Regarding the article by Catherine Solyom in The Montreal Gazette for August 16th, I was surprised to find no mention in Ms. Solyom’s intriguing article, Class Dismissed, of Ivan Ilyich’s seminal work on this very subject, Deschooling Society, in which he tackles all of the issues raised here, though with more archaic sagacity and insight. I attended an all-boys’ school in England afflicted by all the ills of which Ilyich complained: the division of time and the nature of study by bells; the emphasis on conformity in dress; the enforced deference to black-gowned teachers; the obedience to often arbitrary rules; the vital importance attached to marks, grades, and who was ‘top of the class’, etc. I read Ilyich’s book while at that school, agreeing with every word of it. However, after winning a scholarship to Oxford University, I found myself in an environment of academic and social freedom much like the one advocated in Deschooling Society; and I was extremely ill-equipped to deal with it. Suddenly, my time was my own, governed merely by two one-on-one tutorials a week, for each of which I was expected to produce a paper of some 20 to 30 pages in length. There was also a one hour group seminar for the eight or nine men reading the same subject – English Literature and Language – as I was in my college. There were lectures open to all university students, yet these were not obligatory. The management of my time was a matter solely of my own concern. My college in those days was all-male; its gates were closed at midnight, although there were ways of climbing in, providing one was not caught by ‘Bullers’ – bowler-hatted university police or enforcers, who roamed the streets after midnight in search of errant scholars. For there were a few women’s colleges; and when one’s life has been spent in an all-boys’ environment, the presence of young ladies was a confusing novelty, which interfered greatly with management of time.
Fifty years later, reading of the vagaries associated with ‘unschooling’, in Ms. Solyom’s piece, I find myself both grateful for and critical of my own pre-university schooling. Without it, I should never have had the advantages of studying Greek, Latin, and numerous other subjects holding no attraction for a child of eleven. I would never have had the opportunity to act in and direct plays; nor to learn carpentry and pottery. Yet, on the other hand, the school, with its encouragement of robotic conformity and its rigidity of structure, in no way prepared me for the boundless freedoms of Oxford. I felt there ought to have been at least a year’s transition period preparing us for a life that was more like Life. But Ilyich’s point had in fact been that such a school system did prepare its students for Life. Most of my friends did not go on to Oxford and a life of leisure in the Arts; they went into the offices and dark satanic mills of bureaucracy or commerce, where their robot-training was immediately continued in various ad hoc forms.
When my own children came of school age, I seriously considered home-schooling, partly because I had the time and qualifications for conducting it, and partly because I considered 80% of time spent at school wasted upon pointless activities and the seemingly impossible task of maintaining discipline without the means to do so. In my school, discipline was strict; pupils were quiet and well-mannered – because corporal punishment existed. There was always the threat of caning, whose effect lay far more in the threat, the possibility, than it did in the actual practice. Admittedly, there were a couple of sadists, who meted out their own forms of physical punishment – a couple, and incidents were rare. The threat created the discipline.
From my experience of my own children’s schools, discipline was an impossible dream, and it took merely one loud-mouthed kid – who had worked out that teacher had no power – to turn any classroom into mayhem. I disapproved of almost everything about the system, from the abolition of competition – everyone must get a prize – to the absurdity of lessons. Reading, writing, and arithmetic appeared to have been abandoned in favour of non-subjects, like ‘social studies’, and projects involving glue, macaroni, wooden skewers, and so forth. Parents complained if their child received poor grades; yet teachers never complained that parents ought to spend more time talking and reading to their kids, rather than letting them watch TV or play video games.
Home-schooling plays a major role in any kind of schooling, and always has done. But it involves time and discipline – and I don’t mean beating; I mean punishments and rewards that actually mean something to a child, and are not idle threats.
When I read in Ms. Solyom’s piece of the notion that children should be left to discover for themselves where their interests lie, I shuddered, recalling how my own childish interests had ranged from piracy, through train-driving, to geology and astronomy. Without forced exposure to history, literature, Latin, and so forth, I would never have arrived at the areas in which my interests truly do lie.
The subtext of this entire article seemed to me to be a severe dissatisfaction regarding what is taught in our schools, and how it is taught. Over the past few decades, teachers seem to have rearranged curricula to suit their own lazy concerns. As my own children ascended the educational ladder, the matter they were studying increasingly appalled me. Were I not so opposed to private education as the most obnoxious form of classism, one which no society ought to sanction, I would have packed my kids off there, along with half my income. For I once gave a talk to students at Upper Canada College – probably the best of Canada’s private schools – and was startled by the good behaviour, attentiveness, and intelligent questions emanating from the boys assembled in my classroom there. Leaving the pleasant buildings and grounds of the school, however, I was overcome by a sadness: why should such an educational environment only be available to the rich? The author John Le Carre recently said the same thing to the CBC’s Eleanor Wachtell; that, as long as Britain’s public schools (the English term for ‘private schools’) exist, the class system will survive to the detriment of all. A far superior education, conducted among one’s peers, inevitably leads to a two-tiered society, where the princes and peasants know their places, yet the middle-class are squeezed, by their own ambitions to climb the social rungs, out of existence. These, it may be recalled, were the very conditions that sparked the French Revolution.
To stem this capricious tide of anti-schooling, I would suggest a complete overhauling of curricula, more money spent on – and more excellence required of – teachers; the abolition of private schools, religious or otherwise; far smaller classrooms (20 children to one teacher at the very most); and a return to real teaching, not the reliance on video and computer aids, which only incite hypnotic disinterest in pupils. Subjects taught – after reading, writing, and math have been mastered – ought to include both official languages, though in an oral form, so that students can talk them first, then perhaps read them; an overview of world religions, to encourage multicultural mutual respect and understanding; a firm grasp of world history, rather than the Euro-centric version current; a course on Canadian political institutions and citizens’ rights; and then, after the age of sixteen or so, specialisation by choice in the sciences or humanities. All of this would be accompanied by real work, not risible projects, and students falling behind would be assigned special help in consultation with their parents, who must be made aware of their own vital role in their child’s progress. In special cases, where a parent is clearly incapable of providing more guidance, special provisions ought to be provided, even involving tuition during the long holidays that adequately-reimbursed teachers could hardly expect to continue enjoying. Yes, it will involve public money; but what better cause than the education of future generations can there possibly be?
The opting out of a system gone awry is, it would seem, a savage criticism of that system which is being truculently ignored by the system itself, one that has always chosen to place the blame for its own failures on other factors or persons. Ms. Solyom has written a fascinating and insightful article, one that ought to worry everyone who cares about education, both in Quebec and in Canada as a whole.
Paul William Roberts