Looking back to move forward

Here is a quote from a book I am reading, a memoir by the Duchess of Devonshire:   “At the age of 5 we started lessons with Muv [her mother], who followed the admirable Parents’ National Education System with its emphasis on learning through direct contact with nature and good books, and its disapproval of marks, prizes, rewards and exams….At the age of 8 I moved on to the schoolroom…and never enjoyed lessons again.”   Over and over and over we read or hear of people who most enjoyed the education they received outside of schools, whether on their own or, as in the case of the Duchess, with a parent.

Today the NY Times ran a photo spread about entrepreneurs who began their businesses in garages.   These included  David Packard and Bill Hewlett (Hewlett-Packard) and Steve Jobs of Apple Computers.    Text that ran with the photos said, “….when you work in a garage, operating costs are low, tinkering is encouraged, and it’s O.K. to get your hands dirty – three important factors that lead to entrepreneurial success…”

A few days back, a Times Op-Ed piece told of an independent project undertaken by a few students in a Massachusetts public school in which they were allowed to design and run their own ‘school within a school’.  With the help of teachers they sought out, they devised a  curriculum, came up with their own projects and questions, and instead of grades, they evaluated each other’s work at the end of the semester.  And guess what?  They loved it and they flourished, accomplishing more in one semester than students in even advanced placement courses achieved in an entire year.   The article ends by saying, “We have tried making the school day longer and blanketing students with standardized tests.  But perhaps children don’t need another reform imposed on them.  Instead, they need to be the authors of their own education.”     And how.

Three ideas:   Learning at home with good books and the world as your ‘curriculum’.    Tinkering (which equals  messing around and experimenting, making lots of mistakes in the process) and getting your hands dirty.   And choosing what you learn based on your own interests.   All of which define life learning.   Even though none of the texts from which the quotes were taken are talking about unschooling, they manage to define it perfectly.    And as long as you don’t mention life learning or unschooling to people in conjunction with the aforementioned quotes, they will agree with you.   Yes, children learn best one on one.  Yes, if they’re allowed the freedom to explore they come up with great ideas – maybe even ‘change the world’ ideas.   Yes, if only kids could be the authors of their own education, they would thrive and the world would be a better place.    But just try to talk about life learning as a concept, or bring out the “U” word, and the blinders go on.   Unschooling?  No, that could never work.

It’s fascinating, really, how brainwashed our society is when it comes to compulsory schooling.   We love stories about the people who ditched school and went out and changed the world, but we refuse to endorse autodidacticism as a valid concept for the public at large.    We don’t even see the contradiction to be found in our love of the self-made man and our insistence that education is something that must be done to you – that you must go to school to ‘get’.    That is true indoctrination, my friends.

People talk today about preparing kids to ‘live in the real world’ as if their lives until they graduate are somehow imaginary and unreal.    Instead of simulating, testing and evaluating, how about just living?    How about growing up with your family and your community as an integral part of your life, instead of something ancillary at best?    Why can we not see the answers, when they are right in front of us all the time?

But maybe we are making progress.   1.5 million homeschoolers in the U.S. and 100,000 of those are life-learners.   Small numbers in the overall scheme of things, but growing a little every year.   Inch by inch, we might slowly get back to the type of can do, self made, entrepreneurial spirit this country was built on.   We might stop believing that a college degree is the golden ticket – the only golden ticket – and start remembering where we came from.   A self-taught nation of apprentices and pioneers, learning from and in the world in which we lived.   Schools were there to fill in and supplement when we needed them, but could never replace real life experience as teacher, classroom or curriculum.

In this case, looking back and emulating our past would be a huge step forward toward a better future.


And now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different – this is Maya on our walk home today.   The joy of gumdrops!

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