Around the Island

Jenifer’s Journal: Carefully taught

Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me … if I can retain a child’s awareness and joy … then I will really learn what it means to be grownup. — Madeleine L’Engle

My two Island grandkids went back to school, one to 1st grade, one to 3rd.

It’s tough to be a kid sometimes, especially nowadays, though it turns out we’re all nostalgic for our childhoods, even the difficult ones. The fact is, whatever happened to us, whatever we experienced, whatever we learned or loved or lost early on, between 0 and 10, maybe, becomes part of a kind of personal mythology that informs our hearts and minds and spirits through the rest of our lives.

Many of those mythic memories, good and bad alike, are forged in that crucible we call school.

Part of my “mythology” involves starting 1st grade two weeks late — something about being young for my class. That part is fact. I remember that my older brother, a 3rd-grader, walked with me to school that day, but then disappeared into that big red brick building, leaving me standing alone in front of the double doors of one of the two low green “portables” that had been quickly constructed to house the seam-busting denizens of the Baby Boom generation. 

I vividly recall pushing hard against the door’s big metal bar. But no matter how I tried, the door wouldn’t open. Was that true? May as well have been. I’m not saying it was the late start, or that implacable door, but regarding my own education, it was kind of push-pull forever after.

I became a resistant, awkward learner, one who inhaled books and “forgot” to do homework, a verbal under-achiever who was quick to ask questions but slow to pay that currency of school, the answers. 

In one of those displays of cosmic irony, I eventually became an English teacher. At that point, able to view education from both sides, I was finally in a position, as an inveterate questioner, to ask myself just what the ultimate purpose of our public education was.

It’s a good question, for which there seem to be very few good answers. Our modern public education system is purportedly fashioned after the assembly line model that Henry Ford applied to manufacturing his Model T.

When applied to manufacturing relatively knowledgeable adults, in the higher grades, at least, it involved students attending a school that provided five to six approximately 40-minute periods daily, each covering separate disciplines including English, history, mathematics and so on.

The goal seemed to be to produce an individual who was educated enough to operate within the burgeoning technology of the moment. Though like a pedagogic Seventh Avenue, public education has cycled through a myriad of fads and fashions since then, but the basic super-structure has remained. In a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, a teacher from Ashland, Va., Alan Rosenberg, responded to an article, “A Model T Test for the Internet Age,” by Cathy N. Davidson that had appeared in the Sept. 25, 2011 issue.

Having agreed with the aptness of the Model T analogy, Rosenberg wrote: “But the uniform nature of the assembly process and the expectation of uniform performance of the final product do not take into account the inherent differences in the raw material … I and teachers like me have ideas and suggestions that may help us meet our production goals … with a higher-quality finished product. Our voices, however, cannot be heard through the boardroom walls.”

In a 2013 article entitled “A Model T Education:  Public Schooling on the Assembly Line,” which appeared in the on-line newsletter on truthout.org, Adam Bessie wrote:, “Our schools are not factories, and our children are not products to be mass-produced. Any real effort at reform will not look backward to the assembly-line … but forward, to ways we can acknowledge and enhance the humanity of those that participate in the noble journey of learning.”

Back in 2013, the answer to the assembly line model seemed to be on-line education, at least according to influential reformers like Bill and Melinda Gates. I think that the pandemic has shown us that — especially undiluted — distance learning is woefully inadequate, and even damaging.

If the purpose of education is to launch young people on a quest for life-long learning and to give them the tools to discover what is true about themselves, their society and their world, then, as teachers, parents and administrators, we have a long way to go. 

Six hours a day, Monday through Friday, September through June, these children bring us their hearts and minds, which are so fragile and fertile. They must be “carefully taught” — but what?