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The Mis-Education of America
Revenge of the Home-Schoolers

American public education's happy ride to nowhere

Orwell’s “Such, Such Were the Joys” is one of the great essays of the English language and about those places — schools — designed to teach us, if not to write Orwell’s language decently enough, then at least to understand it marginally enough. The essay is a long reflection on the Guantanamo-like misery of English boarding school, of that “deeper grief,” as Orwell described it, “which is peculiar to childhood and not easy to convey: a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness, of being locked up not only in a hostile world but in a world of good and evil where the rules were such that it was actually not possible for me to keep them.” But it’s a little dated, at least as far as American student-audiences are concerned: What student of American public or even boarding schools could read “Such, Such Were the Joys” and possibly have any way of “relating” to it (now that the narcissistic obsession of students and teachers alike demands that all readings be “related” to)?

Orwell meant the title of his essay to be ironic. It’s all too literal now: public education, from the students’ perspective, is all about the joys, the fun, the enjoyment, the “socialization,” the experience, the sheer hell of it. It’s not school. It’s camp. Education, if it has a place at all, is something of an afterthought. Such, such are the joys: In their attempts to hold on to students at any price while at the same time submitting to the Bush years’ fixation on “outcomes-based” education, public schools have been reduced to dumbed-down coddling of students while pandering to politicians’ demands for measurable “improvements” as only politicians understand them — that is, by turning most of the school year’s academically minded curriculum into a clinic for standardized test-taking. Public schools were once merely mediocre, the sort of place where you could send your child and expect to get, within reason, whatever you wanted your child to get out of school. Left to his own devices, an unmotivated student who did nothing more than what was asked of him might succeed well enough by sticking to the program. He wouldn’t be improved by it. But he wouldn’t be damaged by it, either. Nowadays, between short school days, a Calvinistic belief in self-esteem (which achieves the opposite of its intentions) and that perverse skewing of the curriculum in favor of testing for testing’s sake, public education has deteriorated to a point where it’s an intellectually damaging enterprise. It hurts children’s ability to learn by paradoxiucally demanding too little of them where it matters (rigorous, critical-thinking based academics) and too much of them where it doesn’t (testing, socializing, self-absorbing). We’re producing dull, dumb, self-centered, intellectually monochromatic automatons. And to such a point that “a sense of desolate loneliness and helplessness” might not be too bad a thing once in a while for these students who graduate into a world more hostile, less forgiving and more patently unjust than they could ever imagine in public schools’ self-affirming bubbles. Is it any wonder then that parents are pulling their children out of schools in droves?

There are about 55 million primary and secondary age students in the United States, 1.1 million of whom were home-schooled as of 2003, and rising (the numbers rose 29 percent between 1999 and 2003). Last fall, Cheryl and I joined the group: we pulled our 7 th-grade daughter out of her middle school and have been teaching her at home since. If you thought Florida’s electoral system was the pits in 2000, apply those hanging chads to the public education system, multiply by a factor of irreparable damage, and shower the results, mist-like, on the schools below. We never had a problem with the actual curriculum. It’s strong enough, well rounded enough, challenging enough in spots—if only they taught it. But they don’t have time. The focus is on getting students to pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, and to get them to pass it well enough that their schools are graded well, and their teachers appropriately, monetarily rewarded in turn. It’s a racket. Students are whored to the good of a school’s public reputation, and equally whored to their teachers’ bonuses. To make matters worse, this year Florida public schools are required, by law, to add one more test to their schedule, that one (taken by students, of course) to measure student achievement not for its own sake (it’s never been that), not for the sake of “outcome-based” quality testing, but to measure teacher achievement: teachers whose students perform well on that test will get a merit raise. Teachers whose students perform poorly won’t. You could, until now, blame the whole standardized testing mess on the state legislature, whose damaged-brain-child this all is. But when it comes to merit-pay testing, it’s complicity from schools, too, schools that pimp their own children in service of their teachers’ paychecks. Teacher unions are allegedly banding up to resist the change, and apparently making progress enough to prevent the plan from being enacted at all, at least this year. But the unions’ motive is just as suspect as the new law’s motives. It’s one evil battling another, while the old purpose of public education — students’ education — continues to get lost in the chads.

See also Ohdave's review of Jonathan Kozol's "Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America."

At any rate, here we were, watching our child (a straight-A student, but even that was deceptive, considering the lax and indefensible standards at her schools) regress, her writing abilities take a dive in order to better fit in the demands of FCAT testing, her days get wasted by a slimmed down schedule designed neither to tax students’ time nor to demand — heaven forbid — too much of teachers, whose schedules themselves are something out of Johnny Carson’s back in his semi-retired days on NBC: Between “teacher work days,” personal days, holidays, half-days, and who-knows-what-else days, between near-daily school assemblies for the latest parade of condescending veterans or badge-flashing cops or drug-awareness hypocrites or patriotic fools or pseudo-secular preachers hurling their little gospel by way of “self-esteem” presentations or cool little musical productions, it’s a wonder there was any time left for wasting it in actual classroom attempts at approximating learning.

To be clear: we don’t like home-schooling. We’re doing a job schools should be doing for us. We have jobs. More than one. But it’s either that or complete surrender to a form of institutional idiocy for our child (“Such, Such Were the Joys”), which would be a form of intellectual child abuse, or at least child neglect. So we go on, all the while looking for an escape hatch (I’ve been shopping around in the next county down under).

All this to say that I wasn’t surprised by the latest craze in home-schooling. A front-page article in the Nov. 27 Times describes how a new breed of home-schoolers (not the religious-nut kind that’s giving home-schooling its bad, neo-segregationist name) are going one step further to undo the damage wrought by “traditional” notions of schooling. They’re “unschooling,” “a philosophy that is broadly defined by its rejection of the basic foundations of conventional education, including not only the schoolhouse but also classes, curriculums and textbooks.” The Times doesn’t quite approve: “In some ways it is as ancient a pedagogy as time itself, and in its modern American incarnation, is among the oldest home-schooling methods. But it is also the most elusive, a cause of growing concern among some education officials and social scientists.” You see, it doesn’t fit a mold, it doesn’t lend itself to proper testing, it doesn’t yield automatons.

I’m not advocating unschooling of course, except in so far as it undoes the damage that schools do. Letting children run their own course has that recklessly romantic Rousseauist feel about it; it’s Émile without the discipline, or at least without a driving force, and driving ideas, behind it. But at this point I’m more interested in the backlash that “unschooling” represents than in the details of its execution (which are scant anyway: no one knows whether it works or not, because no one is tracking it). And that backlash speaks loads about where we are, as a society, regarding education. Purpose, ends and means, to say nothing of children themselves, their individuality (that subversive threat to all institutional grids), their creativity, their learning curves, have all been sacrificed to the altar of strict, narrow, impoverishing and ultimately destructive business models that aim mainly to fashion a child in the free market’s image of what a “productive, tax-paying citizen” should be. What this has to do with education, Neanderthals (who, from everything we’re learning about them lately, knew more than any thousand test-taking students combined) only knew.

So the backlash is deserved. And considering what is being taught in schools, and how, I doubt that “unschooling” even in its most vapid, empty, self-indulgent forms could possibly be more damaging. If it’s pulled off in an exclusively loving and nurturing environment, it couldn’t be worse, and it very well could be far better. What we have now isn’t education. It’s assembly line cretinry with a happy face.

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