Thursday, July 20, 2006

Teaching As A Subversive Activity

"Think as I think," said a man,
"Or you are abominably wicked; You are a toad."
And after I had thought of it,
I said, "I will then, be a toad."
--Stephen Crane

Lulu, my buddy in the blogosphere, recently did a post about the crazyChristian home schooling Duggar family. Her post made me laugh, and the Duggars gave me ammunition for an argument I frequently make about both home schooling and private schooling: they should be illegal.

Students belong in public school regardless of their parents’ political or religious beliefs. The mission of public schools is to educate citizens for participation in democracy, or at least that's what Jefferson said. The mission of home schools -- and to a somewhat lesser extent private schools -- is to insulate children from the other so that they don't stray too far from their parents' values. If the motto of public education is "Question Authority!," the motto of home and private education is "think as I think."

Democracy does not work with a citizenry that's unwilling to question authority. In fact, questioning authority is at the very heart of democracy. If parents are permitted to teach their children at home or to send their kids to schools that discourage students from questioning authority or thinking for themselves, democracy suffers.

When I taught Government, I used to post what I called a "better world tip of the week," a thing that, if everyone did it, the world would be a better place. Occasionally it would be 7:15 on a Monday morning and I wouldn't be able to think of one and the kids would be coming into the classroom and I would just write "Question Authority!" on the chalkboard. Again. "Can we question your authority?," my kids would always ask. "Go crazy," I'd respond, "question yourself silly." And they'd question my authority all week long. It was great. I like to think that a lot of those kids are out there somewhere, grown up and questioning authority (but in a nice way).

Can you picture the Duggars conducting morning lessons in the face of "Question Authority!"? Can you conceive of how they might explain to their 16 kids, while the chalkboard shouts "Question Authority!", that homosexuality is something for which its practioners will eventually burn in hell? Try instilling the message that women should be subservient to men with "Question Authority!" looming over your shoulder. Imagine arguing that the president is always right and that real patriots don't ask questions while the ghost of Jefferson flits about, whispering, "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."

Indoctrination (or, as the Duggars call it, "training") is not education. And accepting what other people tell you without thinking about it yourself first is not learning. I have a quotation posted in my classroom: "Teach the young people how to think, not what to think." (I can't remember who said it, nor can I find it through Google.) Public schools, although they sometimes fail at the task, at least attempt to teach kids how to think, while home and private schools are largely focused on making sure they transmit what to think.

It was through public school that I learned there were points of view other than those of my parents. Public school teachers invited me to consider whether the US was justified in dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, whether Atticus Finch should have represented that black guy, whether Bill Clinton would be a better president than George Bush (part one), and whether the Rolling Stones rocked more than the Beatles. It was in public school that I discovered both Ayn Rand and Karl Marx, and through public school that I decided I love a radical named Thomas Jefferson best.

In short, public school changed me. It made me better than I would have been otherwise. Not because I abandoned my parents' conservatism (although that is a bonus), but because I learned to think for myself. My sister attended almost all the same public schools that I did and also learned to think for herself. It just happens that she thinks like my parents.

I'm aware that public schools are not without their problems, and that some private schools -- especially in urban areas like my own -- are a lot more academically rigorous. But one of the purposes of education is for people to learn tolerance and acceptance. I’m not sure how one learns to tolerate differences in religion, culture, or ideas if one never has to examine those differences. If I shielded her eyes every time my (hypothetical) child encountered something that was contrary to my own beliefs, how in the world would my child ever learn to get along in a world full of differences? And are my beliefs so lame that I have to make sure they're not challenged?

Plus, don't you feel sorry for these kids? They seem like nice kids, right? Kids who deserve to grow up normal. Send them to school, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!


Brian said...

I think, for the most part, people tend to shape themselves and, to be honest, a lot of what you have in the way of your 'free spiritedness' came from Mom and Dad - in that you were determined to piss them off and do your own thing. So, in rebelling without really knowing why you were doing it at first, you started to see there was all this other stuff out there. That was, for the most part, you. Not one particular environment, but a combination of them.

I'm with you on private and home-school schools being outlawed, but not all public school teachers deserve to be on that pedestal you routinely put them on.

Steve said...

Is that a picture of a family or a small army?

Megan said...

Brian -- Totally agree with you on public school teachers and their pedestals. I teach with some pretty crappy teachers totally unworthy of even the smallest of pedestals. My point was that the missions are two completely different missions.

Steve -- I think it's God's army.

Brian said...

Actually, it's pretty much the same in two totally different ways.

You really should try and work on this whole God complex you've been harboring and try to relax a bit.

lulu said...

I knw some people who do a great job home schooling, actually, what they do is called unschooling. Here is an article from the SF paper that includes an interview with one of the kids.

Katie is in her 20's now, and is working on a Master's degree at Tufts. She is smart,funny and independent. Not at all what you typically think of when you think of homeschooling. I think the difference is that her parents homeschooled because they wanted their children to have as many opportunities as possible, not to keep them away from things that they didn't agree with.

Megan said...

Yeah, there's a home schooling family down the street from my parents and they seem pretty normal and well-adjusted, both kids and parents.

It's just the Duggars. They really get to me, man.

But I'm going to try and work on this whole God complex I've been harboring and try to relax a bit. Unless someone in the newspaper pisses me off today.

Megan said...

Brian! The stars agree with you! My horoscope for today says "Your usual role as provocateur might get you into trouble. You might wisely choose to soften your opinions around sensitive people. You're not being false. This is just a kinder, gentler version of yourself."

Also, for everyone else, if you check
you'll find that I list "a tendency to be slightly dogmatic" as my worst habit.

vikkitikkitavi said...

You know Megan, sometimes the best thing you can do is throw a lot of shit at the wall and see what sticks.

Although I think you're right about home- and privately-schooled kids.

Very many of my public school teachers in my little Republican town tried real hard to make me conform to the whole love-it-or-leave-it-praise-Jesus doctrine, as they did all the kids. But what's great about public school is that you can always look around and see that there are others not conforming, and that while they may not be socially elite, they seem just fine.