Friday, January 21, 2022

The Hallmark Of A Truly Educated Person



History is sprinkled here and there with the idea compulsory schooling going back at least to Ancient Greece, but it was never implemented in any meaningful way until the early 1500's when the Aztec Triple Alliance instituted mandatory universal schooling. By the middle part of that century, compulsory educational systems, usually attached to the church, for boys only, were set up in Europe and it's from these seeds that our modern idea of schooling has grown.

The idea of mandatory schooling in Western thought, at least, can actually be found some 900 years earlier with Plato's original idea of compulsory schooling. As a student of Socrates, his idea of universal education (excluding slaves and "barbarians," of course) was based on his idea that an "ideal" society would emerge if the entire population were trained as philosophers, seekers after wisdom and truth. The goal was to enable everyone with the intellectual tools they would need to pursue their self-determined goals. There was no notion in this vision of learning vocational skills or to engage in religious indoctrination. That was to be left to life itself. And there was, in this vision, no pre-determined curriculum, but rather the one that emerges from the learners themselves.

In other words, Plato was concerned with self-directed learning supported by teachers who, like Socrates, were there to listen and to occasionally ask questions when the learner was stuck. This is what play-based education is all about. It is what self-directed learning is all about. It is what unschooling is all about. 

The compulsory schools that actually emerged, however, have always cynically payed homage to Plato's ideas, while doing the opposite. 

Today, school as it is conceived is a kind of day prison in which children are shepherded through 12 years of disconnected information that committees of bureaucrats have determined will comprise the curriculum. We still give lip-service to the idea that we are preparing children to achieve their own goals. We tell them they can be anything they want to be, while actively preventing them from pursuing their own happiness. The central principle of compulsory schooling is control, not thinking.

Indeed, most schools are not for children at all. As philosopher Ivan Illich wrote, "School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is." And heaven help any child who rebels against this.

Parents are recruited into this effort by such things as grades, these measures that compare one child to the next. High marks, they are told, is a sign of a successful child. No one asks the child if they feel successful. No one asks the child what they think about anything because school is a kind of competitive battlefield that rewards those to conform best to the norms of society as it is. In fact, when a child happens to express a thought or idea that does not match what already exists, they are often reprimanded, even punished. Or perhaps worse, psychologized. Parents are required to care, and care deeply, about their child's academic progress. Their own pride is satisfied when their child wins and they are shamed when their child fails. 

Periodically, there is a call for a "return to basics" in education that tends to coincide with societal upheaval, something we are experiencing right now. "Society as it is," for instance, wants to strip our schools of anything that challenges the status quo, such as alternative interpretations of history or sexuality or race. This urge is usually accompanied by calls for harsher discipline, straighter lines, more rigorous testing. There is a dismissal of anything that smacks of "otherness." 

Mandatory schools have never been for children. Children do not need schools as evidenced by the 99.99 percent of human existence that did not involve schools. Society as it is needs schools and children trained as philosophers, people who seek after truth, wisdom, and beauty, are a grave danger.

There are those of us, however, who are following in the tradition of Plato. We are the ones playing with children. It can be discouraging to know that most children will leave my care to enter into our system of compulsory schooling, yet I also know that I've done everything I can to prepare them for the battle ahead. They will suffer from injustice there, they will be misunderstood, and society as it is will seek to crush the things that makes them special. I can only hope that the time they have spent with me will gird them for this. I can only hope that the light of self-direction stays with them, and that despite being victims of injustice and misunderstanding, they will know that the only thing that really matters is that they continue to seek to understand, in the spirit of philosophy, and that they do not commit injustices themselves.

That, for me, is the hallmark of a truly educated person.

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