Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Dismantling the Boy Farms

As an educator, I find that education itself is much on my mind these days. Especially since I am nearing (within the next decade) the end of my college-teaching career. At some point I'll have to give up the cheap thrills associated with being a stand-up comedian/instructor, the inexplicable fascination associated with maintaining a course website, the never-ending research associated with "professional development," and the increasingly difficult task of trying to open and energize minds that have already been numbed by constant bombardment from electronic media and a stagnant, equally numbing system of public and private education.

I do not mean to tar every teacher in the modern world with the same brush, because I am well-acquainted with the fact that many lively, effective, engaging, and thoughtful people teach in these same institutions. But, in the end, it may be a futile effort--unless things change dramatically.

William Morris railed against the public (i.e. private) education system in England during the nineteenth century--the system that led to the "Lord of the Flies" scenario with which we are all familiar. He had, as a child, been enrolled at what he called a "Boy Farm": a boarding school for the upper crust, which was pretty much run by the boys themselves. No actual learning seemed to have occurred. The institutions in place seemed to foster anarchy or oppression or both. Judging from frequent news reports (school shootings, cheer-leading scandals, classroom violence), I can't see that things have changed all that much. We talk about equality and democracy and academic citizenship, and we produce inattentive bullies who don't know much about anything except surfing the web, current celebrities, or playing video games.

I know this is a very broad brush; but it's not entirely unwarranted. What do we expect, when we herd our children into classrooms with an average teacher:student ratio of something like 1:30? Our children are being raised by their peers, with whom they spend most of their time, because parents 1) work to maintain the incomes to 2) keep their kids involved in "activities" designed to 1) keep them out of trouble or 2) get them into Harvard.

I wish someone would conduct a study that measures how much time children actually spend with adults. It would be extremely interesting to note the quality and quantity of time occupied by interaction with folks older and wiser, rather than equally young and equally inexperienced. In every age before our own, and before the invention of universal education, people became who they were by being educated by adults. They learned by doing. They didn't necessarily acquire book learning (although, judging from nineteenth-century novels about ambitious people, and biographies of great thinkers of the past, they picked it up when they wanted to badly enough), but they came to know their world and how to get along in it. Farm children learned everything they needed to know about farming by feeding chickens, milking cows, plowing and sowing fields, and gathering the produce. They learned simple maths and science, and probably knew a great deal more about weather and astronomy than even our elite grads know today (If you don't believe me, see the video "A Private Universe"--about how little our children know about basic principles of science). I'd venture to say that the average sixteenth-century farm child knew more maths than most of the students my colleagues teach in a first-level college mathematics course.

Critics of Morris and others who saw the Middle Ages as a model for how human beings should live (such as Thomas Carlyle, A. W. N. Pugin, John Ruskin, and to some extent Henry Adams and Lewis Mumford) often point to the pestilence, disease, and inequality of the period as a counterpoint to any notion that there was anything good about Medieval life. It's also just plain silly to imagine that we could, in almost any way, replicate that life; nor would we want to. The point is, however, that modern life, with all its "stuff," is poverty-ridden in its own way. I'll get to pestilence and disease in another post. But meaningful education has got to include some way of engaging children physically in what they're learning, and lessons have to be delivered by adults. I'm not sure that culture as we know it can survive too many more generations of students who learn a significant amount of what they know from people who don't know any more than they do, and aren't really interested in knowing much more than they already know.

A radically re-imagined education system would have to include children in the workplace, learning practical skills, and additional time with scholars learning how to hone their intellectual skills. Teachers must be thoroughly engaged in what they teach, and must model the qualities of good farmers, good mechanics, good architects, good quilters, good poets, good writers, or good wine-makers. Wisdom is not the exclusive purview of university professors, and the ivory tower is not the only place in which scholarship can occur. We need only to look back at the likes of Leonardo or William Morris himself to locate intellectual polymaths who not only thought, but did. Somehow it must be possible to marry practical education with intellectual development, and turn out a generation that has the skills to enhance the world they inherit rather than hasten its demise.

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