In my experience does this idea ring true? Can I think of personal supporting evidence or contradictions?

Next I ask myself, Is my personal experience broad enough to draw any conclusions? Usually it’s not. So I extend my search. I talk to other people, read further, observe where possible. I examine the original idea in every possible light. I read supporting and opposing opinions. I try to make myself more knowledgeable so I can better trust my judgments in the future.

One particular thing I try to do is listen very closely to people who have put careful thought into their opinions. If I happen upon a thinking individual and they say something that contradicts my perception of a thing, I want to hear more. What makes them say what they do? What are the sources of their ideas, their experiences that have contributed to them?

Fortunately, we don’t have to draw only on people we know; there are plenty of good books to guide our journey toward truth.

On the education front, every time I hear someone ringing alarm bells about students graduating high school without having passed algebra or students not graduating at all or students not going on to college, I think of the large retinue of very successful people I know who meet all those criteria.

The successful people I know are ones who live on their own terms. Some have college degrees and even work in areas related to them, some have degrees and work in completely unrelated areas, many have no degrees and run successful businesses and work at jobs they love. This is one area I do have plenty of personal experience in, but I’ve also encountered considerable evidence outside my personal realm.

It’s amazing how often people do not listen to themselves or listen to themselves when they ought not to.

Two examples.

1. When someone starts carrying on about how important it is for all students to master algebra, I ask, “Do you know algebra?” Most often they’ve taken it in school but couldn’t work an equation to save their lives. I pursue the question, “How many people do you know who could help your child with his/her algebra homework today?” Usually, it’s none or only one or two. They have not applied their personal experience to the question; instead, they parrot what they hear. This is a case of not listening to what you really know.

2. On the other hand, odd human beings that we are, we all too often do listen to ourselves when our experience is too limited to make it worthwhile. For instance, someone may say to us, “Children learn to read best when they’re taught phonetically,” and we’ll jump in with, “My son taught himself to read; I know someone who learned to read by the sight method…” And so on. Our experience is very likely far too limited to make any judgment about how to teach reading, but our little bit of personal exposure to learning to read makes us confident that we need not explore further.

Conclusion: Let’s learn to listen where and how it’s most fruitful. When you find a thinking person, listen deeply, ask questions, explore, learn, think. Seek out thinking people. Listen to yourself judiciously. Apply a standard to your own judgment and experience, evaluate the reliability of all information and ideas that you encounter.

Finding the truth about any matter is hard work. Alexander Hamilton expressed it perfectly:

“Men give me some credit for genius. All the genius I have lies in this: when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me, I explore it in all its bearings. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort which I make, the people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.”

Hamilton wasn’t always right. We won’t always be right. But we must try harder, be more demanding of ourselves intellectually. And above all, we must exercise the utmost caution and reserve when we have the power to thrust our conclusions down other people’s throats.

The Gates Foundation is in a position of great power. Some day, I (and many others) hope to see education free of state control, but until that day comes, I urge those with power to think deeply before using it as a tool to force their vision of the future.

I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Bill and Melinda Gates’ concern for American young people. I hope they will find their way to using their mighty resources to empower people rather than to enslave them to the state and their own ideology and vision.

Education: What Results Do We Want?

September 16, 2007

By Tammy Drennan

In our ongoing effort to understand the meaning of education, I’d like to share some thoughts – and questions.

Education, in my opinion, is about learning to interpret events and experiences in an increasingly mature and wise way. In order to do this, you must know things – that is, accumulate knowledge and experience. And you must understand things – that is, accumulate insight and wisdom.

Does this happen in school? What meaningful knowledge did your child accumulate in school last year? What insight or wisdom did he gain? In what way did he come to better understand the world so that he’ll one day be able to contribute to its improvement?

Another way of looking at it is this: In what way did school help your child mature in the last year? Did she become better able to judge the claims of science? Better equipped to interpret the motives of politicians and leaders? More acclimated to interacting with people of many ages and backgrounds? More thoughtful in expressing her views on issues or past events? More willing to go the distance in gaining understanding and insight? More tempered in her reactions and conclusions about people and events? More eager to search out learning and understanding on her own? More moral, more self-directed, kinder, more giving, more… whatever you consider a mark of maturity?

In what way has school prepared your child for a meaningful life? Has it fitted him for independence and leadership or for servitude and obedience? For creativity or consumption? For problem-solving or resignation? For acting or being acted upon?

What is the purpose of education? Before we can possibly know what education should look like we must know the end result we wish.

What is the end result you want from your children’s education?  And with that in mind, what do you think is the best way to get there?

What should a 4-year-old know?

September 9, 2007

We spend a lot of time discussing what’s wrong with the state’s control of education and all too little time discussing what education might look like if the state had never commandeered it to begin with.

I’m going to try to spend more time on the meaning of education from here on out, because without understanding what it means, how can we possibly create the means?

So, let’s begin with this excellent and thought-provoking article by Alicia Bayer: What should a 4-year-old know? Read it, think about it, discuss it with someone, tell us what you think about it.