Wednesday, December 23, 2015

What Did You Learn in School Today?

A number of people have been saying stuff like this, but this meme, which I first noticed today, has the longest wishlist I've seen of subjects people wanted to impose on kids.

Of course I'm in favor of getting rid of gold stars and other reward systems, and I recognize that the meme isn't necessarily about schooling; it's perhaps deliberately ambiguous on that point.  The great educational reformer and critic of schooling John Holt also advocated the introduction of "real-world" subjects and projects into schools, and Alfie Kohn has been a sound critic of rewards and punishments in general.  But then, when I was in school, we had shop class and Home Ec; "practical" subjects were not excluded even from mainstream schooling, and I doubt they are now either.

It's telling, though, that reading, writing, math, and critical thinking are notable for their absence from that list. So is science. They also are worth doing for their own sake, and doing them is its own reward.

I also think it's funny how freely people pile subjects and tasks onto kids, or at least fantasize about doing it. One size fits all! (And there's at least significant overlap between people who post stuff like the meme above and those who post the one in that post.)  I think that in practice, kids would and do resent having their whole lives regimented by adults, because they have their own interests, and not everybody is interested in everything anyway.  Like it or not, kids are also interested in electronics and other technology, and no matter how much adults choose to simplify their own lives, it's going to be very difficult to return to the eighteenth century completely. 

Kids used to learn the listed tasks from their parents and grandparents, not in school, and that's appropriate. School was where you went to learn academic subjects, not what your family and neighbors taught you anyway.  We don't really live in the kind of society where that sort of thing is possible, and that needs to be thought about, not fantasized about nostalgically.  So this meme reminds me of adults who don't want to take responsibility for educating their children in their own religion, but want the schools to do it.

Whenever I see the words "common sense," I reach for my critical thinking. This meme is a good example of why.

P.S. The meme is also confused about the individual's position in the world.  On the one hand, the logo says the goal is to be "more self-reliant"; on the other, the text talks about encouraging kids to "care about something other than themselves."  Self-reliance, of course, is a great American myth.  American pioneers and homesteaders were self-reliant only when they had to be, and even then they depended heavily on technology (guns, iron tools) that they didn't invent and couldn't always manufacture themselves.  They also relied on neighbors for help, expecting to return the favors they received.  Barn-raising and quilting bees, for example, were group projects and activities, not just because many hands lightened the work but because human beings need company.  There were undoubtedly some pathological individuals who chose the wilderness and the prairie in order to get away from neighbors; we have accounts from the wives of some such men, who weren't as interested in solitude their husbands and longed for friends, company, the support of others.  Solitude and loneliness probably contributed to the failure of many a homestead.

I've also been seeing memes from some of the same people about a more recent period.  This one is representative:
"Do stuff"!  Maybe the words "supply chain" are meant to gesture toward the human networks Grandma was embedded in, but again, this meme puts too much emphasis on the atomized individual.  Grandma also relied on government Relief, on various charities, and just plain human kindness, which she gave as well as got.  This blog post, though probably not the best history, is a reminder of the reality:
My grandfather was born in 1928 and grew into a young boy in the aftermath of the US economic collapse. Pop-pop remembers his parents opening up our hay barn for random people to sleep in on cold winter nights. He also remembers that he and his family were “not so bad off”; they were farmers so they had the land and the knowledge to grow most of the food they consumed. In fact, Pop-pop told me that anyone who spent the night in their barn was also given a plate of food for the night, which shows how valuable their garden truly was. His impressionable years during a time of great financial ruin impacted the rest of his life dramatically, from his hoarding of cash and mistrust of companies and banks, to his refusal to use air conditioners and instead spend his summers in sweat-drenched muscle shirts. When he died he left an inheritance for each of his children from a measly family dairy farmer’s income.
The writer's grandfather didn't experience the Great Depression as an adult, and that surely makes a difference in his account.  (Neither did my parents, who were born in 1923 and 1926.  I wish I knew more about how my grandparents got through those years -- they all died in the 1960s, when I was a child -- but I know they had hard times.)

America was a lot more rural in the 1930s than it is now, and more people had space for gardens to grow food.  I live in a residential area with small lawns, for instance, but I don't know what my landlord would say if I started a vegetable garden.  There are community gardens around town, but they're some distance away from where I live, and some of the ground there has been contaminated over the years by chemical waste. My father kept a good-sized garden when we moved to the country, but never succeeded in getting us kids to really participate in it.  I think all of us could do some gardening if we had to, but we didn't have to.  (Nor did my mother can the vegetables my father grew, or make our clothes; not everyone relished the memory of their impoverished childhoods and wanted to relive them.)

If there were another economic crisis on the scale of the Great Depression -- and 2008, as bad as it was, wasn't on that scale -- the knowledge that people would need for frugality and self-help is still available and would surely be used.  But one always helps oneself among and with other people, with their help.  "Pulling one's own weight" is a better metaphor than "self-reliance."