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Education: Context Matters


Albert Jay Nock, in his “Theory of American Education,” described a good education in the 1890s:

After the three R’s, or rather for a time in company with them, his staples were Latin, Greek, and mathematics. He took up the elements of these two languages very early, and continued at them, with arithmetic and algebra, nearly all the way through the primary, and all the way through the secondary schools. Whatever else he did, if anything, was inconsiderable except as related to these major subjects; usually some readings in classical history, geography, and mythology. When he reached the undergraduate college at the age of sixteen or so, all his language difficulties with Greek and Latin were forever behind him; he could read anything in either tongue, and write in either, and he was thus prepared to deal with both literatures purely as literature, to bestow on them a purely literary interest. He had also in hand arithmetic and algebra as far as quadratics. Then in four years at college he covered practically the whole range of Greek and Latin literature; mathematics as far as the differential calculus, and including the mathematics of elementary physics and astronomy; a brief course, covering about six weeks, in formal logic; and one as brief in the bare history of the formation and growth of the English language.

This record covers twenty-five hundred consecutive years of the human mind’s operations in poetry, drama, law, agriculture, philosophy, architecture, natural history, philology, rhetoric, astronomy, politics, medicine, theology, geography, everything. Hence the mind that has attentively canvassed this record is not only a disciplined mind but an experienced mind, a mind that instinctively views any contemporary phenomenon from the vantage point of an immensely long perspective attained through this profound and weighty experience of the human spirit’s operations. If I may paraphrase the words of Emerson, this discipline brings us into the feeling of an immense longevity, and maintains us in it.

This is a strikingly different sort of education than we now enjoy, is it not? Are we not worse for not being able to read Greek and Latin, for not knowing the classical authors – and not learning much of anything, truth be told, about history and politics? At best, most of us have read but a few paltry bowdlerized excerpts of the classics.

Students learn a great deal, often unawares, from the selection of readings given to them. From C.S. Lewis’ “Men Wihout Chests”:

I do not mean, of course, that he will make any conscious inference from what he reads to a general philosophical theory that all values are subjective and trivial. The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all. The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him.

Students also learn from the context of the education itself. In Nock’s time (the 1890s), more than half of Americans went to private schools. A generation or two prior, the percentage of private schools was much higher. Today’s studies of education focus on “years of formal education” and “graduation rates”, and miss the question of quality of education. High-quality education can accomplish more in two or three years than a bad education in twelve or sixteen. For example, Benjamin Franklin, a well-educated man of remarkable attainments, had only two years of formal instruction, not at all atypical in his day.

Many modern treatments of education in the Colonial era are utterly blind to the prevalence of home instruction. Consider this introduction, from a primer from the 18th century: The author cannot but hope that this book will enable many a mother or aunt, or elder brother or sister, or perhaps a beloved grandmother, by the family fireside, to go through in a pleasant and sure way with the art of preparing the child for his first school days.

A survey of colonial and early American records uncovers an astonishing array of private-sector methods of provision of education, including home instruction, secular schools, student co-ops, tutors, and so forth. Many modern observers assume that, since girls seldom went to formal schools, that they were thereby excluded from the process of education. On the contrary, they were often the child’s first educators, teaching all that would normally be taught in today’s primary schools, and even beyond. Boys went to formal school to learn such things as Latin and Greek, and then only when they could not obtain these at home.

In recent research, American high school students do badly in international comparisons of science knowledge, but American adults fare better than adults in other countries. The authors believed that American adults, thanks to the Internet, tend to self-educate to a high degree. They want to know more about medicine, drugs, science, politics, economics, and so forth. It is very natural nowadays, when watching some program, to say “Is that true? What more can I find out through Google?”

Another important concern is this: being taught in a government school tends to lead one to believe that government must be involved in education, and by extension into other areas of life as well. Government-approved texts often stretch the truth. For example, they’ll claim centuries of government involvement in education, but gloss over very large qualitative changes. It is one thing for government to say “here is a piece of land; build a school,” and another for government to build, own, operate, and fund the school. A homesteading grant does not make your farm a government farm; it is not the same as the collectivized farms of the Soviets. Early schools, government or not, charged tuition of most students; this made them far more like market-oriented schools than today’s “free” institutions. There were no compulsory attendance laws in America until the 1850s; today, attendance is mandated everywhere.

Even today’s home-schoolers, who are very lightly regulated compared to government or private schools, suffer under what would have been considered an intolerable burden of regulation two hundred years ago. Parents are certainly expected to feed their children; there may even be laws specifically addressing this matter, though it might be generally subsumed under the concept of “neglect.” (If you are a lawyer and wish to fill out the details, I’d be interested.) Such laws do not, however, mandate certain foods and certain feeding periods; those decisions are left to the parents. There are no mandatory registrations or annual tests for feeding one’s children. Yet, when it comes to education, most states are afraid to leave too much in the hands of parents. Certain subjects are mandated; attendance records must be kept; students must spend so many days per year in school; they must be registered and must take regular exams.

Several states regulate even the textbooks which may be used. How well does this work? The noted physicist Richard Feynman wrote “Judging Books By Their Covers” about his experiences in 1964 as a member of the Curriculum Committee, tasked with reviewing 300 pounds worth of science and math texts:

the books were lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples which were almost OK

They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn’t understand, and which was in fact useless, at that time, for the child.

I don’t now why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

These regulations may seem natural to those whose heads are stuck in school-sized boxes, but are totally unnatural to many parents. Education does not take place only in classrooms, nor only in formal settings. Children learn vast amounts in the first five years of their lives, and no parent ever creates lesson plans which begin with “say Mama. Ma-ma.” — yet in a few years, children learn hundreds of words and learn the grammar of their native language. Why are we so afraid of education? It is a natural process. It surely requires some thought and effort, but it requires very little in the way of regimentation; it is a mistake to industrialize education, to treat children as interchangeable cogs in a machine. The great strength of home education is that parents throw out the rulebooks and treat each child as an individual. If method A does not work for child A, try method B. Rinse and repeat. Apply lessons learned to child B – and be prepared to learn more about method C and D and so forth. Rinse and repeat.

To their credit, many of today’s most innovative teachers are learning from home-schoolers to let the children do the driving, point them toward individual lessons such as Khan Academy, and to facilitate learning on a much more individualized level.

Some teachers take umbrage at the home education movement, but the debate should not be construed as pitting teachers vs. parents; it should be about economic systems. When government-owned grocery stores in the former USSR had little to choose from, and that of poor quality, it wasn’t anti-grocer to point out the flaws inherent in government ownership of grocery stores.

As economic systems go, government-owned enterprises are not as responsive as market processes to consumer needs. This is just Public Choice Economics 101. Government-owned schools and grocery stores are not allowed to fail, no matter how unsafe or how bad their performance might be. They have little incentive to innovate in productive ways, and often tend to respond to powerful incentives which diverge markedly from the interests of parents and children.

Home education is but one option among many in a free market. A free market in food permits but does not require that we each grow our own; a free market in education permits but does not require that we each teach our own.

Whenever I speak of a free market in education, some believe education is unaffordable for many if not most parents; it must, they think, be subsidized. To these people, I say with all due respect: you need to get out more. James Tooley devoted years to studying parent-funded free-market schools in the slums of India, China, Africa, and South America. He wrote “The Beautiful Tree,” “Reclaiming Education,” and several other books to recount his results and conclusions. In an article describing “The Beautiful Tree,” he discovered a plenitude of private-sector schools:

the stunning thing about the drive was that private schools had not thinned out as we went from one of the poshest parts of town to the poorest.

Every where among the little stores and workshops were little private schools! I could see handwritten signs pointing to them even here on the edge of the slums. I was amazed, but also confused: Why had no one I worked with in India told me about them?

If these parents, who are extremely poor, can fund better schools for their children, the task is not beyond the reach of American parents. It is a sign of the stultifying effects of our existing system that so many can not even imagine the abundant possibilities before us.

Andrew J. Coulson, author of  “Market Education: The Unknown History,” spent years on a study, comparing school systems from all over the world, from ancient times to the present, in an attempt to discover which systems met the needs of citizens, which did not, and why. From classical Greece through the medieval Islamic empire, from the young American republic up to the present, a recurrent theme emerged from the hum of the centuries:

Competitive educational markets have consistently done a better job of serving the public than state-run educational systems. The reason lies in the fact that state school systems lack four key factors that history tells us are essential to educational excellence: choice and financial responsibility for parents, and freedom and market incentives for educators. School systems that
have enjoyed these characteristics have consistently done the best job of meeting both our private educational demands and our shared educational ideals.

Inordinate focus on formal education blinds us to the amazing degree to which children teach themselves. Sugata Mitra spent years studying education in the poorest villages and urban areas of India. He created the hole-in-the-wall computer kiosks, which inspired the novel and movie “Slumdog Millionaire.” In one of his reports, he concludes that such hands-off learning centers, where children with little or no previous experience are allowed to play with computers, “that groups of children can learn to use computers on their own, irrespective of who or where they are. This will happen if computers are provided to them in safe, public locations.”

Back to the main theme of this article, context does matter – not only in the choice of readings, but in the choice of delivery mechanism. If education is mandatory, the implication is that education is distasteful. If education is mainly provided by the government, many will assume that government is the most effective or the only delivery mechanism. Imagine explaining to somebody in the former USSR that yes, it really is possible to feed everyone quite well without government-operated grocery stores.

Children learn from what we do, not from what we say. If this be truly a free country, then children should be free to learn or not; if we truly belive in the virtue of liberty, we should not be so quick to supplant freedom with coercion.

As John Taylor Gatto expressed it after 30 years of experience as a highly-talented teacher: I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.

For Deeper Study:

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