I wonder what purpose the public schools serve, other than to warehouse children while their parents work or watch television. They certainly don’t teach much, as survey after survey shows. Is there any particular reason for having them? Apart from their baby-sitting function, I mean.
Schooling, sez me, should be adapted to the needs and capacities of those being schooled. For unintelligent children, the study of anything beyond minimal reading is a waste of time, since they will learn little or nothing more. For the intelligent, a public schooling is equivalent to tying an anchor to a student swimmer. The schools are an impediment to learning, a torture of the bright, and a form of negligent homicide against a country that needs trained minds in a competitive world.
Let us start with the truly stupid. Millions of children graduate—“graduate”—from high school—“high school”—unable to read. Why inflict twelve years of misery on them? It is not reasonable to blame them for being witless, but neither does it make sense to pretend that they are not. For them school is custodial, nothing more. Since there is little they can do in a technological society, they will remain in custody all their lives. This happens, and must happen, however we disguise it.
For those of reasonably average acuity, it little profits to go beyond learning to read, which they can do quite well, and to use a calculator. Upon their leaving high school, question them and you find that they know almost nothing. They could learn more, average not being stupid, but modest intelligence implies no interest in study. This is true only of academic subjects such as history, literature, and physics. They will study things that seem practical to them. Far better to teach the modestly acute such things as will allow them to earn a living, be they typing, carpentry, or diesel repair. Society depends on such people. But why inflict upon them the geography of Southeast Asia, the plays of Shakespeare, or the history of the nineteenth century? Demonstrably they remember none of it.
Some who favor the public schools assert that an informed public is necessary to a functioning democracy. True, and beyond doubt. But we do not have an informed public, never have had one, and never will. Nor, really, do we have a functioning democracy.
Any survey will reveal that most people have no grasp of geography, history, law, government, finance, international relations, or politics. And most people have neither the intelligence nor the interest to learn these things. If schools were not the disasters they are, they still couldn’t produce a public able to govern a nation.
But it is for the intelligent that the public schools—“schools”—are most baneful. It is hideous for the bright, especially bright boys, to sit year after year in an inescapable miasma of appalling dronedom while some low-voltage mental drab wanders on about banalities that would depress a garden slug. The public schools are worse than no schools for the quick. A sharp kid often arrives at school already reading. Very quickly he (or, most assuredly, she) reads four years ahead of grade. These children teach themselves. They read indiscriminately, without judgement—at first anyway—and pick up ideas, facts, and vocabulary. They also begin to think.
In school, bored to desperation, they invent subterfuges so as not to lapse into screaming insanity. In my day the tops of desks opened to reveal a space for storing crayons and such. The bright would keep the top open enough so that they could read their astronomy books while the teacher—“teacher”—talked about some family of cute beavers, and how Little Baby Beaver….
I ask you: How much did you learn in school, and how much have you learned on your own? Asking myself the same question, I come up with typing, and two years of algebra.
The bright should go to school, but it is well to distinguish between a school and a penitentiary. They need schools at their level, taught by teachers at their level. It is not hard to get intelligent children to learn things, and indeed today a whole system of day-care centers only partly succeeds in keeping them from doing it. They like learning things, if only you keep those wretched beavers out of the classroom. When I was in grade school in the early Fifties, bright kids read, shrew-like, four times their body weight in books every fifteen minutes—or close, anyway. In third grade or so, they had microscopes (Gilbert for hoi polloi, but mine was a fifteen-dollar upscale model from Edmund Scientific) and knew about rotifers and Canada balsam and well slides and planaria. These young, out of human decency, for the benefit of the country, should not be subjected to public education—“education.” Where do we think high-bypass turbofans come from? Are they invented by heart-warming morons?
To a remarkable extent, dumb-ass public schools are simply not necessary. I asked my (Mexican) wife Violeta how she learned to read. It was through a Head Start program, I learned, called “mi padre.” Her father, himself largely self-taught, sat her down with a book and said, see these little squiggles? They are called “letters,” and they make sounds, and you can put them together….. Vi contemplated the idea. Yes, it made sense. Actually, she decided, it was no end of fun, give me that book…Bingo.
The absorptive capacity of smart kids is large if you just stay out of their way. A bright boy of eleven can quickly master a collegiate text of physiology, for example. This is less astonishing than perhaps it sounds. The human body consists of comprehensible parts that do comprehensible things. If he is interested, which is the key, he will learn them, while apparently being unable to learn state capitals, which don’t interest him.
What is the point of pretending to teach the unteachable while, to all appearances, trying not to teach the easily teachable? The answer of course is that we have achieved communism, the rule of the proletariat, and the proletariat doesn’t want to strain itself, or to admit that there are things it can’t do.
In schooling, perhaps “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” isn’t a bad idea. If a child has a substantial IQ, expect him to use it for the good of society, and give him schools to let him do it. If a child needs a vocation so as to live, give him the training he needs. But don’t subject either to enstupidated, unbearably tedious, pointless, one-size-fits-nobody pseudo-schools to hide the inescapable fact that we are not all equal.
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