December 10, 1993


What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

A popular concept of education is that a teacher teaches and the student learns. If the student is not learning, or is not learning very much, it is because the teacher is not doing his/her job. This is what people believe today. In my day, when the student didn't learn it was because he was either stupid or lazy.

What many people refuse to acknowledge is that the teacher plays a very limited part in a child's education. During those critical five formative years after birth, most kids never see a school teacher. It is during those years that a child finds out what grownups do, which is what he naturally wants to learn to do himself. In simpler societies, a child finds out at an early age that the men hunt and gather and that women gather and plant and take care of the children.

In a modern society, some children will learn that their father goes to work and mother takes care of the children and the house. When papa comes home from work, the family has dinner. After dinner there are many many possibilities. In some families, mama does the dishes, in some both do the dishes, in some the dishes are put in the dishwasher, in some, the dishes are left till the next day. Sometimes the young children are put to bed, and sometimes they stay up until they fall asleep on their own. As you can see, the possibilities are almost endless. I remember that, when I was a child, my father read the newspaper and sometimes we listened to music on the radio. Listening to and reading the news was part of the evening ritual. It was deemed important to know what was going on in the world. I suspect that the customs of every family are different. Now there is TV. What do people watch after dinner?

I read this to Lu and she tells me that I am behind the times. In a large number of families there is no papa and momma, just one parent. There is no family dinner in many families. Some families don't cook. Dinner is at some fast food place, or is brought in from a deli. There aren't any dishes to wash.

When a child is five or six years old, he goes to school. At this point, the public expects every kid to get an education. This ignores the fact, that should be self evident, that every child brings something different to the school. Some already know how to read, while others have never seen a book or a newspaper. Somehow, out of this vast diversity in what each child brings to the school, teachers are expected to fill each little head with the proscribed amount of material, so that he can pass the standardized tests. We are, they tell us, competing with the Japanese, whose children are performing better than ours on the tests. Our education system has gone down the tube thanks to Secular Humanists or some other nebulous group. The people who judge our educational system often view it from outer space, forgetting that what we are trying to educate are people.

To that child whose parents read to him, who has probably learned how to read before he starts, school is no problem at all. To the kid whose TV viewing consists mostly of Sesame Street and who takes a picture book to bed with him, school is simply an extension of what he did at home. To the child who has never seen a book, and whose TV fare consisted of cartoons or worse, school is a bewildering experience. The teacher's job is to somehow catch this kid up on what his classmates already have. Some children with exceptional endowments can manage to deal with this, but many are overwhelmed.

In the good old days, those kids who never saw a book until they got to school ended up as farmhands, cowboys, loggers, factory workers, and in a whole slew of jobs where reading and writing were unnecessary. Many of these were bright kids who learned quickly, but could never begin to catch up with their classmates whose parents read to them. A few managed to catch up and do great things.

Having been a teacher, I can testify that I never taught anybody anything. Students who wanted to learn, learned. Those who didn't care, didn't learn, even though most managed to pass the tests. The best that I was able to do was to show a few people how certain things were done. I was able to take some students who were ready and help them to move toward a higher degree. I could not have picked a student at random and done this. Odds are that the student picked at random wouldn't have been even remotely interested in what I had to teach. I once asked a medical student, out of a class of several hundred who had taken my course, what he remembered about it. He had remembered one of the jokes that I had told, to lighten up a lecture.

If it is impossible to teach someone, what is a school teacher supposed to do? The worst teachers throw information at kids and give them tests which some pass and others fail. Some manage to discourage kids and turn them off to anything associated with school or learning. The best teachers try to encourage kids to go on learning; praising their accomplishments and trying to get each one to enjoy the rewards of accomplishment. Some err a bit on the side of not discouraging kids, while some take more risks and push their charges more.

To those people who put out all of the garbage about standards and what teachers should do, I would like to see what you would do with a large class of kids, some of whom are hungry, whose first contact with a book was on their first day of school, and who are in school only because that is where the government says that they should be.

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