Sunday, 23 November 2008

Whither the Schoolhouse

Recently reading Andrew Robinson's The Last Man Who Knew Everything, about the polymath Thomas Young, I came across a quote he wrote to his brother, "Although I have readily fallen in with the idea of assisting you in your learning, yet (there) is in reality very little that a person who is seriously and industriously disposed to improve may not obtain from books with more advantage than from a living instructor....Masters and mistresses are very necessary to compensate for want of inclination and exertion, but whoever would arrive at excellence must be self taught."

Yikes!!!. I am a teacher, one who struggles to "compensate for want of inclination and exertion" and I am finding I agree with him. I mean, REALLY strongly agree with him. And in the age of the internet, is not the availability of information more than ever before available to those who have the "inclination"? When you can independently peruse many of the great courses at MIT on line for free, is ignorance not a self-inflicted predicament?

All of which leads me to wonder what is the role of the typical school in the future. In many areas they have already been reduced to day-care for those intended to be held out of the workforce until a later date. My daughter in law teachers language and literature classes with more students than she has desks or textbooks, and this in a moderately wealthy community which is just outside Detroit. What educational atrocities will she face with the impending economic crisis in that area? Can the schools descend to such a state that home-schooling becomes the predominant choice of college bound students.

I can almost imagine a rebirth of that approach that was common here in England when knowledgeable people would support themselves by sitting up small instruction programs in a single topic where students would come and pay for instruction until they reached the level of competence they desired. An instruction guided mostly by independent study guided by the mentor with a few choice insights of the "masters." And if the public schools do not fade away completely, they will serve a purpose much like the gladiatorial combats of ancient Rome, to entertain the festering masses and keep them mostly off the streets while the talented few, with inclination and exertion, begin to widen the gap ever more greatly between the educational (and probably financial) haves and have-nots. I think the system will prevail, at some level for my grandchildren, but wonder at the education of their children.

Opinions are welcomed.

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