One of my dreams in my youth was to have my own school. The “model” student for the school was my brilliant but disruptive little brother. I never stopped thinking of this school and sometimes hold my own classes up against the measure of this ideal to see if I’m “doing it right.” Right, for me, means setting difficult tasks and working WITH the students to completion.
Miss Frizzle had a perfect school and so did the young people in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre. In both these examples, it’s clear that perfect school is already here. An old Chinese woman I met once called Earth a “…museum of human history and culture.” We live on it every day and when those days end? Many of us opt to be planted inside it. Earth.
All the tools for apprehending this mysterious school are now taught systematically, which is possibly good, but they are taught as if they were an end to themselves. Bad. In real life, these skills help us live in a meaningful way, to understand the content and context of our world and our lives and to accomplish something. The basic premises behind my notion of an ideal school are:
- Students LIKE to learn and appreciate a challenge
- Students are eager to get out in the world and practice what they’ve learned
- We keep kids in school too long; our educational system draws things out, making school an end in itself.
- Most students are not prepared enough by life to take full advantage of higher education.
- Higher education should be an option rather than a requirement for career success.
Students at my school would move quickly through the basic skills as did kids in my grandfather’s time (he was born in 1870). They had a few months to go to school and that only for a few years. Time was of the essence for those kids. My grandfather’s third grade arithmetic books teaches how to estimate the height of hay stack using triangulation.
My perfect school would be a residence school on the rural outskirts of a city; it would be a working farm. There would be a few day students. Tuition and fees for resident students would be covered partly through student labor on the farm. Day students would be expected to arrive early enough to help with morning chores. Students would learn the imperatives of nature in this way, that milking a cow or harvesting apples can’t be done at one’s discretion but when it is needed. This would help them to learn self-discipline and to care for things outside themselves. Students would learn life-skills such as cooking, cleaning, and personal finance.
The question of “keeping it relevant” would be a non-issue in my school. In our days of rapid technological change, nothing stays relevant long except those things which are timeless: the ability to think clearly and apply the tools provided by logic; the willingness to make mistakes from which to learn; the ability to express ourselves clearly to other people combined with the willingness to listen. Math, music, art, natural science, history and language would be the curriculum, but not in compartmentalized disciplines but as they exist in the real world — part and parcel of life. Students would learn to question and not to be satisfied with easy answers. They would learn that the truth is not a matter of belief or even of their own direct apprehension, but might be something yet to be discovered. They would also learn that they are part of the search for truth and would happily take their part in this grand quest.
Since Earth is the school, languages would be an important part of the curriculum. Grammar would be taught in the native language so that the joy of new languages wouldn’t be compromised. Students would start learning language immediately, directly, through poetry and story and computer games.
Because there are skills that need to be drilled to perfection to be useful, students would play computer games. The computer never gets tired of student mistakes or frustrated. Since, for some odd reason, we seem to like staring at screens, the study of languages and arithmetic would take advantage of this.
Along with farming and school, there would be sports — individual and team sports, and neither would be regarded more highly than the other. Along with the usual sports field (soccer and baseball) would be a climbing wall (real rocks in my ideal school!), BMX jumps, a skate park and a donut shaped swimming pool with a current as in a river. Kids would be encouraged just to PLAY, all the games of childhood, several times throughout the school and work day and all weekend (after chores). There would be forest nearby to allow aimless wandering, fort building, and all the great things the forest gives a kid. Periodically, Orienteering meets would be organized for students to perfect their direction finding skills and for healthy competition.
My ideal school would have a private airplane and pilot so if we are studying the history of Rome we can fly to Rome and visit all the Roman sites; if we are studying Stonehenge, we can go at the solstice to observe for ourselves what we read about. We would also have a bus with which to travel America, camping along the way wherever possible. No historical moment would be too obscure for our curiosity. The world is the school, nature the teacher and mastery the goal.
From the mountains to the country By the glens and hills along, Comes a rustling and a tramping, Comes a motion as of song: Keep not standing, fixed and rooted, Briskly venture, briskly roam: Head and hand, where’er thou foot it, And stout heart, are still at home. In each land the sun does visit, We are gay whate’er betide; To give room for wand’ring is it That the world was made so wide. And this undetermined roving Brings delight and brings good heed; And thy striving, be it with Loving, And thy living, be it with deed. (Goethe, Wilhelm Meister’s Wanderjahre)
By the time a student is eleven or twelve, he or she would have mastered the basic skills and his or her strengths and interests would be apparent. Students would be apprenticed to a master teacher whom they would follow. Boys at this age are particularly amenable to following a leader they respect. Students would also begin to study useful, marketable skills — including teaching, office work, systems networking, farming and animal husbandry. At fifteen, the student would graduate and go to work until they are twenty years old at which time, if they wish, they would take a university entrance exam or choose to pursue the career they began at age fifteen. Two years of “work” would be service work to the community.
That’s it. I would hope that some students would go on to form their own similar schools and some would choose to stay and teach in mine.