Some Thoughts on Education

I went through 19 years of formal education, not counting the one-semester half-day of kindergarten I got – the price of hitting the age of five at the height of the post World War II baby boom.

That’s 12 years of public school, four years of college, and three years of law school.

The only part of that I remember fondly is college. I got my degree in Plan II, which was (and is) the liberal arts honors program at the University of Texas (of course I mean the one in Austin). I was not required to have a major, so I didn’t.

There were classes and teachers I didn’t like, but on the whole my undergraduate education was a wonderful experience of being exposed to things I hadn’t thought about before.

It was a welcome change from high school. It occurs to me that the essay I wrote for my application to Plan II was a very negative critique of my high school experience. For my senior thesis, I also wrote on education, having been influenced by the thinking of my most excellent political science professor, Elliot Zashin, about whom I have written before.

I got to thinking about all this because I read an essay Rebecca Solnit posted on Facebook about how she skipped most of high school. She took the GED at 15, headed off to community college, and then ended up at a four-year school where she at last found the kind of educational experience she was looking for.

It never occurred to me that I could do something like that.

At one point, my parents considered sending me to St. Stephen’s, an Episcopal boarding school in Austin. I probably could have gotten a scholarship; I was good at school and tests and my father was on good terms with the bishop for our diocese.

My mother told me later it was partly because she wasn’t ready for me to leave home.

I suspect I might have been happier there. I think it had much more room for those seeking intellectual pursuits. On the other hand, it would have included a lot more kids from upper class wealth. The advantage of my public high school is that you went to school with (almost) everybody.

(Despite the Supreme Court of the time, my school didn’t admit Black students until I was a senior in high school. I suspect St. Stephen’s wouldn’t have been much better at the time.)

Solnit mentions something else – the age segregation of our schools, where you’re generally grouped with a bunch of people about the same age as you. That struck a chord, since some of my fondest memories from my teenage years are the conversations I used to have with adults after church.

(It seems that I’ve always been looking for good conversations.)

On the same day that I read Solnit’s piece, my sweetheart and I were talking about imagining a better world instead of complaining about all the failures of our own. What kind of world do we really want to see, that was the question.

He thought kids should learn something in high school about forming co-ops and running cooperatively owned businesses. I said that such learning should be grounded in principles, that if you’re going to teach kids how to do co-ops, you have to start with how to work effectively with other people, how to know when to take a stand and when to let things go.

When I think of principles, I am brought back to Aikido, which is rooted in a number of them. I said I had 19 years of formal education, but I spent many more years than that training in Aikido (and that after some years in karate and before some later years in Tai Chi). Which is to say, I’ve spent a lot of years in martial arts school.

One of the best aspects of martial arts classes as both a student and a teacher is that people want to be there, which is another one of the things that public education lacks.

One wonders what high school might be like if it was a place students actually wanted to be.

Solnit speaks of abolishing high school. I’m more inclined to find ways to make learning life-long. But both of those things require making education something that people want to seek out, something both useful and fascinating.

Right now too much of school is about learning how to be a good little cog in the capitalist machine. No wonder Solnit was impressed by the “bad kids” she met at an alternative school she attended. They rejected the roles they were pushed toward.

And of course, these days so many people want to make sure schools don’t really teach kids how to think, how to question, how to put our history in perspective, how to become the person they truly are even if that isn’t the person their parents want them to be.

That’s not to mention the time spent teaching them how to deal with an active shooter situation, which is so goddamned horrific that I find it hard to contemplate.

My nephew teaches school. I have young cousins who are going to school in that reality. I think of what happened in Uvalde (and so many places before) and my heart aches.

Any changes we make to our schools to truly make them both better and safer will have to be rooted in changes to our society as a whole. I’m pretty sure we won’t get there as long as people want to teach sanitized history and ban books, since students who only get that farcical pretense at education grow up to be people who don’t realize that we have choices in how we operate our society.

Learning things should open doors to things you never thought about before. It should also be joyful. I did a lot of that kind of learning as an undergraduate. Pretty sure it made me a better person.

And that’s really the point.

2 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Education

  1. My older daughter went to a public middle school in NYC that was… unusual. Except for math and languages (which needed to be taught sequentially, to build on the concepts and skills) all the classes were mixed age, from 5th grade through 8th. The mix of ages both lifted the younger ones and… tamed? the older ones–at that point where peer pressure and hormones (two tastes that go disastrously together) needed some taming. Because of its size (small) and its unusual structure, there were always a handful of kids unscheduled during any period, and parents and teachers were welcome to offer to teach a class. Which is how I found up teaching a couple of semesters of “World Building,” It was a great experience, and it gave me huge amounts of respect for middle school teachers–it’s a rough age for both the kids and the teachers. Throwing age segregation out the window turned out to be a. huge help.

  2. That sounds like a good system. I remember how crazed things were when I was in 7th and 8th grade. Having younger kids around would have helped.

    I once taught some martial arts in an after school program for elementary kids. It left me convinced teachers were underpaid as well as under appreciated.

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