What Is School For?


Last week, I ran into an old mate I hadn’t seen for some time. He’s a lovely man, highly talented at his chosen (very creative) profession, and I’m very fond of him.

Unusually for his industry, he is a devout Christian but he’s not evangelical. He’s able to respect your beliefs (or, in my case, lack thereof) and feels no need to convert anyone. He is, if you like, a restful Christian and a great representative of his faith. He is also married with young (primary school-aged) children.

He told me that he and his wife had decided to home school their children. After bemoaning that their kids’ current school teacher had confessed she was teaching a curriculum she didn’t believe in, he waxed enthusiastic about how they now had access to the ‘best curricula in the world’ (he mentioned the maths curriculum in Singapore). He later confided he also didn’t like hearing the things his kids brought home from school, specifically their language. I assumed he meant they were swearing.

On my way home, I thought about this good and earnest young father and the decisions he was making for his children. I am sure his kids will turn out okay as he is a lovely and loving man and, in the end, that’s what matters most for any child. But it did also start me thinking about my very different decisions and the fact that, throughout the current vitriolic debate about schools — their funding, curriculum, history, values, public versus private, good teachers, bad teachers — we very rarely ask ourselves what exactly schools are for.

And, if we don’t know that, then is it any wonder that a small, but growing, number of parents are rejecting them entirely?

Once, I think, the answers were obvious. Schools were primarily about teaching literacy. Back in the 1850s, this was a huge leap forward. Communities that established universal public education rapidly changed from being largely illiterate societies to largely literate ones. It was one of the most important social revolutions of all time, and one we now take entirely for granted. Its very success has made it invisible. We expect everyone to be able to read and write and are shocked when they cannot.

Many people see schools as training grounds for children as future participants in the workforce. This is an important part of what they do, but the emphasis now seems to be on the intangibles we want our children taught. We laud some schools, usually those with a religious or philosophical axe to grind for their supposedly great values, and wag an admonishing finger at others for a perceived lack of them.

In the past, ‘values’ and its trusty sidekick ‘discipline’ were taught at home while schools concentrated on the ‘three Rs’. Now, parents either want to outsource both or, like my friend, decide to teach their children everything inside the home. Mind you, these may be opposite responses to the same impulse. The home-schoolers may want their children taught values and are simply disappointed by the way they’re being taught at school.

Of course, all schools have always been about teaching values. How could it be otherwise? Everything children see and hear in the world, whether in a formal learning environment or by simply observing the people around them, teaches them values. The thing is, I think we have largely forgotten that values can’t actually be taught in lectures, or homework, or PowerPoint presentations. (They can’t even be taught very well in chapel or at mass. As Professor Peter Doherty pointed out at an education conference recently, no one has been less successful at passing on their values than Catholic schools.)

Values, the ones that stick, have to be lived and because of that we often teach our children the exact opposite of what we’d intended. I’ve lost count of the number of my middle-class, baby-boomer friends who send their children to expensive, religious schools because they want them to avoid drugs and bad influences — a point they often argue forcefully while smoking a joint!

These parents mean exactly what they say. They hope the schools they’ve chosen are better at teaching values to their kids than they are. Their worry is that their children may absorb their own, lived values too well. My home-schooler friend, on the other hand, while confident of his ability to teach the values of his faith, is not so confident about his kids’ ability to resist the values of others. The swearing was probably a frightening indication of what might be yet to come.

Thanks to emo

So, we have parents who actively want schools to make up for the deficit they see in their own values set. They see values as being like English, Maths and Geography, something that can be taught from the top down. Then there are others who believe schools are teaching the negative values of a child’s peers (from the bottom up, if you like) and that it’s therefore better to keep their kids away.

I think the home schoolers are right about how kids learn values, peers are much more important than teachers but I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

School is the safest way to introduce young humans to the realities of life but that doesn’t mean they are completely safe places. Schools should not be, and could never be, places that are perfect and always harmonious and positive. Schools are microcosms of society — always were, always will be.

Reject school and you may well be rejecting society.

Bullying exists in all schools, as it exists in life. Children can be rude and scatological and cruel and nasty to one another. Part of what schools are for is to help kids learn to negotiate such treacherous waters and come out the other side, a little older and wiser. There has always been the secret life of the playground — read any biography and it’s there in all its mean and mucky glory. Our urge to protect may actually leave our kids much more vulnerable.

I have met a few kids who have been extensively home schooled, and there is something skinless about them. They are often nice, well-mannered kids but get on much better with adults than they do with their peers. This seems like a loss to me. I like the rude, foul-mouthed, argumentative adolescent. I like their need to be more like their peers than their parents. I approve of their need to shock us, to separate from us, to become however awkward and ungainly they become in the process. I worry about the ‘Mini-Me’ types who emerge from the closeted environment of the home school.

But what about formal learning, curriculum, my history versus your history, standards, rigour and all the stuff the Harry Messels and Kevin Donnellys of the world froth at the mouth about? Fashions in curricula always change, and some oldies will always claim it was better when they were at school. Standards, it seems, have always been falling.

I don’t get too fussed about it. I don’t necessarily agree with everything my kids were taught, but, in the process, they have learnt the following: how to learn, how to think, how to put an argument together and express it; they both write well and are better at maths than I ever dreamed of being; they have opinions and can back them up; they’ve learnt how to laugh at themselves and how to mix with all sorts of people; they know who it’s okay to swear in front of; they both hold down good part-time jobs and so, I guess, they’ve learnt how to work.

I don’t know that I could have asked for more.

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