Sunday, May 4, 2008

Walking a fine line

When I started this blog, I had the notion that I would progress methodically through a series of topics which I thought were important to discuss. I'm realizing that while it was a nice notion, I occasionally find myself wandering away from the "natural" progression of topics to other thoughts. While I had planned to discuss more on the topic of gifted identification (or lack thereof), I'm going to instead discuss another topic that's been on my mind lately.

Yesterday I posted a quote from a paper by Barry Grant. The thesis of his paper is that compulsory education is antithetic to development as a person. He discusses commentary by such homeschooling pioneers and role models as Holt and Gatto. The point of education, from his perspective, is self-realization of the individual.

By contrast, I recently read some opinion pieces that Charles Murray wrote for the Wall Street Journal from January of last year. In his article "Aztecs vs. Greeks," Murray charges that the purpose of education for the gifted is to be taught to think at an advanced level using classical education. His contention seems to be the opposite of Grant's; the point of gifted education is to create and nurture the leadership of tomorrow. He argues that, like it or not, the nation is essentially run as a meritocracy. Those who run the nation are at the highest level of corporations and government, and the only control we have as citizens is to elect officials (a small group of this meritocracy) and to properly educate the rest.

I find some parts of both arguments very appealing, but I also find that I'm not completely satisfied with either set of motivations or methods. I like the idea of self-paced study, but not self-guided study. I see two problems with self-guided study. First, sometimes one may find a topic worthwhile that they may have initially not considered interesting. In self-guided study, a student may avoid the topic altogether and never discover that it could, in fact, be fascinating. The second problem is that this is a prime way to hide learning disabilities. The learning disabled child may find a topic interesting but choose not to pursue it because their ability to learn the material may be hampered by their selection of learning materials. Likewise, they may just avoid the topic altogether. However, if they are compelled to learn a topic, their disabilities may become evident and rather than avoiding the topic, a new approach may be taken so that knowledge can be learned.

I don't like the idea of saddling the responsibility of the nation on a group of gifted children. Those expectations are only going to be a source of discomfort for a child and implies that self-development is a secondary goal of education. If Murray is correct in his assertion that our nation is run by a meritocracy, then I find it frightening that we could have a nation being run by people who are being compelled to learn and work without self-development. I also think that insisting that gifted be trained using a classical method is not ideal. There are many ways to train the mind, and I cannot help feeling that wanting a particular method of education somehow instills certain values and norms which are not necessarily best for the child and his or her parents but are meant to preserve certain societal norms.

The purpose of education, in my mind, is not as clear cut as either of these arguments imply. My thoughts are that education should have the following goals:

1 - Self-development - A person needs to feel free to explore interests and experiences. They should have free time to enjoy life and not feel caught up in the rat race that seems to consume so many people. They should learn to care about themselves and others while not necessarily carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.

2 - Preparation for life - Realistically, we can never break out of the notion that education is job preparation. However, I fear that learning only about topics of interest early on may cut off access to topics that may be available as a child grows. Therefore, it should also encompass a breadth of topics. However, it shouldn't be done on a competitive basis. Not everyone will succeed in all topics. Competition benefits only the winners and makes those who do not win focus on their weaknesses rather than nurture their strengths.

3 - Humility - One should never learn that they are smarter than everyone else. It is important, for gifted children especially, to be in situations which challenge them and in which they are not clearly superior to everyone else. This doesn't mean simply placing gifted children in gifted programs: it means giving all children more access to others like them an unlike them. I don't believe that age-grading is very wise. I do believe that children need more access to society instead of being locked away in schools all day.

4 - Limitations...and that some of them can be overcome! - It is very important to be constantly challenged so that one may learn what they are capable of, what they are not capable of, and how to push the envelope so that they can work around situations in which they are not capable. This is not going to happen in the average classroom.

5 - When to push societal limits - We live in a society that values conformity. It's good to know how to challenge that conformity while being respectful of the individuals who don't feel comfortable in situations without conformity.

Homeschooling is probably the only environment where these things are consistently available, but there are some formal educational institutions which are trying to be more open-minded and creative in their approach.

Carnival of Homeschooling


Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Interesting post. Thanks!

I particularly object to the idea that gifted children--or any children for that matter-- should be educated for some greater purpose of society. This belies the needs and purposes of the individual. These kids were not born so that they could run the meritocracy. They have their own desires and purposes that must be taken into account by the adults in their lives. It is not their job to save the world or find the cure for cancer, unless of course, that is what some of them wish to do.

Allison said...

I think it's helpful to differentiate the value of education to an INDIVIDUAL from the value of education to the SOCIETY.

From a societal point of view, the purpose of education is to: create a more governable populace, create a populace that achieves high levels of innovation, create a (largely) single minded civic notion of the value of that society, etc. Society can have different goals for education, and ours certainly has struggled with this, moving back and forth between the same poles. As the definition changes, the emphasis on classical education or vocational education or on the top quintile or the bottom quintile changes.

These definitions are still different from the definition an individual would use for themselves, or their children. Self realization, or the ability to perform highly, or the ability to understand where one came from, or personal betterment in the moral realm, or personal betterment in a financial realm are all possible definitions, too.

Sometimes these definitions are at odds with society's. The real question is how to balance the individual's needs with the societal needs---for example, should someone with exceptional talent in medicine feel a societal obligation to do medicine? Is it okay that personally they'd rather quit and surf all day long? etc.

But you won't get anywhere if you can't distinguish the various viewpoints--are you talking about education from the standpoint of a person, or from the standpoint of the society that needs that person to not be antisociety. First, you need to define each of those accurately enough that you see where they overlap and where they conflict.

OverwhelmedMom said...

Thanks for your comments.

I think, and this is strictly my personal opinion, that education should benefit both society and the individual. You can't look as the individual as a completely separate entity because the individual must be able to live in society. An individual needs to be true to themselves, as no one else can make the right choices for them.

That being said, ethically, I do think that individuals have an ethical responsibility to try to contribute to society. I'm not so much in the camp that this responsibility means we should raise all children to think alike and have the same morals, which is the sense I've gotten from the schools. I also don't think the children should be compelled away from their interests as part of society. (Many countries do this as part of their education system, and I find it an affront to personal liberty.)

Part of the self-development that comes from education should, ideally, help the individual find how they want to be part of society as well as how much of their identity comes from their particular contribution.

I believe these questions are things that need to be answered as part of an individual's education, implying that simply educating the mind isn't enough.