…I don’t say that the twentieth century has been the worst century of all. I’m enough of an historian to be horrified by most of human history, in which disease, natural disaster, grinding poverty, hunger, despair, and various forms of cruelty, slavery, and degradation have often made vast numbers of human beings only half human and deprived them of their role as citizens. But there are other ways, big and small, by which we lose our humanity and thus our citizenship. What I’m arguing is that unfortunately our schools provide one of those ways.–Deborah Meier
Parent Teacher Conference
Jack was finishing his presentation. The parents sat before him in the extra desks that had been brought in for this purpose. He had outlined this quarter’s lessons and how they meshed into a single larger overview. The parents had sat politely listening to his presentation. For the last 8 years they had come to his room and listened to this talk three times a year. In earlier years they had asked him a myriad of questions at the end of each presentation. Occasionally they had even argued with him. On a few occasions they had changed his mind and the curriculum. But now they had seen their children grow and develop under his tutelage for so long that most of them trusted him and the questions were few and more of a curious nature.
He ended the formal portion of the presentation and answered exactly 2 questions about this quarter’s curriculum. The parents began to collect their things and prepared to go when he said, "I am in the process of planning a field trip for the Spring. I am looking for volunteers to chaperon.
"The trip will be about a week long and will start at the Presidential Trail and then go on to Mount Washington." This had the desired effect and the few parents who were standing now sat back down. The children came to the edge of their seats. They had no idea where these places were but were eager to hear about any trip.
"Those who go with us on the trip must be aware that the accommodations are primitive in some of the locations we will be staying."
Several of the boys looked at each other and smiled. Although they had no idea where this was, it sounded exciting. Will punched Andy in the arm and smiled.
“Jack, do you think that is wise?” Svana’s mother asked, “The area can be risky. It’s pretty wild and very remote. What if one of the children becomes ill?”
"I will be taking an old style satellite phone with us for such an emergency."
Farid’s father looked at Jack perplexed, "Going to the Presidential Trail is a fairly common trip and there are accommodations there, but Mount Washington is very remote and in the heart of the Desert. I don’t think there is any shuttle track laid out there. Even if there were, the desert would have covered them by now. How are you going to get there?"
“I would like to take a free auto.”
There was an uncomfortable moment of silence and nervous shuffling in the room by the adults. The children looked on in rapted attention. None of them had ever even seen a free auto.
Miriam’s mother was the first to recover and ask what all of the adults were thinking, “Can you control…I mean…drive that thing Mr. Randall?”
“I have been studying the modules on the Educational Web. I have also been working with the simulator in Redding. There are physical lessons with the vehicle that I will take while the children are occupied with a tour of Solar Tower One. The driving instructor assures me that I will be able to control the vehicle by the time I drive the children.”
“What if you can not drive the vehicle by then?” Miriam’s mother’s voice had a sharp edge that reflected her anxiety.
“Then we will abandon that portion of the trip and go to the Grand Canyon instead.” The children immediately reacted. Some of them shook their heads. Others looked disappointed. All were silent, though. Jack made a mental note to give them a special treat or extra personal time tomorrow as a reward.
“What is the projected cost of the field trip, Jack?” Olivia Grant always attended these meetings.
“I planned to pick up 50% of the cost of the vehicle myself. That would bring the Trip to 250 Giains.”
This was a somewhat high price but within reason for the end of Primary field trip. The last field trip a class took together was usually a little ostentatious. In fact, big field trips were a tradition for the final year of Primary.
Ms. Grant had not missed the reason for introducing this topic with the children present. She looked at the wide eyes of the children and knew that Jack would be successful in convincing the parents to allow the trip. She had her concerns about this trip as well but she would voice them in a more private setting.
“What are the lessons to be learned by the children?” She finally asked.
“We will of course discuss the history of the area and how it evolved into its current state so quickly. We have already studied the global environmental catastrophes of the mid 21st century. We will go to the reclamation project and discuss the plan for the area. I am also scheduling a tour for Solar Tower One. We will then go into the Desert itself on the way to Mount Washington and investigate the desert ecology. The two monuments of course have their own lessons to teach which I believe are complimentary.”
"I must admit that the trip does seem packed with learning opportunities."
"There is much to be learned out there Mr. Randall but I’m still worried about the free auto. Those things killed a lot of people in their day. They’re very dangerous. I am still uncomfortable with Miriam even riding in one." Miriam gave a sigh and a disgruntled look at her mother who ignored her for the moment.
"Why don’t you come with me to my next simulation lesson, Rhonda? You can see me drive in all sorts of terrain and unexpected situations. I’ve had them program the simulator to give me the most difficult exercises possible. In fact if any one else would like to attend, I will e-mail all of you my simulator schedule." Jack had known this would be the case so he had started the simulator in the Fall. If they had seen him crash the car every 5 minutes, none of them would have approved the trip. But now he was really quite good and virtually never wrecked the cyber car. He had already received a certificate to drive and could rent a free vehicle if he wanted but he knew this terrain was a little wild and he wanted to have as much skill as possible before he put any of his children, and they were his children as well, in a car.
There were some murmurs among the parents but after 8 years Jack could read them fairly well. They were coming around to giving their consent but they needed more time and more information. "I will also e-mail you with a detailed itinerary of the trip, accommodations, satellite phone company, free car rental service etc. We can continue this conversation in our forum on the school website."
Now there were murmurs of agreement, and the parents prepared to go again.
Olivia Grant sat silently but with a concerned look on her face. She simply could not pinpoint the root cause of her anxiety, but she could not deny that it was there either.
The Concepts behind the Fiction:
1. When I Learned my Final Public School Lesson
I have written about the “hippie” school that my daughter attended in junior high. After the hippie-school was closed down, my family had to move due to my job. We moved to a new town in Arizona and I enrolled my daughter in the closest thing I could find to the hippie school, Montessori. She did well there and over all I was happy with the education that she got there. She made friends and when it came time to pick a new school she wanted to go where her friends were going.
I drove out to take a look at the chosen school and I became concerned that there was a large imposing fenced off building near the location. I was worried that this was some sort of prison or institution. Then I realized that this
the school. It looked just like a prison. It was virtually windowless. What windows were present were so small that a large cat would have difficulty escaping the building. I went back to my daughter and tried to talk her out of going there. I took her to the 2 charter schools in the area. She wasn’t having any of it. Since I had moved her at the end of Junior High and disrupted her friendships, I decided that I should let her have her friendships now. She started at the prison-school.
Shortly after school started I went to PTA. In the hippie-school we met with the teacher once a month and discussed the curriculum, field trips, and how the children were doing as a group. These were two way conversations and problem solving sessions. Montessori was a little less two way but I still felt involved in my daughter’s education and as though they listened to the parent’s concerns.
PTA at the prison-school was a different matter. After listening to various presentations about sports, fund raisers, and how a special fund raiser the parents had held allowed the school to buy security cameras for the parking lot, I and another mother from the Montessori raised some concerns about the school lunch program. We were immediately rebuffed. We were told that they met the district standard and that they were unlikely to change. Another mother brought up a concern she had and she was also told that her concerns were invalid. It became very clear that the only ideas parents were supposed to have was how to raise money for the school. After the meeting ended, I so missed the hippie-school that I went out to the car and cried. I never attended another PTA meeting.
This is my daughter’s last year at the prison-school and she has done quite well (straight A’s and top scores in several classes). Earlier in the year she asked to take a day and go skiing. I felt she had worked hard for her grades and I allowed it. In the same year my daughter had several extracurricular activities, and she missed classes occasionally to attend special functions. She also had a project that she and a class mate were doing. They were getting our town to use reusable shopping bags more often and recycling plastic shopping bags. She and her friend won several awards and scholarships for this project and what they learned doing it was invaluable. Both the girls graduated with multiple academic awards and greater than a 4.0 GPA. But during that year, my daughter missed more than the 10 days allowed in a year by the school district in several classes. They sent me a letter stating that she was not going to be allowed credit for her classes and that she was not going to graduate. The reason for this strict policy? Because “studies have shown that greater attendance improves student’s grades”. We managed to wiggle out of this with some doing, and she did indeed graduate.
Here are the lessons that I learned from the prison-school.
1. Your children are not yours, they are now the state’s.
2. Parents are they for monetary purposes only.
3. Attendance, or submission to authority and time schedules, is far more important than becoming a good citizen, education or even grades.
I had heard excerpts of John Taylor Gatto’s works when my daughter started high school. I had my doubts about his conclusions then. I bought his first book and actually read it after my experience with her first year at high school and now I do not doubt his conclusions one bit. He is right. High school is more about creating wage slaves, and docile worker/citizens then about education.
2. The Lesson Plan
Consider how people learned for 10’s of thousands of years. They grew up watching their parents and then other adults in the community going about their daily work. As they were grew older they were allowed to participate more and more in activities. They practiced adult activities and finally achieved the proficiency of adults. Some were better at certain activities and took on special tasks within the community.
Our schools now actually work hard to prevent that sort of learning. They make it nearly impossible in fact. In the vision of our perfect school today, students sit quietly absorbing lectures from teachers for 43 minutes and then move to a new location (which looks exactly like the previous location) without socializing with each other or the teachers and then absorb another 43 minutes of lecture. There is almost no hands on experience, little real communication with adults, limited opportunity to build relationships with peers, other students in different age or social groups, and no examples of adults doing any job other then lecturing/teaching. It functions to make humans feel and be interchangeable, like the cogs in a machine. It works hard in creating humans that are not only incapable of creating community but unaware that they have lost any sense of community. The most important lessons of high school are not algebra and history, but subduing the natural tendency of community. For the parents it is "Your children are no longer yours. They belong to the state now."
3. A Plea for the Small School Movement
So what is to be done?
suggests that we recreate community in
. She points out that in 1930 there were 200,000 school boards and over 1.5 million people serving on them. Schools housed between 50-200 pupils. Today our population has doubled and and there are fewer than 20,000 school boards and a few hundred thousand citizens serving on them. Schools themselves now average nearly 1000 pupils. Is this the wrong direction?
She took several huge New York Schools and chopped them up into blocks of students of about 200-400. Occasionally several of these "schools" occupy the same building, but she has tried to get the schools mixed into places where adults work so student can mingle with other adults as well. The staff and the students get to know each other. She organized the schools so that the pupils stay with the same teacher or cluster of teachers for several years, garnering trust and respect for each other. Parents are also drawn into the school much as they were in the hippie-school. They organized schools so younger students learn from older ones and older students get the experience of teaching. They sent there older children out to job sites to be mentored by actual experts.
But the most important thing they did was to change the focus of the schools. They no longer relied on a check list of things the kids should be able to barf back on a test. Instead they focused on Empathy and Skepticism.
I mean empathy also in a capacity sense, the habit of stepping into somebody else’s shoes and wondering what the world looks like from there. I mean skepticism as an openness to the possibility that one is wrong, that it is possible, for example, that the argument I’m putting forth here today is flawed.
These two habits of mind require an act of faith, a leap of imagination, but they also require training. A certain kind of empathy is natural. We’re all born with it as a species, but it disappears quite early on. It’s easy to imagine being someone who is like ourselves. To imagine being a person who is not at all like us, whom in fact we feel antipathy and distrust toward and whose shoes we would feel very uncomfortable being in—that takes training. To make that process habitual, which is what democracy requires, takes twelve long years. That’s the justification for an expensive public education.
We taught empathy and skepticism laboriously, breaking them down into five more specific categories that we hoped would grow into habits of mind appropriate for both schooling and life. These five had do with awareness of perspective, the importance of credible evidence, making connections, “what if” conjectures, and finally the questions, “So what?” and “Does it matter?” We taught by covering less and uncovering more.–Deborah Meier
4. A Ray of Light
I told you about a young man in my daughter’s school who did fail to get credit for high school due to his excessive absences. I told you that he had a perfect score on the SAT and never missed any of the questions on his final exams. He just did not show up to school very often, and had a bad habit of not doing his home work.
Well, we talked him into getting his GED and then went to several of his former teachers. Many of them wrote letters for him. Since I published the Utopia 2 blog the young man has been accepted to a prestigious university’s physics department. He will start this fall. Congratulations! I wish him all the luck in the world.
Science Fiction Selection: