Today we're continuing with our examination of the compulsory educational model as evaluated in a series of essays from the Front Porch Republic. Today we're looking at the third essay entitled Life Under Compulsion: The Billows Teaching Machine. Just as we have talked before about the industrial model of standardized education, this essay provides a withering critique of a system that views people as resources and bows to the dictates of a tyrannical clock.
Anthony Esolen draws a connection between our school systems (even that phrase connotes a mechanization of learning) and the farcical skit of Charlie Chaplin working in a factory. The effects of a day divided into units of production dehumanizes Chaplin to the point that he becomes a part of the machine, frantically tightening screws even after he's left work. Productivity is the name of the game and the day is divided into segments designed for efficiency but completely devoid of those things that make life worthwhile. There is no "time" for human connection, creativity, affection, making mistakes. Esolen then shows how the industrial model is seen in the divisions of an average school day. Of the current scholastic model, he observes the following:
We are so accustomed to its ways that we can scarcely imagine any alternative. Children must be segregated by age. Why? Is that natural? Do all children learn the same things at the same time and the same rate? Uniformity is the product of a machine, not of a living organism, much less the living spiritual being called man. Children must be hustled from room to room, or from subject to subject, at the ringing of a bell. Why? Do all subjects that merit study fit neatly into forty-two minute cubbyholes? What if a child’s interest in the subject is just then beginning to kindle? Doesn’t that matter? What if it just takes longer to read a chapter of Treasure Island? Should the child have to curtail the reading in mid-event – as if freezing the characters in place?
The end result of such an unquestioning acceptance of the importance of productivity and efficiency is children ruled by a compulsion to hurtle forward without the gift of free time. Imaginations are stunted, curiosity is discouraged, and conformity is the virtue of the day. As I'm reading through these essays and thinking about education it is striking to me how quickly this model became the accepted way of doing things. In the course of human history, this is all relatively new. I've been listening to lectures from Marilynne Robinson, Krista Tippet, Brené Brown, and others and they speak about the process of true learning and the importance of curiosity and how the neglect of these elements has profound consequences. I will be sharing the links to these talks later as they dovetail so perfectly with the essays we are currently reading through. For now, I wanted to mention them because I think we are at the beginning of a movement that is looking at our failed educational models and seeking an alternative. Interestingly enough, most of the inspiration is coming from the past, from historical models that worked for centuries. Esolen goes on to observe the same thing:
Homeschoolers know what I am getting at here. When Socrates and Phaedrus were sitting under the plane tree on the country road from Athens, no alarm rang on the old man’s watch to tell him it was time to move from moral philosophy to metaphysics. “Sorry, Phaedrus, but your time is up” – no one can imagine Socrates saying such a thing. When Jesus sat upon the hillside and taught the crowds, he and they were so taken up into meditation upon the kingdom of God that they lost all sense of time, and soon the sun was setting and – well, unless you are a reader of The New York Times or a graduate of Harvard you know the rest of the story. When, in Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve are sitting in the cool of the evening, recalling when they first met and praising the goodness of God, Eve expresses a joy that teachers and students should know, but rarely have the chance to know:
With thee conversing I forget all time,
All seasons and their change, all please alike.
That was, of course, when people measured their works according to the place of the sun, and the state of the weather; the whole world was their time. That whole world had not yet been concentrated into the electric clicks of a machine on a wall.
I'm currently reading through Plato's account of Socrates and Phaedrus discussing virtue, ethics, and justice and it's true, these are not subjects that can be taught in 45 minute segments. They are subjects that take exploration, questioning, pondering. And, this also shows the absolute importance of knowing our history. In our modern world of scientific explanation we've valued "fact" over wonder, answers over questions, and correctness over contemplation.
I would love to hear what you think about these essays and their content. Share your experiences in moving towards an educational model that addresses students in a more holistic manner. How do you encourage questioning, contemplation, and wonder? In my experience great books are essential. Curriculums that encourage critical thinking and probing for answers not provided in an answer key is one aspect of our approach at BFB, as is providing outlets for creative expression. What about you?
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