Sunday, April 17, 2016

Former slaves studying Latin and Greek; nothing has changed

I am in the middle of reading a book called “The Black Calhouns,” written by Gail Buckley. It is a story of one African American family starting in the times of slavery and going to the present. I was not reading this book because of my interest in education, but, as often happens to me, I became infuriated by something I read that related to education.

The book says that in October 1870, the Georgia State Legislature provided money to educate “Negroes” at schools set up for this purpose, but there was “widespread belief that this would not work.” So, they held examinations, “overseen by a board from the old slaveholding class.” A previous Georgia governor said: “I know these Negroes. Some of these pupils were my slaves. I know that they can acquire the rudiments of an education, but they cannot go beyond. The are an inferior race, and for that reason, we had a right to hold them as slaves, and I mean to attend these examinations to prove that we are right.”

After the examinations, the Atlanta Constitution wrote: “we are not prepared to believe what we witnessed:  To see colored boys and girls fourteen and eighteen years of age, reading Greek and Latin, and demonstrating correctly problems in Algebra and Geometry, and seemingly understanding what they demonstrated appears almost wonderful.”

I was taken aback by this since I wasn’t really thinking about the idea that what upsets me most about education has been going on that long. They were teaching the newly freed slaves to read Latin and Greek and to do Algebra. Why?

If you asked me to design a curriculum for these children it would have had two main principles. First, it would have offered choices. I have never understood why every child must learn the same stuff. Second, the choices would relate to the real possibilities of the future lives these children faced. Were these kids going to become scholars in the Classics? Were they going to ever use algebra for any reason?  I would have taught them how to open a business, how to run their own farm, how to fight for their political and economic rights, how to think critically about life decisions they might actually have to make, how to become articulate, how to get along.

I hadn’t realized that today’s silliness was going on in those days as well. Today, for example, in New York City, there is a charter school that seems to be everywhere with lots of funding, called Success Academy. When you look at their website the faces of kids that they show are almost all non-white. The curriculum that they offer might as well be the one offered in 1870 to the former slave children. It is the same nonsense.

What was going on then, and what is going on now, is the attempt to prove that these kids can go to Harvard and become scholars and Supreme Court Justices. I am sure that some of them can. But how many? One percent of them? Not that many even.

We have held the collective insane belief, and now I realize that this belief has been around a long time, that the way we help poor children to live better lives is to treat them as if they were very wealthy children who may not actually ever have to work and for whom the world is wide open to them.

Poor children should be treated the same as rich children. Sounds good. Sounds democratic. A lovely ideal. Because we want to believe this, we have closed up vocational schools and made education all about preparing for college.

Let me remind the people who do this, that going to college is just as likely to leave a student in massive debt and with no ability to work because he was convinced to become a literature major.

Even in 1870 we were preparing children to be scholars. Why were they learning Latin and Greek? The answer was that all the “important books” were written in Latin and Greek, but that was never the real answer. Even in 1870 there were books written in English. And, although we don’t make every child learn Latin and Greek any more, we do still make every child algebra. (And, I might add that my daughter was made to learn Latin, so this still goes on.)

The time has come to get over this nonsense. We can offer hundreds of choices and let kids decide how they want to proceed. The argument against this has always been “but if we don’t expose them to Chemistry, how will they know if they like it?” How many chemists are there? Must we expose every kid to every scholarly field? All it does is create trouble. I was “exposed” to mathematics for sixteen years in school. I liked it. But it was a complete waste of time. When I learned what mathematicians actually did all day, I realized that this profession made no sense for me. But I was never taught that and so I kept studying it because I liked it.

It is time to let kids know what job options exist for them and help them make good choices while also teaching to think hard, make life decisions, learn to speak and write effectively, and generally learn how the world around them works.

I have no information on this, but I am pretty sure that the former slave kids did not go on to be scholars. Neither will any more than 1% of the graduates of Success Academy. There really aren’t that many jobs for scholars.

It is time to become realistic about what we teach in school. We can offer a scholar track too but people need to know what scholars do all day and how may jobs there are for scholars. We simply have to stop being stupid about education.

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