Reflection 250: Education?

April 1, 2012

Copyright © 2012 by Steve Perrin

Education (from Latin educare, to lead out) does not mean burdening students with homework; it means drawing-out that which is already within them. When students walk in the door on the first day of school, they are chock-full of vivid, unsorted experiences from the lives they have led up to that instant. Which so-called educators largely ignore in their rush to turn out dutiful workers, engineers, soldiers, and voters suited to the needs of businesses and corporations, ignoring the needs of the students themselves as creative members of a civil society.

Most grownups sincerely believe that the trouble with young people is that they do not yet know what their elders have learned from personal experience. Historians are convinced that students must be steeped in the study of history, scientists believe it is essential to study science, mathematicians tell us the world needs more and better mathematicians, writers argue for an essential grounding in literature. Geographers, artists, politicians, mechanics, athletes, nutritionists—all advocate for immersing students in their particular field.

Meanwhile, who advocates for students grappling with the myriad issues they bring with them to school, but which go largely unaddressed?

Education is firmly grounded in a trickle-down methodology by which what is good for the teacher is seen as being good for the student, relieving teachers of any responsibility to address the myriad issues that drive student learning and motivation.

Strange business. If students are to benefit from their education, they have to trick the system into providing engagements meaningful to them as individuals, not the system. They have to outwit their teachers by going through the motions while gleaning tidbits of personal interest and value on the side.

The upshot is that students are caught in an intense classroom conflict between their concrete personal needs and the abstract needs of a society that sincerely believes it knows what it wants, but gets it at the neglect of those it claims to help.

No wonder schools are in crisis all across the nation. With teachers and administrators looking down on their pupils as inferior beings, while students are looking up to adults for guidance and leadership, there is no meeting of minds where true engagement can occur, true education take place.

The result is unmet objectives on both sides, frustration, and a sense of conflict and enmity instead of caring and affection.

The solution? Before students can learn about the world, they must come to understand themselves and the lives they have led up to now. Then they will gradually be able to apply that inner understanding to challenges beyond the ones they have already met in their personal lives. As a result, growing larger and more competent by developing skills valued as productive in the adult world while at the same time achieving a sense of basic, personal growth and satisfaction.

The secret is that every student is previously engaged with a personal curriculum in living their lives as they do, at home, in the streets, with family and friends, now largely dominated by technologies that did not exist when their parents were young.

If student skills and needs are not addressed from the get-go, who, exactly, is being educated? No one. No one, single, unique human person. Myths and ideals cannot be educated for they are fixtures of the mind. Only real, flesh-and-blood people can undergo learning, and they do so by pursuing the urgings of their own motivations, not by being told what to do by others under the influence of motivations of their own.

To grow beyond their former selves, students need to augment the brain connections they have already formed by building upon, not denying, them. This requires suiting education to the needs of each student, not layering a Uniform Standard Curriculum upon him or her.

What we do best in our schools is domesticate children so they will be trained to the society we have built around ourselves. We turn out servants of businesses and the all-encompassing economy we believe in so profoundly as the highest of all human achievements. Our aim is clear. If we want our children to make a living so they can support a family, we make clear to them what they must do to make the same mistakes we made so they turn out like us.

A parent’s job comes down to helping with homework assigned by strangers—teachers, administrators, distant school committees, remote schools of education. Those who claim to know better than they (parents) and their children do themselves.

Yes, I know this is a gross caricature, an out-and-out cartoon. But loving teachers who know their pupils and work for, not against them—such teachers prove my point because they must be subversive in getting around the system that pays their salaries. Imagine teaching to the student and not the test! Another alternative is for parents to turn to home-schooling their own children. These teachers and parents are exceptions to the system as it is now established and argued across the land.

When I was a kid at this time of year, I learned about watersheds by climbing the hills ringing my small town and getting sopping wet playing for hours in the runoff streaming down the slopes. I made dams, channels, boats, and waterfalls with my cold, bare fingers, using twigs and stones, loving every minute, doing something I had waited all winter to do. I didn’t read about watersheds on an intellectual basis, I lived them in my most intimate experience. It was no accident that in my 50s and 60s I wrote about watersheds as nature’s water receiving, storing, and distributing systems, systems that make life of all sorts possible in myriad basins around the Earth. Terrain, water, sunlight, gravity, and photosynthesis, that’s what watersheds are about.

Writing up 60 hikes in Acadia National Park in 1998, I drew on my life experience with watersheds to portray water flowing off the hills of Acadia through the soil, high ground to low, leaving dry habitats on the summits, creating damp reservoirs in surrounding valleys. I accounted for the distribution of plants from one region to another, and the distribution of animals that fed on those plants. This was something I had lived my whole life, not something I had been taught. In my life, no one I ever met thought it a good idea to even mention watersheds, much less engage with them right where I was. I did that on my own. And that doing, that engaging, has made me the person I am today for it has shaped my mind to do more of the same wherever I find myself.

In the same way, I have always been mystified by the workings of my own mind, and have set myself on a course of investigation to learn as much as I can about my unique, personal consciousness. My method of study is empiricism of the innermost kind. What I know about consciousness, I know despite my education. In graduate school, I wanted to know why two different people standing next to each other could be drawn to different aspects of their surroundings, and have different opinions about what they experienced. The developer pictures a golf course where I see a wetland. I could find no courses dealing with human interpretation, so did independent study in getting both my so-called master’s and doctor’s degrees—in education, no less.

Writing this blog, I am my own man, opening myself to you as your own person, hoping to connect in ways I cannot imagine, to engage in ways both you and I find meaningful from our respective points of view. I don’t know any other way to live than to be myself to the hilt. A risky venture, but reflection after reflection, at least it’s my venture. And adventure.

That’s what engages me and draws me out. The question of all questions is, what engages you and draws you out of yourself? As ever, –Steve

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