2015

19 August 2015: Education: We had it right, then…

Education: We had it right, then…

Mark Twain didn’t like school boards. Their banning “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which, according to Ernest Hemingway and countless others, is the quintessential and greatest American novel, was one reason.

His disdain, though, wasn’t due simply to being miffed. Twain and other creative minds from Thomas Edison to Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and Dolly Parton disdained their educational experiences, seeing public schooling as stultifying, repressive.

From their point of view, education consisted of lobotomizing young minds in order to make them compliant and dutiful. Rote learning was the core methodology practiced in factory-like sites in which students sat in assembly-line fashion. (One saving grace of compulsory education was that it rescued children from mines and factories. In a sense though, children were simply being incarcerated in a more benign factory.)

As a child, Einstein, played the violin, but, according to biography.com, “felt alienated and struggled with the rigid Prussian education and experienced a speech difficulty, a slow cadence in his speaking where he’d pause to consider what to say next.”

Then a couple magical, synchronistic events happened. Einstein wrote about how at age five he held a compass and “marveled at the invisible forces that turned the needle.” When he was 10, Max Talmud, a poor medical student, took Albert under wing and introduced him to higher math and philosophy. Talmud shared a children’s science book in which “the author imagined riding alongside electricity that was traveling inside a telegraph wire.

“Einstein began to wonder what a light beam would look like if you could run alongside it at the same speed. If light were a wave, then the light beam should appear stationary, like a frozen wave. Yet, in reality, the light beam is moving. This paradox led him to write his first ‘scientific paper’ at age 16, ‘The Investigation of the State of Aether in Magnetic Fields.’”

Twain, who had no formal education after about the age of 12, saw school boards that constructed and maintained those systems being comprised primarily of uneducated, unsophisticated, and narrow-minded functionaries.

“In the first place,” he said, “God created idiots. That was for practice. Then he created school boards.”

Einstein spoke his own critique: “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of education have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail.

“It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”

In the 1960s, a new generation of educators responded, themselves products of mind-numbing, drill-and-kill practice. Understanding the frustrations felt by students and their parents, they began opening education up so to open minds up. Inquiry and usage of primary sources were utilized to foster critical thinking skills. New initiatives such as gifted and talented programs were fostered.

Brain growth research and advances in psychological development pointed to multiple intelligences: visual-spatial, bodily kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical.

Armed with that insight, educators took on the task of developing and incorporating multiple learning styles to meet the learners’ needs. The one-size-fits-all educational model was relegated to the broom closet. Learning and the joy of learning blossomed.

Scores, however, on standardized tests, which by nature measured primarily linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, plummeted. Standardized tests that had been designed to measure a limited range of learning proved themselves inadequate, even pointless. There was a disconnect: Standardized tests were as relevant to learning assessment as an individual’s weight was an indicator of his/her overall health.

Conservatives, who adhere to a one-size-fits-all ideology, have gone ballistic since. Their hostility to the open, inquiry-based educational model Twain and Einstein would have found empowering serves both as an indicator and a motive: They are deficient in their understanding of the art and science of teaching, or they simply love waling on the public schools for political gain. Or both.

That is what has brought us to where we are today: Public education as a political football tossed around by a coterie of non-experts who insist on taking learning back to an era our most brilliant and creative minds deplored and/or who want success at the polls.

To be continued.

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