Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Standard Schools Produce at Least as Much Ignorance as They Do Knowledge

"Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another," wrote renowned wildlife conservationist and philosopher Aldo Leopold. He was bemoaning the fact that as science advanced, as we learned more and more about individual plants, animals, and soils, it seemed that we got farther and farther away from an actual understanding of what he called "the land."

The metaphor he uses is to compare the various plants, animals, and soils to instruments in an orchestra. In an effort to understand the music, scientists and professors, through a process called research, specialize in the individual instruments, looking closer and closer, dismantling them by way of understanding how each of them worked, while at the same time rarely, if ever, looking at the instruments being dismantled by the other researchers. In the end they were left with an understanding of a small part of the mechanics of orchestral music, while the music of the orchestra itself was lost. As Leopold wrote, "(T)he construction of instruments is the domain of science, while the detection of harmony is the domain of poets." And rarely do the twain meet.

Too often, ignorance is a bi-product of traditional schooling. Like with the process of academic research, our schools tend to break things down into smaller and smaller parts, assigning the teaching of math to one day part, music to another, physical education to another, and history to yet another. In the early years, these subjects might be relatively broad, with, say, science lessons ranging across the spectrum from biology to physics to chemistry, but as the children get older, we break our teaching into smaller and smaller parts until we lose the forest while wandering amidst the trees.

I would propose, however, that just as the point of an orchestra is the music, not the instruments, the point of education is life itself. When we take life itself apart, breaking it down into discrete elements, we rob ourselves of the music, leaving us with little more than a pile of strings, reeds, and keys. Life itself is community writ large, one that embraces the other people, the land, and the music. Life itself is community and it is only within community that any of us will ever find purpose, which is to say, the thing that makes us come alive. 

The music of community is its projects, the things that can only be done together, that start with a question or challenge or problem that brings interested parties together to seek a collective answer. Every project doesn't motivate every learner, of course, and that is why each of us must be free, in the education that is life itself, to pursue the questions or challenges or problems that motivate us.

As we engage in our projects we will find we need the tools of math or literacy or history or science. Now we are motivated to use these tools because they are necessary to our purpose, our project. This is where advocates for modern schooling pipe up, asking how we can use those tools if we've not previously learned how to use them. But this is where life itself is the master teacher: now, within the context of life itself, self-motivation is unleashed upon the process of learning to use those tools, not as an abstract, disconnected skill, but as a practical matter, one that serves a purpose. This is how all learning becomes relevant.

In preschool, we would never expect young children to master, say, horizontal lines or color theory before we allowed them to paint. We would never expect young children to master an instrument or music theory before we allowed them to raise their voice in song. We would never expect young children to know the precise steps of the ballroom before we allowed them to dance. Yet this is what too often happens in school beyond the early years and it is why standard schools produce at least as much ignorance as they do knowledge.

As the great education philosopher John Dewey asserted, "Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself." 


If you liked reading this post, you might also enjoy one of my books. To find out more, Click here! 
"Few people are better qualified to support people working in the field of early childhood education than Teacher Tom. This is a book you will want to keep close to your soul." ~Daniel Hodgins, author of Boys: Changing the Classroom, Not the Child, and Get Over It! Relearning Guidance Practices

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