One of the big questions that gets asked about school is why we educate our children. Historically speaking, this is a new phenomenon. In many societies it was illegal to educate slaves and considered inadvisable to educate women. In days of old when knights were bold, they thought only monks and scribes should get their hands inky learning to read and write and then only because someone had to copy prayers and bibles and occasionally write some religious instruction. It wasn’t just in medieval times and in the Catholic religion that it was considered better if the priesthood kept literacy and the mysteries of religion to themselves, but it is one of the better known examples.
That Alfred the Great of England learned such priestly skills at his mother’s knee and later established a school for the children of the nobility so that administrators and the powerful would be literate was a wonder at the time.
THE TORAH AND THE BIBLE: READ ALL ABOUT THEM
On the other hand, religion has been the impetus in Judaism and Lutheranism to learn to read so that each person could read and understand the scriptures for themselves. Although where the boys and girls were taught and exactly how much they were taught might have been different, their literacy and understanding of the scriptures was considered of primary importance so they might know how to act within their society.
LITERACY AS A USEFUL WORKING SKILL
With the advent of the industrial revolution, employers realised they needed workers who had learned the basics of the three r’s. That and the tendency of people wanting to read and understand scripture for themselves, lead to a basic education for everyone becoming important. In England it was at first the churches that took responsibility for primary education. The curriculum for girls often included many of the domestic arts, especially all forms of needlework.
AND AMONG THE LEISURE CLASS, MORE EDUCATION!
While the children in the church and state schools were being given the skills their employers looked for, the ladies and gentlemen of leisure were educated, as they had long been educated privately at home and, later in history at a boarding school, for more than the simple skills of literacy and numeracy. It was not uncommon for the aristocracy and the well heeled to speak at least one or two other modern languages, know mathematics and something of the arts and Latin and Greek. The expectation was that the educated could write competently and read reflectively.
The men who could afford to often spent a lengthy period on the continent, sometimes with a tutor, being exposed to foreign languages, culture and art. Later, young women might also travel with their family or as part of their wedding tour.
EDUCATION FOR WORKING SKILLS OR APPRECIATION AND THOUGHT?
So education divided itself roughly along two lines: learning some basic skills that would make the learners useful to their eventual employers, whether a king, a shop keeper or an industrialist, or acquiring knowledge, learning how to think and to understand other ways of thinking and living.
WHAT DO WE EXPECT FROM EDUCATION?
So, what is our goal in educating all our children? Students of twelve and thirteen have some vague idea that is has something to do with a getting a good job. The definition of a good job was one that makes lots of money. That sounded to me as if our education system is expected to provide skilled workers for the employers in our society.
On the other hand, a few years ago when child obesity was on the rise, elementary school teachers were mandated to ensure that each child got twenty minutes of cardiovascular exercise each day. There was no suggestion that parents encourage their children to walk to school or insist they spend some time outdoors each day or turn off everything electronic after school. This looks to me as if society wants education to step up and concern itself with health, the former role of parents.
A friend with a very bright only child looks to the schools to socialise her daughter and thinks they are doing an excellent job. She feels that it is her job and her husband’s to take care of her education. I can sympathise; a grade one teacher faced with a child who is reading books about the Chinese and has a clear idea of how the solar and immune systems function, will be grateful to just have to deal with teaching her to stop spitting on her classmates and start participating in team sports. Enriching her as well would be like having a second job. Together they make a great team.
HOUSING CHILDREN AS LONG AS POSSIBLE?
The layman’s enthusiasm for students being kept in school seems to be for two reasons: 1. It will keep them off the streets
2. It will reduce the competition in the unskilled labour market.
Today we look to our schools to prepare our children for the job market, to help maintain their health, take on some of the parental responsibility and socialise them so that when they are released onto the streets as late as possible, they won’t spit on us, eat their snot or refuse to stand in line for the bus.
AND YET …
The earliest people to educate all the children did it so the children could understand the basis of the morality of their community and read about it when they had time for quiet reflection. They were not expected to accept one person’s interpretation, although they might respect it; they were allowed and, to some extent, encouraged to develop their own understanding and opinions.
THE WHY AFFECTS THE HOW
How we educate our children depends on why. In my next post I will discuss problem solving: how we teach it to keep the marks up and how we could teach it to create good problem solvers.