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Monday, August 30, 2010

Our Schools are all Religious Institutions, only the religion has changed

When we think about education, we typically imagine that its purpose is to teach students how to think. This is a very nice idea that has very little basis in fact. School was never meant as a means of teaching thinking. Schools have their origins in religious education. It is well to remember that Harvard and Yale started off as divinity schools and that until recent times nearly all universities required religious training as part of the curriculum.

If we think about religious education for a moment, it doesn’t take long to realize that pretty much regardless of the religion, religion is about telling people what to believe and is not about questioning those beliefs. All religions know the truth and all religions attempt to dictate that truth to their followers. Most religions also run schools. No one criticizes them for this.

In our public schools we have adopted the basic tenets of religious schooling.

  1. there is a truth that cannot be questioned
  2. there is no real choice in what a student learns about
  3. you can be punished for failure to attend school
  4. you will learn by being told
  5. there are official sacred books that everyone must know

What are the sacred books of our schools? Shakespeare, Dickens, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby, are some of them.

What truths cannot be questioned? Algebra teaches you to think. You must know science to have a job in the 21st century. All of U.S. history as depicted in textbooks.

Over the years I have been quoted as saying all of schooling needs to be re-thought. What we teach now was determined in the 19th century and was meant to turn the few people who actually attended school at that time into intellectuals. When I say “get rid of all of it” the response is usually: you are right about subject X but subject Y is sacred.

Sure, let’s get rid of balancing chemical equations but we can never get rid of history.

Sure, let’s get rid of algebra but literature is very important.

We can’t get rid of science because it is important for knowledge workers.

This is what religion sounds like.

Curiously school is still teaching religion. But now the religion is about the sacred texts in which one finds the quadratic formula, or SP3 binding (you can look it up if you like), or what Julius Caesar said to Brutus.

None of this teaches children to think any more than the catechism teaches children to think. School ought to be a place where open minds can explore. This doesn't happen because schools are simply the places where modern day religious instruction can be found. (It is a very odd religion -- one in which Shakespeare, Archimedes, Fermat, Descartes, Millville, and George Washington are gods.)

Monday, August 16, 2010

A fun day in education land...

Today was a wonderful day for this observer of the education scene. First, I noticed an article in an Italian newspaper reporting something I did last week:

What happened is that a teacher in Italy wrote to me to say he had won the teacher of the year award in Italy and was immediately fired. He had written to me before about what he was doing in his school. Since I needed someone to help build our Alternative Learning Place, I offered him a job. The above article says all that. The Italian school system is, of course, as stupid as ours.

The second event was the usual stuff from our system. I heard from my daughter who has decided to try out public school kindergarten in Brooklyn for Milo this fall. The ALP is meant for first grade in 2011, so she decided to try out the system while we build Milo's future school. She lives two blocks from a school and it has a talented and gifted program so she had Milo tested. Milo tested at 99% which was no surprise. Equally no surprise, the New York City School System in its infinite wisdom, decided to offer Milo a place in a school in a rough neighborhood, not in the one he lives near. One of the reasons that New York has such terrible schools is, of course, that they seemingly encourage the best and brightest to leave. Milo won't be there long. As someone who was in the New York City schools all through his childhood, I can tell you that they were always very good at making smart kids miserable there. Not much has changed.

The third thing was an incredible article in the Washington Post written by Dana Milbank:

It is amazing because it is right on about the stupidity of the Obama administration in education and tits nonsensical testing obsession. The Washington Post is owned by Kaplan testing or the other way around, (I forget which), so the truth about testing is usually hard to find there.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

P.S. 247 and the absurdity of the idea that college is a necessity

For a speech I am giving I was looking for a picture of the man who was principal of my elementary school many years ago. So, I went to the P.S. 247 (Brooklyn) web site and discovered that it is now a "New York City College Partnership Elementary School." When I finished laughing, I started to wonder when this "everyone must spend their entire childhood worrying about getting into college" nonsense would end.

Then I saw a very nice article called "7 Reasons not to send your kid to college" by James Altucher:

which I recommend to anyone who wants to think carefully about this issue. Of course it is followed, in the mode of the day, by the usual vitriolic comments about how he is an idiot and how college must have taught him to be able to write his column. This again had me in fits of laughter as I recalled how I had to teach writing to Ivy League graduates who were my PhD advisees because they had never learned to write in college.

In any case, I agree with the writer. College has become, in people's minds, something it was never intended to be: a job training ground, and it fails miserably at that, since professors don't give a damn about job training.

P.S. 247 was not a great bastion of learning nor a fun place in the 1950's, and I can only imagine how awful it is now.