Thursday, December 04, 2003

Does it take a Village?

Or possibly a Toyota Villager?

Expecting a child shortly, my mind has been inevitably distracted by the execrable state of education in general, and in California in particular. The bifurcated system of property taxation has lead to a two-class system -- pre-Prop 13 grandfathered property owners and others -- and in turn has ruined not just the funding mechanism for education, but brought on a strangely centralized control as a result of the state taking the dominant role in funding local schools. Nationally, of course, we see a mania for "testing" "standards" and "outcomes" as a seemingly comforting way of setting our goal posts, and students are all now student-athletes in a vast competition where they're measured not against themselves and their potential but against others and mythical medians and minima. The schools still suck and aren't getting any better if you talk, one on one, with their inmates.

At the root of the problem, I think, though is the idea that measurable outcomes arise objectively, when in fact quality lives and whole human beings are the essence of subjective assessment.

Mika, my elf partner and mother of the child, is taking a graduate-level course in language teaching and works in "evaluation" for a living, and constantly lives this language every day. We have interesting conversations on the subject of the future education of our own offspring. It's true that "objective" assessment itself in context can be properly used if only as a part of a larger, deeply contextual set of ways of marking progress. But I fear that school itself has been reduced to one form of testing after another, briefly punctuated by periods of preparing for the test. "Objectivity" means, of course, treating children like objects whose complete dimensions can somehow be measured and fully-described by the time they reach the workforce, so they can be plugged into their pre-fabricated slot without any pounding or lubrication required.

Apropos of that, I was entranced by this nice essay in the Bellona Times.

I had a conversation recently with a local friend who'd just finished packing his last kid off to the higher education phase of the indoctrination-for-work period of a person's life (K-PhD) via the public school system. He seemed to think poorly of the idea of home schooling, mindful of major mistakes that had been brought to his attention. At the same time, his tale of years of PTA meetings, serving on school boards, and spending much time chasing after teachers to find out what had been going on in the vast majority of his kids' days spoke eloquently that it would be quite difficult for an involved parent to do worse. If what it takes, as he put it, to make a quality education for your kid is to "make their teachers cry on the phone and run away from you on teacher-parent conference nights", then it may save a lot of time and effort to cut out the middleman.

Stripping the public schools of further money and motivation via vouchers seems to be not a solution, but more of a final death sentence for the hope of school as a means to an education. But that's not what I'm really focussed on right now. I'm deeply concentrating on the essential, central question of child-rearing, which is what can I do that would best make my own child a happy, complete, and functional person?

I'm still very concerned about the limitations of a parent to provide a complete education to a child at a home school (particularly in an era where mere economic survival argues for two earners per household, at a minimum, and may yet make this an impossible option for us.) When the home school option requires paying taxes for the school, somebody's voucher-funded private education, on top of our own expenses for the home schooling efforts, it makes the whole package seem trebly expensive, not even with the looming nature of post-secondary education. The difficulties of navigating the authoritarian guardians of the school system in a home-schooled environment loom as well, and augur that the total time savings (which would be translated into one-on-one education time) may yet be negligible.

But it finally occurs to me that this may also be the best use of my own hard-won, expensive education. My parents moved to a town they couldn't quite afford for better junior and senior high school education for my sister and myself, perhaps in part after seeing how my eldest sister struggled in a much worse school system. I spent quite a bit of blood and sweat (literally on both counts) on paying for my own expensive undergraduate education, and still it took nearly three years before I finally realized why I was there at all. The chances that it would become a colossal mistake were quite high until I was about 25. My somewhat more vocationally-oriented graduate schooling was undertaken after a decade in the workplace, and was a wonderfully focussing and polishing effort, only I'm about to abandon the field for which I trained for a slew of reasons ranging from economic conditions to the competency of my soul to continue in it.

My mistake, of course, was in coming to believe the now not subtle school of philosophy running our schools now, which is that schooling is a preparation for work, not something more general and related to the act and art of living a life. Part of living that life is ushering others through its early stages -- popularly known as child-rearing -- and that, as a full-time job, has great nobility of purpose and utility. Although, of course, it must be done with professional dedication, proper preparation, and appreciation for one's own limitations in doing so. This is where the "It Takes a Village" idea is so redolent, and where, as a person who believes in communitarianism as being central to the basic values of the American Republic (especially in the face of the selfish libertarianism of this period), the idea of a public school -- the idea -- is deeply-rooted inside me, and runs through the generations of teachers in my family. But the reality of it today scares the dewey hell out of me.

Teaching, like child-rearing in general, is a matter of providing concentrated time to another human being. I think about what it is I'd like to give to the world, what kind of equity of education that has been gradually built up by previous generations and passed down, and how to apply that bank of grey matter in a way which could best benefit my own child.

If I worked in the conventional sense, the best I could probably do is provide a greater degree of economic security -- for whatever that's worth in these property-conscious, consumerish era -- and perhaps more easily pay for other stewards of my own offspring (e.g. set up a college fund and spend the next 18 years worrying about it). Is this the best use of my own education to the matter of the fate of the human being we're bringing into existence, consciousness, and society?

It may be that on the matter of the latter third of childhood I will change my mind eventually. But I am convinced that one of the problems for many people, and perhaps for society as a whole, is the unnecessary complexity in transferring our labors -- mental, economic, or otherwise -- to succeeding generations. In short, keeping to the Keep It Simple Stupid principle, it seems more efficient to me to give 95% of the time and effort of at least one adult to one child than to have him cast adrift in the system that delegates responsibility a hundredfold and therefore lacks true accountability -- will 95 other people give him 1% of themselves?

In fact the educational system has resorted to testing, I believe, because there's no way of "evaluating" the end product, a human being at a certain age and with certain reasoning abilities, moral and ethical senses, interests, aesthetics, understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, by 95 people.

The system, as I articulated earlier, in an attempt to provide objective assessment, has become a machinistic golem that treats a person as an object to be measured, not a person to be nurtured. I don't want my kid to be a pile of test scores with no soul. To quote the great American poet Paul Westerberg, who always got right to the point, Fuck School. It's not about being a student, it's about becoming educated. I may send my child to school if it turns out it's the right thing at the right time for him, but it's not going to be the default option.

If it Takes a Village to Raise a Child -- and I dearly, ardently still believe that it does -- it's my appreciation at this point the school building has been put conveniently away from the village and the villagers. It may be a paradox, but keeping a child at home for school -- which is to say, not constrained within the walls of a school building, but free to roam the whole world without -- may be the only way to bring the village back into the affair. Instead of Home Schooling, perhaps we should call it Global Village schooling, or parent-based education, or something more marketable.

I recently and fairly accidentally came across this little verse from John Dryden (from The Hind and the Panther, 1687) in a book (paper thing with words printed on it in ink, for those of you who went to California schools):

    By education most have been misled;
    So they believe, because they so were bred.
    The priest continues what the nurse began,
    And thus the child imposes on the man.
I willfully ignore the context of the poem -- Dryden was essentially making an argument in favor of Roman Catholicism during the reactionary period of English history -- and the apparent fact (thanks, Google) the first line is widely quoted completely out of even the limited context of the verse. But one aspect of being an educated person is knowing the plan, seeing the potential consequences, divining the future and understanding cause and effect. Careful selection of priests and nurses is required. It may require buying a form of Toyota Villager to hold them, but I'm driving the damn thing.

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