On Education in the United States

by Alan Nicoll


The following two documents were posted on The Wisdom Project website (http://www.wisdomproject.net/) in late 2004.


What is a good education?


What makes for a good education for a child growing up in the United States?

I think that all important details can be subsumed under the following broad goals:
· Preparation for adulthood.
· Enjoyment of childhood.

"Preparation for adulthood" is generally uncontroversial, it is virtually a given as "the purpose" of schooling. I don't think the schools do it wisely, however. In the pursuit of this goal the schools have focused on developing the academic skills of the students, preparing them for jobs and college. They have neglected the "whole child" in the areas of emotion, values, critical thinking, and wisdom.

Children progress through school without learning how to manage their own lives. Of what use is algebra to a girl who is pregnant at fourteen? Why should a fifteen year old alcoholic, drug addict, or gang banger study Shakespeare? Will reciting the "five causes of the Civil War" keep a despondent teen from committing suicide?

Current educational practice in U.S. public schools concentrates almost exclusively on preparation for adulthood while neglecting what I have called "enjoyment of childhood." I think this is the basic failing that leads to ruined adult lives.

If a child’s education destroys the child’s enjoyment of his present life, it is likely to have bad effects. The present public school system:

· Is authoritarian and punitive rather than democratic, which is poor preparation for living under a representative government and educates in the ability to follow orders rather than to make wise decisions for oneself.

· Promotes conformity rather than exploration and enjoyment of one’s individuality. Again this is poor preparation for decision making and happiness in adulthood

· Requires "competence" in all areas, which typically means that the student is forced to repeat things he hates "until he gets it right," until he "learns" it. Meanwhile, the things he loves are held back as a reward or are prohibited altogether as being inappropriate for the school setting or for the grade level.

· In the pursuit of efficiency it enforces a set course of study at the expense of the child’s interests. However, it is generally recognized that learning occurs most efficiently and effectively when it is in pursuit of one’s own interests.

· Uses extrinsic rewards (grades, gold stars, ice cream parties) as motivators, leading to a decline in “joy of learning” and a lack of motivation as extrinsic rewards are withdrawn or lose their appeal. The schools are producing adults who don't read books.

· Is driven by the pursuit of high test scores, leading to fragmented “teaching to the test” and a general anxiety over student “performance.”

· Is invasive into the child’s personal life and space through enforcement of dubious rules such as dress codes and “no talking in the halls.”

· Drives a wedge between parents and children by relying on the parents to enforce school rules.

All these practices make many schools a hell for many children, and certainly diminish the enjoyment of all school children.

I think, then, that a "good education" must be enjoyable while it is taking place, which means that most public schools are incapable of providing a "good education." If you've ever taken a child to a museum, a play, a concert, or just to the beach or the park, you've seen the explosive enthusiasm that children have toward life. And if you've seen children in most public schools, you've seen a general lack of enthusiasm for anything other than recess and horseplay. At the risk of sounding squishy, I'll say that when a person's emotions are not engaged in his/her activities, the spirit withers.

Regardless of other factors, such as money, teacher preparation, self esteem programs, or open classroom techniques, can a "good education" even be had in an institution that requires attendance, obedience, and conformity under penalty of law? Many school critics don't think so. But my focus is on a "good education," not on "better schools."

A "good education" must "nourish the spirit." I take this to mean that a child must:

· Be enabled to explore an enriched environment in his own way and at his own pace.

· Be permitted to interact over the long term with persons of intelligence and good will of all ages, races, and abilities, and be protected from those who would abuse him.

· Be introduced to the adult world and adult activities as he wishes to be introduced to them, and not according to the goals, schedule, and methods adults have prepared for him.

· Be allowed to "get messy, make mistakes" as Ms. Frizzle of the Magic Schoolbus advocates.

· Be allowed to engage or withdraw as he chooses.

· Get honest answers to his questions.

Such an approach will allow self reliance and good judgment to develop naturally. And it will be fun. It is the approach of Summerhill and homeschooling. It is completely incompatible with present public schools.


Alan Nicoll, originally posted 9/9/04 at The Wisdom Project.  Original thread at: http://www.thesearchforwisdom.com/community/boards/viewthread.php?tid=288


How can we fix public education in the US?

This is a difficult subject to tackle because it involves so many preliminaries to be decided, such as: what makes a good education? how do current practices measure up in providing a good education? what kinds of changes would be helpful toward providing a good education? what kinds of changes are possible given the current climate of public opinion? Without provisional answers to such questions, it’s difficult to say anything sensible towards the initial question.

In another thread (http://www.thesearchforwisdom.com/community/boards/viewthread.php?tid=288) I argued that a good education must provide both preparation for adulthood and an enjoyable experience for the child. Current practices attempt to provide a good preparation for adulthood, but do so at the expense of enjoyment for the child. So the kind of changes I recommend would all be directed toward improving the day-to-day experience of the child in school, i.e., make school less demeaning, less controlling, less punitive, and less boring, or in positive terms, make school more respectful, freer, without punishment, and more interesting.

Such proposals are often dismissed as “progressive” education which “has been tried and failed” and characterized as “children swinging from the chandeliers” by critics who doubtless think of themselves as “tough minded.” Yet the very words come back in school mission statements and other statements of objectives: “respectful of students” and so on.

The current trend in U.S. public education is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) initiative of the Bush administration, and the approach is thoroughly “tough minded”: punitive towards “failing” schools and “failing” students. Also, the programmed lecture method of the Open Court and other modern curricula create a rigid and controlling environment in the classroom. According to Herbert Kohl, this top-down, authoritarian, and rigid approach is stupefying for teachers and students alike (Stupidity and Tears: Teaching and Learning in Troubled Times, W. W. Norton, 2003); that is, it makes students and teachers do things the system requires even though those things are contrary to their conscience and better judgment.

Marva Collins and other educators who have achieved great things in public schools, within normal funding, are often held up as models of “how things ought to be done” without “throwing money at the problem.” My take on this is that these educators are exceptional people who succeed because of their exceptional ability and determination. Most teachers and principals do not have that level of ability and determination, and tinkering with their methods is not going to produce comparable results in their schools. And, as Kohl also points out, exceptional teachers find NCLB and its increasingly popular top-down mind set ties their hands.

The first thing I’d do today to improve public education in the U.S. is to let teachers teach. Junk the programmed lecture straitjacket and let teachers respond according to their wisdom to the needs they see in their students.

Everyone seems to be against “social promotion” these days, but it is no secret that children do not do well when they are “held back.” In school, the official stamp of “failure” on a student is a virtually certain guarantee of future “failure.” The second thing I’d do to improve public education in the U.S. is to junk the idea that all students must progress in all subjects at the same rate, and start treating them like individuals with individual interests and needs. In other words, abandon the “factory model” of empty heads on the conveyor belt awaiting the input of knowledge and skills.

What model, then? Open classroom. “Learning centers.” It seems to me that the ideal model that everyone knows about is Summerhill. Unfortunately, one important reason for Summerhill’s success was A. S. Neill, the founder, another exceptional educator whose results are unlikely to be duplicated by lesser beings. Even so, a Summerhill-like environment is the best environment I know of for increasing student enjoyment of learning in school.

In summary, my recommendations for improving public schooling in the U.S. are to immediately free teachers and administrators from the restrictions of NCLB and programmed curricula, and to work towards turning every school into a Summerhill.

The biggest problem in implementation is, of course, that the public is unwilling and uninformed. And for that, the only solution is to work on informing and persuading the parents that reform is needed in these directions. But until public schools start addressing student enjoyment of school by changing the very environment—and not by providing ice cream parties and candy rewards—schools are never going to provide a good education.


Alan Nicoll, originally posted 9/21/04 at The Wisdom Project.  Original at: http://www.thesearchforwisdom.com/community/boards/viewthread.php?tid=355&page=3#pid2026


My email address is: alan_nicoll@yahoo.com