Thursday, June 18, 2009

Oh Brave New World....

In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, there is an interesting little character dynamic that he sets up in his main character, Bernard. Bernard is supposed to be the cream of the crop, an Alpha -- intelligent, handsome, genetically designed to be the best. However, something bizarre happened in all of that, and while intelligent, Bernard is far from handsome. This mistake leaves him always aware that he is different, and kind of on the outside looking in. He notices idiosyncracies in the structured society that most don't.

As a homeschooler, sometimes I feel the same way. I notice things about how the culture of school is woven through our society as a whole that others don't, because I am on the outside. I notice it as a homeschooler in a family of teachers. Family dinners where lesson plans, school field trips, and standardized testing schedules are discussed are the norm when we are visiting. Living in a small town, especially a small town that I am not FROM, makes it clear as well.

A lot of the books that we have been reading lately - Anne of Green Gables, Little House, and also a book on the works of John Dewey -- have left me with a singular thought:

The direction our country is going and the attitudes about fairness might very well be shaped by the fact that everyone is raised in a school system based on grade levels.

In a one room school, where children entered school at different times, had to leave at different times (harvest, etc.), children were taught according to a set of primers. The teacher examined them to see where they would need to start, and then the child would start with that book, rather than the proper book for the child's age. The students were grouped according to those who were in the 1st reader, 2nd reader, 3rd reader, and so on, not by age. This generally put kids together in the classroom who were around the same age, but not necessarily. Socially, kids often grouped together according to general age, but not within the strict limits of one year of age.

If the child worked hard and showed that he knew the material, he could move forward to the next book, when he he was ready. If the child struggled, then the child could take all the time needed to master that skill, and moved on when the child showed proficiency. But -- because it was based on this, not being able to master a particular subject did NOT hold the child back in any others. The child could theoretically be in the 3rd math book but in the 5th reader.

The emphasis for this type of system is on the individual's accomplishments within a set standard. Really, the epitome of the American dream...focused on the individual being able to accomplish to their ability and opportunity within the group.

In a graded school, children are given work and activity that is considered appropriate for their age. All children whose birthdays are within a year of each other are deemed capable of performing the same work according to the same standard. Because everyone is using the same curriculum, a pace needs to be kept, so some excel -- some fall behind, but all are pretty much limited to the same courseload. Only those that REALLY excel beyond all practicality are moved up into a higher grade, where they are completely surrounded by older kids. Those that REALLY fall behind are kept back, where they are completely surrounded by younger kids. So the reality is the "problem" kids in the classroom are the ones who are so smart they are bored, or unable to keep up because of laziness, developmental disability, lack of interest, a homelife not conducive to homework, etc. The ones who aren't able to keep up are given assistance. They don't know what to do with the bright - bored ones. And as far as the kids go, both the bright ones and the ones who can't keep up are the ones who are picked on.

But those are the exceptions and so mainly, everyone does the same thing to the same standard.

For this century, really the social issue has been entitlement and fairness. Do you earn your merits, or is everyone entitled to a certain baseline of benefits in this country. Is it okay to be rich, successful? Or is that a system where the success of one person's success holds others back (sounds like grading on the curve). In previous generations, the ideal was that everyone had the ability to reach as far as their ability and hard work would take them, without giving a lot of lip service to the fact that we don't all start out in the same place. Now, the emphasis is on creating a level playing field....much the way a classroom is set up to be. Those who excel and get rich are considered evil, and the ones who fail are also...with the exception that they are still given help.

I'm sorry if this seems rambling, but really I'm just working through ideas. More may be coming...

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Gauntlets said...

Spot on.

Throw "feminist liberal arts" in the mix, and now we all know why none of us know anything.

Tressa said...

Hmm..Interesting thoughts. I will be anxious to read more of them.

Jessica said...

It is important to remember that the world has changed significantly since the days of the one-room schoolhouse. Advanced education has become a requirement for most careers (and even jobs), which has created a lot of pressure on the public schools to push everyone into college. As a public school teacher, I know that there are many students who would be better served by an ability-based system such as the one you've described, but such a system would likely create a bigger gap between the rich and poor by creating a smaller set of students who are willing or able to achieve a college education. Public education is not a perfect system, but it is better suited to the needs of society than the traditional method, which was perfect in agrarian culture which it served.

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...


What particular needs of society do you think are better met by the current public education structure?

Lori said...

Having been a homeschool mom in the past, I know where you are coming from, but having turned to the "dark side" five years ago and putting our kids in public school I have a much different perspective. While some of what you say is true to some degree (this depends greatly on the school district you are in), we have found that many of the issues you talk about come back to parenting as much as to "public" education.

We have eight children and all are adept at playing with kids of all ages. My older kid's friends, love their little siblings and include them in their play. My little kids can play with children both older and younger because we have kids of all ages over for them to play with and do not limit who plays with whom (no, you may not play with her sister and her friend, etc)

Remember that things often appear different than they really are from the outside because you do not have all the information.

On a side note, we are also in a fantastic school that encourages cooperation between grades, requires community service in the care centers, and uses a number of popular homeschool curriculums in the classroom (Daiy oral language, calculadder and such.) Yes, we are spoiled. So I realized that many of the schools may have the very problems you talk about, we are just blessed.

Have a great day.

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...


I'm glad that you are having a good experience and you are right, a large family and the associations that friends and such bring through that also broaden our children's experience with other ages.

I find it interesting that you assume that I am "on the outside" or lack experience. I had a public and private education...with a far better experience in public schools. I am closely related to five different teachers in very different atmospheres. I have colleagues who have started modern classical multi-age classroom schools.

Most of my argument was based on knowledge of child development as well as observations in varying atmospheres over 35 years of life, and 20 years of adulthood...and I possess a degree in developmental psychology with a considerable amount of graduate study and experience.

NPR did a great series of stories on One Room Schools several years ago...showing how many of the benefits that they offer compare to the benefits of homeschooling. Here is a link to those stories.

I am not saying public schools are all bad...nor do I believe that they are. I had a reasonably good experience in the midst of the cliques, the peer pressure, the sexual tensions and pressures, the social distractions and stratifications, and the learning based upon what we will be tested upon, not as a legitimate achievement in and of itself.

Jamie said...

Just a thought to leave. 9 out of 10 Americans are schooled through the public school systems. That means with all it's flaws and imperfections that 9 out of 10 doctors, lawyers, astronauts, scientists, firefighters, police officiers, pastors, and other such leaders and public servants have been schooled through this government institution. That I think is a great contribution to any society.

The Rebellious Pastor's Wife said...

Not exactly, Jamie.

Students that come from private schools are much more likely to end up in med school/law school/elite scientific programs/seminaries, etc. That "1 of every ten" is far more represented in "upper white collar careers" than probably 4-5 of the other 9 out of ten.

That 9 out of 10 has to represent all of the rest of us...from the ones who do go into these careers to those who are teachers, secretaries, computer programmers, factory workers, mini-market employees, welfare recipients and )stay-at-home parents or homeschool moms.

Personally, I think all of these careers and roles are important to our society, and I am not minimizing any of them or passing judgement on any of them. The public schools play a role in educating us...but over the last 100 years (and I've read critiques from the last 100 years), as the public schools have become more powerful, the product they have produced overall, is getting weaker and weaker, despite the fact we all have examples to the contrary.