Friday, August 30, 2019

I Chose To Educate For Freedom

Imagine a person who has lived her entire life in a cave. She has never been in a house; indeed she has never even seen one. One day, some do-gooders discover her living in this "primitive" manner and decide that, "for her own good," they are going to teach her to build a house. She doesn't know whether or not she wants a house, but they nevertheless compel her, again, for her own good.

These do-gooders begin by bringing her a hammer, nails, and some wood, then proceed to drill her on the use of those basic house building tools. Of course, having never used a hammer before, she's not very good at it. She smashes her thumb, for instance, which hurts. She bends a few nails, which she's told are mistakes, even if she found it satisfying to bend them over. But eventually, after a few weeks, she gets the hang of it and is able to drive a nail as well as any professional. Now, they introduce the saw in the same manner, followed by drills, levels, and measuring tapes. Then they bring in miter saws, nail guns, and concrete mixers, and whatever else she might need to build a house, drilling her on their use one at a time until she is proficient.

The woman still has never seen a house, even as the do-gooders continue to insist that it's something she really, really needs. The work, while perhaps interesting at first, becomes mind numbing, repetitive, and ultimately meaningless. She would rather be doing other things, but each time she tries to, say, use her newly acquired hammering skills on a rock or a tree or their noggins, she's scolded into focusing on the task at hand. When her mind wanders, when she drops her tools to chase butterflies or pick flowers, she's told she needs more grit, that she's falling behind, that she requires more homework.

Then one day, after years of this type of "education" she's told that she is finished. She now has all the skills required to build a house for herself. The do-gooders pat themselves on the back and hike off to find more primitives to educate, leaving the woman alone at the mouth of her cave, two decades older, yet still unable to build a house because she's never even seen one. She's not even sure she wants one. And not only that, she's been so busy learning her skills that she's now also ignorant about butterflies and flowers.

As ludicrous as this sounds, it isn't too far off how the US is attempting to educate its children. Our schools, controlled by "education reform" do-gooders and dilettantish policy makers have come to focus overwhelmingly on skill acquisition over knowledge. To a certain extent our schools have always done this, but with the advent of the federal mandates of No Child Left Behind (2001), followed by Race to the Top, and the Common Core, schools have been forced to focus almost exclusively on the "tools" of reading and math at the expense of knowledge like social studies, art, physical education, history, and science.

No matter how many skills one acquires, they are meaningless without knowledge, which is why knowledge must alway precede skills. Just as a person, no matter how skilled, will struggle to build a house without prior knowledge of a house, children will struggle to comprehend what they are reading or calculating without prior knowledge of the subject matter. This is why the skills based approach to public school education has been such a disaster, with American children failing to become better readers or mathematicians, while the achievement gap between wealthy and poor children continues to expand despite the do-gooders' insistence that closing that gap was their main goal in the first place.

Human beings are driven to make sense of the world, to understand, to acquire knowledge, to chase butterflies and pick flowers. It is through this process that we come to comprehend. It is our desire to then do something with our knowledge that motivates us to learn skills, like hammering, sawing, and reading. Without his motivation, without a meaningful, self-selected "project," without comprehension, the acquisition of skills will always become dull and meaningless. This is why the sort of self-directed learning at the core of play-based education is superior to the top-down, authority-directed approach favored by traditional schools. We actually put the horse before the cart, which even a cavewoman knows is the way to get anywhere.

But there is more at work here. As writer Joao Coutinho wrote, "There is no neutral education. Education is either for domestication or for freedom." I chose to educate for freedom.

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