Victorian Education in the 21st century: Why we need to burn down public education and start over

04 Jan

As I sat at home in Ohio over the Christmas season watching my 7 year old, 10 year old and four year old grandchildren play with their hand held devices, and answering texts from my 21 year old granddaughter and spending Face Time with my daughter-in-law,  it suddenly struck me how most of what the kids were all learning, whether in pre-school, elementary school or college, was superfluous in this age. Yes, they need to know their alphabet, sentence structure, and basic math formulas, but there is virtually nothing else that is currently taught that cannot be accessed on an iPhone. Although I find our teaching methods backward and stale and ineffective in many ways, perhaps what we need to do is hark back to an even earlier era for some improvement.

At one point education was dedicated to more than reading and writing and arithmetic. In many ways the expansion of eduction to the masses also dumbed it down. Rhetoric, logic, debate, all of which involve critical thinking, were taught to the male scions of the privileged class along with things that have gone extinct like deportment. These were not available to women, of course, their education tended to be along the lines of domestic arts like cooking and sewing, with perhaps some cultural instruction  like music and art. But the tutors and early educational institutions like Yale and Harvard knew that simply memorizing things was not actually being educated.

In today’s age of instant information at our fingertips we need to spend even less time memorizing things to repeat on tests. We do not need to drill our students on learning rote mathematics like multiplication tables –my cell phone has a scientific calculator, but in the uses of math and how to use it to solve problems. Instead of spending precious class time teaching the state capitals, information they can retrieve at the press of a button, we can use that time to explain why the capital of Ohio is Columbus and not Chillicothe, incorporating information about the population,society,  economics and politics of the time that the switch was made. Instead of spending time teaching spelling–anyone who does not realize that writing long-hand is doomed and all students will shortly be writing only on a keyboard with spell check is woefully out of touch–we should spend time teaching students how to express themselves with the written word.  In short, I think in elementary school we should teach reading and writing and basic math formulas ( addition, subtraction, multiplication and division)  in grades 1-3 and writing, logic, rhetoric and critical thinking in grades 4-6. In the middle grades the emphasis should be changed to science and problem solving and high school years should be devoted solely to research.

That research should not be confined to any discipline. If high school students want to examine why some people become alcoholics, or why some bumble bees can fly even though they are supposedly aerodynamically incapable, let them study it. Teach them to work in teams, evoke their sense of inquiry and let them out of the damn building to be like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and run find out. There are certainly enough mysteries left in the world for them to explore. I can give them several of my favorites; 1) Why do people cling to the idea that race and racism are not integral parts of American culture today as they always have been?  We have bought this myth so thoroughly that incidents of insensitivity and even overt racism are brushed off as episodic, individual rudeness rather than the symptoms of a lingering disease. 2) Why do women ( and yes I know it takes two to tango, but one of the two cannot get pregnant) who are living in poverty with one child go on to have two or three or more? Do they think one of the kids will come out of the womb clutching a winning lottery ticket? 3) Why do people care about what “famous” people, some of whom are only famous for being famous, do? What possible impact can who marries, cheats on, divorces, gets pregnant by, in the celebrity world have to do with your existence or your society for that matter? 4) Why can’t Republicans understand why black people do not vote for them in any numbers? Hint: Embracing people who produce white supremacy newsletters is not going to endear you to people of color. 5) Why is it possible to put a computer into a package slightly smaller than a pack of cigarettes, but not possible to figure out a to have efficient, convenient public transportation in most of America?

On college campuses today  one of the catch phrases of the day, along with globalization ( which I do not think most people can even define) is cross-disciplinary. Some of us have been cross-disciplinary all our lives. I have always understood that any discipline studied by people has layers of other influences as well.  You cannot study education or science or most anything without throwing in some sociology and some psychology and some philosophy and some ethnography. After all scientists, contrary to popular opinion, are people too, and so are their subjects in many cases.

Let’s teach kids the things they really need to know to be successful in life. How to get along with other people, how to balance life and work, how to be ethical, how to have a work ethic, how to enjoy learning, how to take seriously their responsibility to improve society, how to problem solve, how to handle money, how to protect their health, how to use logic, how to think critically, how to enjoy life and other human beings. Quit with the rote crap that can be done on a hand held device. Quit lecturing except to give instructions on how to inquire successfully, quit trying to tell them what to think and instead teach them how to think for themselves.

I had some great teachers, whether that was because of their knowledge or because of their own personalities meshing with mine is probably impossible to tell. I just know that the ones who influenced me and molded me were not ordinary thinkers. They always reached further than their grasp and ignited in their students a desire to find out, and understand, what was out there. One thing all of them had in common was that they wanted their students to out do them. In honor of that they were consistent with both praise when deserved and criticism when deserved. They did not gild the lily and give you credit for something you did not do. Likewise they were not stingy with accolades when you did something well. Nothing is as satisfying as being given a task, told it is difficult and then getting praise when you accomplish it.  Nothing is as meaningless as getting credit for something you did not do. Although others may sing your praises, you know that you do not deserve them and therefore the cheers ring hollow.

So, let’s stop teaching kids like our great-grandparents were taught. First, stop putting kids in grades according to age. Put them in classes according to ability. If you can read before you come to school, skip kindergarten. The idea that a ten year old will be traumatized by high school kids is valid, but can be avoided by proper rules and procedures. Second, no child should have one teacher for an entire year. If you get a good one, great, but if you get a bad one incomparable damage can be done. Also, no one person can be good at all subjects. It is preposterous to presume that an elementary teacher can teach science, math, and language skills equally well. Make specialization the rule in elementary school and high school. And, there should be no such major as education. Major in math, history, biology, anatomy, music, art and take classes in classroom management, or don’t. I never learned anything in education classes that was of use in the actual classroom. The more you know about your subject the easier it is to find topics to engage each student. The best way not to have discipline problems is to have engaged students, and by the way my classes were never quiet. There is not much value in quiet in inquiry unless you are meditating on a new methodology.I would rather have a spirited debate going on over an idea in my classes than bored students sitting quietly and doodling on their notebooks.

Of course, we are going to need new administrators for our schools. Visionaries, hands-on, courageous men and women who will do what is necessary to get rid of the far too numerous dreadful teachers we have and reward the many gems we have in the classroom.

My maiden name was Mann and I always accepted some of the responsibility of sharing my name with Horace Mann, widely acknowledged by some as the father of public education. It is time to go back to the drawing board and realize a kid who has a DS in their hands is not going to be engaged by Mrs. Crabapple standing in front of the room leading a recitation of the multiplication tables. Nope, it is time to retire the teacher and bring on the Guide of Inquiry.

The world is a wonderful place, full of wonderful things and wonderful people, our students deserve better than brain death at an early age. Get out the matches and hope that education can be like the phoenix and rise from the ashes newer and prettier and stronger.

1 Comment

Posted by on January 4, 2012 in Education


One response to “Victorian Education in the 21st century: Why we need to burn down public education and start over

  1. Elizabeth J (@ElizabethM_J)

    January 5, 2012 at 12:17 am

    Spot on and full of good humor, too. Well said, Cookie! I’m right with you.


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