What kind of world would we be living in today if people had taken Thoreau’s advice 150 years ago?
“To act collectively is according to the spirit of our institutions; and I am confident that, as our circumstances are more flourishing, our means are greater than the nobleman’s. New England can hire all the wise men in the world to come and teach her, and board them round the while, and not be provincial at all. That is the uncommon school we want. Instead of noblemen, let us have noble villages of men. If it is necessary, omit one bridge over the river, go round a little there, and throw one arch at least over the darker gulf of ignorance which surrounds us.” Continue reading →
“It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure — if they are, indeed, so well off — to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives.” — Henry David Thoreau, “Reading,” Walden
Technology has enabled an expansion of continuing education in ways that Henry couldn’t even imagine. But what I find interesting here is something that he doesn’t draw attention to, probably because to him it’s so obvious, and in one way or another he’s been talking about it throughout the book: notice that he sees education not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. What else would you do if you had leisure in your old age but keep studying and learning?
This attitude is at odds with our growing perception of education as being strictly job training. Everyone wants the next generation to be qualified for good jobs and to be able to provide for their families. But there’s a world of difference in saying, “I want them to get an education so they can get a good job,” and “I want them to get good jobs that provide the time and resources to continue their education.” Not only is the order of priority different in these two sentences, but “good job” and “education” take on different meanings as well.
Continuing the thought from #29 about the value of doing things yourself, Thoreau suggests, after describing the construction of his little house, that students participate in building their schools and colleges.
“I mean that they should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them in this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end.”
Booker T. Washington. Wikipedia
I know of one school that did this by necessity. When Booker T. Washington, a former slave, founded the Tuskegee Institute, the students actually helped build the original buildings. The students were black in the American South in the late nineteenth century — going to public school was out of the question, and so the only way for them to have a school was to build it themselves.
It was a terrible situation — even with an education the students faced a lifetime of bigotry — but Washington tried to make the best of it. He felt that by building their school, the students also built character. Had Thoreau still been living, the two men would have had a lot to talk about. Continue reading →
Here’s another way of looking at the role of education. The author is thinking of schools but I have something broader in mind. More about that below. First, here are the opening paragraphs of “Unplugged Schools” by Lowell Monke, which appeared in the September/October 2007 issue of Orion:
“Educators say the darndest things. Consider this from a high school social studies teacher who told me, ‘Kids don’t read anymore. The only way I can teach them anything is by showing them videos.’ Or this from a middle school principal who defended serving children junk food every day by telling me, ‘That’s what they’re used to eating. They won’t eat it if it doesn’t taste like fast food.’
“Aside from their stunning capitulation of adult responsibility, these comments illustrate what has become a common disregard for one of schooling’s most important tasks: to compensate for, rather than intensify, society’s excesses.
“I first encountered the idea of the compensatory role of schools in 1970, while preparing to become a teacher. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner argued that one of the roles of schools in a free society is to serve as a cultural thermostat — to take the temperature of the culture, determine where the culture is over- and underheated, and then gear instruction to compensate for those extremes. If a culture becomes too enamored with competition, schools would emphasize cooperation; if it overemphasizes individuality, schools would emphasize community responsibility; if it allows poor children to go hungry, schools would (and do) develop lunch and breakfast programs to feed them; and so on.” Continue reading →
So you’re walking through a wilderness preserve near your city when you discover ancient ruins of a lost city built by a long forgotten but highly sophisticated civilization. You realize with a start that this ‘wilderness’ is simply what grew up after the civilization came to some mysterious bad end.
This sounds like the premise of any number of fictional stories, but essentially it’s the real life story of the so-called New World, which wasn’t nearly as new as its European settlers assumed. I’m going to talk about two books here, both bestsellers, one relatively recent and the other now so obscure that you’ve probably never heard of it — though it contains an unintentionally enlightening surprise for modern readers. Continue reading →
Just one more post from Mistakes Were Made (but not by me!), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. This time the topic is education, specifically how fear of failure inhibits learning, and how we’d be wiser to think of intelligence as a learned skill (or set of skills) than as an inborn trait.
“Making mistakes is central to the education of budding scientists and artists of all kinds, who must have the freedom to experiment, try this idea, flop, try another idea, take a risk, be willing to get the wrong answer.” (p. 233)
The current focus on constant testing in schools, the authors say, “has intensified the fear of failure,” which inhibits risk-taking, which of course is essential to creativity and any real learning that goes deeper than rote memorization.