Saturday, September 6, 2008

On Education: Prerequisite Reading

As I continue my own reading and musing on the topic of education, I'd like to suggest the essays of Paul Graham, particularly Why Nerds Are Unpopular. I recommend reading the whole thing, but the gist of it is that the society American students have created for themselves has profoundly twisted ideals, especially for an institution supposedly preparing students for the "real world". In adult society, the phrase "popularity contest" is used derisively to characterize a decision-making process that has lost all reference to valid criteria, and yet we seem to have no problem that the social climate of our institutions of secondary education consists of little else, and little curiosity as to why this should be the case. Intelligent students with real-world ambitions end up behaving much as an adult would if dropped into the same situation: they get what they can out of it academically, make no great effort to fit in, and pay the price for it socially. A few great quotes:

If you leave a bunch of eleven-year-olds to their own devices, what you get is Lord of the Flies. Like a lot of American kids, I read this book in school. Presumably it was not a coincidence. Presumably someone wanted to point out to us that we were savages, and that we had made ourselves a cruel and stupid world. This was too subtle for me. While the book seemed entirely believable, I didn't get the additional message. I wish they had just told us outright that we were savages and our world was stupid.
Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens' main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I've read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it. In outline, it was the same at the schools I went to.
A lot of people seem to think it's good for smart kids to be thrown together with "normal" kids at this stage of their lives. Perhaps. But in at least some cases the reason the nerds don't fit in really is that everyone else is crazy. I remember sitting in the audience at a "pep rally" at my high school, watching as the cheerleaders threw an effigy of an opposing player into the audience to be torn to pieces. I felt like an explorer witnessing some bizarre tribal ritual.

Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose. What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren't told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates.
Okay, that's quite a few quotes. Read the whole thing. There'll be a quiz.


Elephantschild said...

You found them! Cool... now, back to reading...

Jane said...

Very interesting. All of this is the biggest part of why I chose to homeschool my kids through high school.