Remembering school

For reasons both inexplicable and ordinary much of my prepubescent memory is off-limits. I can remember leaving Washington for Northern California, in limbo in the back of what might have been a Toyota Highlander, watching streetlights illuminate every fifth second. I remember combing through my mom’s boyfriend’s horror collection, and then biking breathlessly through my neighborhood, conjuring up xenomorphs, Yautjas and Predaliens on my tail for a few hours every day. I remember capturing lizards and salamanders outdoors, sneaking them into my room and losing them in the house, never to be found again.

And, just recently, I remember being extremely bored.

Most of my friends could quote me as claiming that I never get bored. Apparently, I used to be. But it was only one thing: I was bored with school. It got a little better when my teacher suggested I skip third grade. (And a little better recently, when my sister took a year-long break from studying in Santa Barbara: we will now graduate the same year although she’s two years older. I expect to never let her forget it.) But by and large, I wanted out.

I remember excelling on my tests but having essentially zero interest in what the board had determined to be necessary cirricula. And the classes that they pressed on me, I only wanted to snoop the outskirts. Although math is probably my weakest subject now in middle school it was my best. My professor, Mr. Sharp, would play Apocalyptica until everyone took their seats. He wanted to expose us equally to the Pythagorean theorem and the versatility of the cello. I would challenge him to explain the philosophy behind what we were learning, to just below his breaking point. In the beginning I would ask questions because I thought mathematics was too abstract to be saying anything at all useful or real; in the end, I would ask questions mostly because my classmates got a kick out of it. Much of the time I was trying to understand the context of the formula, an approach which, I think, made reading Thomas Kuhn so fulfilling to me later. Mr. Sharp both loved and loathed me. Once a week we wouldn’t complete the lesson. Nothing quite compared to that environment and I haven’t enjoyed a math class since.

What I remembered just this morning was the real sense of a lack of freedom. Not only in school but in pre-adolescence as a whole. I was allowed to watch R-Rated films, sure, and go on the computer to play Neopets. I could ride my bike at night sometimes, and if I wasn’t allowed I could sneak out. But what I wanted was that radical freedom, the kind that Sartre says I already had. There were too many authority figures and not even the freedom to choose between them. Choice is limited, and American democracy itself didn’t extend to me. And where were my representatives? I couldn’t vote for them. They governed me regardless of my input.

Maybe it’s a good thing that 9 year olds don’t vote. That would be a massive voting bloc for whichever candidate is willing to promise an extra hour of television before bed. Yet I remember feeling powerless as a kid, and astonished that no politicians were out trying to represent us. I realized that people must forget as they get older, and they must think, erroneously, that it’s good that children don’t have the same set of freedoms as the adult population once they join the latter. I remember promising myself with as much moral force as I could muster that when I became an adult, I wouldn’t forget: I would represent kids and fight for their freedom from the servitude of parents and teachers.

Well, I forgot. Until now. And my younger self was right — it now seems perfectly right to me that the youth be granted less freedom than the elder. Does this make me a class traitor of sorts? So be it.

But, what I do see now is that the education system is not serving young people very well. The people in my classes still do not want to be there. The incentives are all messed up for test-taking. Although I went to a very creative and nurturing high school, much of my time in higher education has been “unlearning” things I was taught in lower levels and am being taught concurrently. This has not been so much learning that what I was taught was false, though there has been some of that, but moreso learning that what I was taught was an incomplete picture, open to questioning, and often tainted with ideological bias. The things I have studied outside of class have made me better informed and, I would say, more genuinely knowledgeable than the textbooks inside of class.

The story David gives about “unschooling” his children provides one alternative to the standard model. I have friends, though, that demonstrate the non-universality of this option. Part of the solution lies in fostering an independent mind, and part of it on behalf of the child. David describes learning more about English from reading Kipling’s poetry in his free time than in class. I had read the entire Stephen King pre-2011 corpus before entering high school, and I don’t think any sort of class on writing could have improved on that. David also criticizes the idea that there is a single subset of knowledge that ought to be taught to all people, as our education system performs now. For a more extensive criticism of this, and even more radical, I suggest Feyerabend.

I don’t share the sentiment of my much younger self in radical freedom for children. I have effectively broken that promise, but a promise to oneself is, I have to think, less binding if one person is 10 and the other is 20 and the two persons are the same. The solution to the problem, though, at least of boredom in education, is much clearer now. Though of course, the clarity came from reading material outside of school.

2 thoughts on “Remembering school

  1. Oh man neopets. That brings back memories. Especially the pirate wars.

    I agree on the sheer stupidity of K-12. I refuse to let my children (when I have them) suffer that torture. The only value I can see is in making friends, but there are other ways to accomplish that.

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