A Revolutionary Letter on Education

Letters at 3AM

illustration by Jason Stout

The object of an education is to know a revolution when you see one." So wrote the great essayist Randolph Bourne in 1916. He was not trying to radicalize American youth. He was saying that we live in an era of revolutions -- revolutions in social behavior, technology, art, and economics; and that the young are not educated to judge what is happening. Bourne believed that this would lead to a dangerous state of disorientation which, if allowed to continue, would result in a population so confused that it would lose all capacity for intelligent choices. Rather, the citizenry would be stampeded by every latest trend, having nothing with which to judge the present but the loudest available propaganda. Eighty years later we are living in Randolph Bourne's nightmare. And our problem, at its most fundamental level, is a problem of education.

Until a century ago people didn't dwell much upon the subject of children. The issues were obvious. Children were not here to be coddled or entertained. They were here to be taught, and as quickly as possible -- for they were expected to take their place as adults at around the age of 15 or 16. This was true especially among the peasantry (and most of us are descended from peasants). Sixteen was roughly the age at which we married, began having babies, took on adult work, and were considered, by our communities, to be full participants in society. What's more, those young people, with the same DNA as ours, were up to the task because that is what they'd been educated for: not careers, but survival. If they hadn't been up to it, you and I wouldn't be here.

What did their education consist of? For most of human history, education meant learning adult skills (farming, cooking, mending, hunting, building) directly from one's family and community. There was no question of how to hold a child's attention. A child needed its family in a sense that we in the American Nineties have trouble imagining. For instance, as recently as the early 20th century the cash economy was limited, and even in large cities markets consisted of many small vendors selling (or trading) fresh produce, or shoes, or skills like blacksmithing. Food was prepared at home, from scratch. Except for the very well off, clothing was made at home. A child was absolutely dependent upon the skills of his or her parents and relatives, and that was more than enough to get and retain a child's attention. From the earliest possible age, children pitched in with the family's chores, not because they were being disciplined but because they were needed.

Being needed has its virtues. A needed child doesn't wonder about his or her place in the world. No one had to tell those children that their role was to help ensure the survival of people they'd known all their lives. The fundamental purpose of growing up was to aid the family's work as quickly as possible. This purpose was in the very air children breathed. In such an atmosphere, there was little evidence of "youthful rebellion" as we know it today.

These conditions changed drastically when technology made the individual, rather than the family, the basic unit of survival. Technology enabled individuals to survive alone, away from home and family. This marked a fundamental shift in the way human beings had lived for eons, and it utterly redefined such basic concepts as "home," family," and "individual." People who can fend for their basic needs alone are not as dependent as others. They are more free, but less secure. They have more choices, but are more confused. They are more rebellious because they are more desperate. (When children who were never needed grow up and have children, they often don't know how to be needed.)

This change from the family to the individual as the basic work-unit of society redefined education. Education had been specific: Children had to learn specific skills, and these skills were taught by (and to) people who expected to live closely together all their lives. As technology created a more complex, diffused, confused society, education became more complex, diffused, and confused. When individuals could buy what previously they'd had to make, the worth of most old skills diminished to virtually nothing -- and with the passing of those skills went the age-old bonding rituals of mothers, fathers, and relatives, teaching their young the work of their hands. Education became more generalized, more vague. It became "public education," not personal education, not something passed down among loved ones; and it consisted no longer of concrete work skills but of reading, mathematics, and some homogenized, sanitized version of history.

It became harder to hold children's attention for two reasons: They weren't being taught by adults who had a permanent stake in their day-to-day lives, and their education bore less and less direct relation to survival.

It is no great mystery why children have lost interest in such an education. Their universal complaint is that they have a hard time seeing how their education applies, specifically, to them as individuals; and a harder time seeing how this education will help them understand and make their way in a world which clearly confuses adults as much as it confuses them. They tell us in a million ways that they need and deserve something better than we're offering.

What we offer are schools modeled partly after factories and partly after detention centers, from which many graduate without a thorough knowledge of even the vague curriculum they are offered. (Those who manage to graduate, that is; in some states the drop-out rate is more than one third.) Their ignorance is, in a sense, inevitable: A thorough knowledge of vagueness is a contradiction in terms. By vagueness I mean a generalized curriculum that has no specific goals. When, for instance, many of the young say they don't need to know algebra, most of them are right -- they don't need it to survive, they feel it's a waste of time, and they treat such studies accordingly. Those who "do well," in modern educational terms, generally fall into two categories: kids driven by their parents to get good marks so they can go to college (these retain little of what they learn; i.e., they score well on tests without being well-educated); and kids whose natures gear them to feel passionate about particular subjects. The rest are merely dazed.

Dazed people don't survive well -- they can't make well-informed choices. They graduate high school biologically capable of taking on the world, but without the skills necessary. And, because they have no skills, they have no confidence. If you want to hear how little confidence they have, you need only listen to the way many of them speak. "It was, like, sort of, you know -- whatever -- like, kind of a bummer -- you know?" It is the speech of the dazed.

We cannot look down upon the young, much less blame them, for being dazed. For, in the words of James Baldwin, "We, the elders, are the only models children have. What we see in the children is what they have seen in us." He added: "I, too, find that a rather chilling formulation, but I can find no way around it."

Much of our frustration and anger at the young is, in its depths, a rage at ourselves. We know very well, in our blood and bones, that the young are both our responsibility and our mirror. We have given them few choices between minimum-wage service jobs and being saddled with a decade of debt after they graduate college. And we know we have no right to call that an "education." We know we are merely processing them to be free-market fodder -- because that's what we have allowed ourselves to become. We feel anger at the young because otherwise we would have to admit our shame. It was our job to offer them something better, and we've failed.

All this is perversely complicated by a media environment that the kids take much more seriously than their schooling. The media bombards them with visions of reality that run the gamut from the merely silly to the grossly misleading. Since adults are running this media, the children are behaving like children: i.e., no matter how rebelliously they pretend to behave, they are in reality taking the cues given (or rather sold them) by adults. It is the only thing that children can do: take the cues of adults. It's simply transpiring differently than it used to, through media -- and the adults who run the media are invisible strangers without accountability.

So on the one hand we pay our teachers little, restrict what they can teach, and fail to honor both our teachers and their sacred task; on the other, we give enormous financial rewards, and the public honor of celebrity, to people who "educate" our young through low-grade fantasies. And then we wonder why our children don't respect us and are so lost. We forget that children want, desperately, more than anything, to respect their elders. When they don't, it's because they can't. And they can't because their elders have forsaken them to a system ruled by money.

What's to be done?

(continued in two weeks)

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