I think a lot about education options for the general public as well as my son, who is rapidly approaching the age where we will need to make some decisions on what we will be doing in that regard. It is hard for me to remain objective on this viewpoint – as I suspect it is for many – because I feel strong contempt for my experiences in primary, secondary, and to a lesser extent, post-secondary school.
Focusing on post-secondary education is likely to be a waste of time, since it is so far in advance in a person’s development that the impact to society is rather low, minus economic externalities like the scam of student loans threatening to do significant damage to our generation. (This is not really an educational issue but more of a misaligned incentive / government issue, so we’ll skip it for this essay’s purpose.)
I was fortunate enough to have a father who quit his time-consuming contract job at NASA to take a lesser job with predictable work hours and pitch in around the house, while my mother worked a part-time night job. As such, they were around most of the time and applied adequate pressure on me to get my shit done, even if they didn’t really support me in the areas that I found most interesting (gaming, primarily). The impact of having a stable nuclear family cannot be overstated, especially because they could afford to send me to a low-budget private (parochial) school instead of the public primary schooling system.
Now, I realize that I have already described an unbelievable height of privilege and I’m not trying to downplay that; certainly a lot had to go right for me to even be in that position. And I have looked back with a more kind eye on my parents and educators and have forgiven them for simply doing what they felt was best, even if they hadn’t really done any research on what actually was best. Lord knows I have committed far worse sins in my life. However, it is impossible to describe my time in school as productive, useful, or even adequate.
I attended St. Francis de Sales, a Catholic school housed in dilapidated buildings that would have been out of date in the 1970′s. The curriculum was as expected, a strong religious component though it was mostly segmented away – we learned about micro/macroevolution and the faith-based initiatives did not significantly impact our other subjects. The material was not overly challenging though everything with done with an larger-than-average authoritarian voice; perhaps a subconscious attempt to project God played a role here.
What was clear was that individual thought was not welcome. Again, nothing groundbreaking; I’m sure almost every intelligent person goes through this. I believe my parents were consulted about the possibility of me skipping 2nd grade as well as the possibility of me attending a gifted program at another parochial school up the street; neither opportunity materialized and I do not recall ever being asked my opinion. (I would have absolutely agreed to skip a grade.)
I made it painfully obvious I was ahead of the curve by asking for homework over the summer breaks, spending all my free time on the Apple IIe machines we had (how I coveted the green and black monsters!), and even spending time in front of a “math machine” which was nothing more than a large calculator. Still, nothing was done to help accelerate my studies, and like most in this situation, I began to lash out. My parents didn’t understand how I could be getting C’s in class while I spent hours and hours trying to understand the finer concepts of Magic: The Gathering and playing a lot of video games, and to be honest, neither could I. At this point I believe the lesson had already been burned into my brain – nothing in life will be difficult if I can leverage my intellect, so it wasn’t worth stressing over. My parents massively overreacted, grounding me from using a computer and gaming consoles for months on end. Never once did they try to have a conversation about alternative ways to further my education. Again, I can’t blame them for this, they both came from religious families with a very strong emphasis on order – and without the Internet, how would they ever come across another opinion that would change their mind?
People who are considered intelligent seem to manifest their intelligence in a limited but variable way. My core competency for someone with a +3 SD intellect (as measured by the WAIS-III, for whatever that is worth [not much]) was that I can intuitively grasp new systems incredibly quickly. Example: By any standard, I am a well below-average Magic player on the PTQ circuit for any number of reasons, but given a brand new set of cards that no one has ever seen, my expected outcome in a tournament far surpasses my normal expectation. If a subject has little to no similarity to another where we can overlay a previous neural net, we struggle with understanding it. I do too, but I get through the initial phases much, much faster than my peers.
It is hard to say what the correct course of action would have been here for 6-11 year old Kyle. My father attempted to get me into more solitary pursuits (electronics, sports, etc) but I did not respond well. Both of my parents were paragons of work ethic – they talked the talk AND walked the walk – but I wasn’t. It’s really no wonder they used punishment next in an attempt to straighten me out.
I have done a lot of reflecting here and I think a Montessori-style education would have served me best. Even at a young age I had issues with authority, though I never outwardly expressed it until high school. (The fear of eternal damnation is a powerful one indeed.) I had never really been told I could do whatever I wanted – sure, every parent and teacher pays lip service to this concept, but few are willing to allow an 8 year old to actually do what he wants to do.
After a Catholic education, I ended up at a public high school, Parma Senior HS. Incredibly scared that honors classes would be too much work, I took only Honors Biology and the rest of the courses were the standard variant. This proved to be a disaster as these courses were a huge waste of time. I posted just one 4.0 equivalent GPA (we had honors weighting, another terrible idea) which was my first semester of my freshman year; after that I started taking to sleeping in class and enjoying all the freedoms I never had at St. Francis.
My guidance counselor refused to allow me to take Computer Programming as a freshman, stating that the class was too advanced and only available to upperclassmen. By the time I was eligible, the class had been dropped from the curriculum; I wouldn’t write a single line of code until I was in college.
While I socially came into my own in high school, educationally the entire four years was a complete waste of time. There were a few notable exceptions; Mr. Cyr was an energetic US History teacher (though the subject material was basically trivia), Mr. Jeckel gave me much of my sense of self-deprecating humor and pushed me to study the sciences more, and Mrs. Lachvader (spelling is wrong for sure) tried her best to motivate me to study advanced Chemistry, but the reality is that a decade of programming me to believe that my intelligence was sufficient more or less killed these signals.
I opted out of my senior year of high school to attend community college; it should be noted I had to fight every step of the way to actually achieve this result, since the taxes that would go to the HS instead would go to the college. When I discovered I could take classes full-time over the Internet (gasp!), I did that and worked 40 hrs/week at the local library. It was truly eye-opening to see that no one gave a shit what I did and I was free to do whatever I wanted at college, and it took me some time to fully internalize it.
My political science professor at Tri-C – Shaun Easley – gave me my official anti-authoritarian streak, which indirectly led to me studying Economics instead of Computer Science while at Baldwin-Wallace.
I’ve done less reflecting here on how my experiences could have improved, because primary programming is far more important, I believe. Had I had an outlet for my intellect and anti-authoritarian roots as a youngster, I would have overcome the idiotic state-based education path set out for me instead of tacitly accepting “yeah, this is how it is” while wasting four years of my life.
That said, my school was woefully underfunded and ill-equipped to deal with outlier cases of any sort, so once again, I can’t blame them specifically. (A recurring theme in most of my reflections is that it’s usually my fault; this is not always true but I have found it better to be overly self-critical.) Still, organizations should recognize a bad fit where it exists and provide an outlet for it; this would require accepting the idea that maybe an outlier case might actually best decide for himself what he wants to do. Those in power tend not to want to decentralize it, so again, it’s simply a rational response – but one that ultimately hurts the very people who are most likely to have the greatest potential to do something major in life.
I have no real conclusion to finish up with here. I will say that my son will be attending some sort of alternative school. I do not trust the public system to adequately handle the job of education; I believe they have massively failed in this regard and that it is not their primary motivation in any case. (Glorified babysitting and hand-holding are the planks, IMO.) If I believed I had the patience and insight, I would opt for home schooling, but that requires a level of delusion that not even I have achieved. I know that I would make a terrible educator for my own son due to conflict of interest.
Though they say kids are prone to making the same mistakes their parents made (and again, I don’t view my parents decisions as mistakes in the conscious sense whatsoever), I plan on instilling a strong sense of self-determination in my son, which will probably take root as anti-authoritarian. While in the short-run this is counterproductive and likely annoying as fuck, they are values I highly respect and ones that I see in most of the successful people that I consider to be role models.
As such, Astrid and I will likely be exploring Montessori schools when the time comes. I want my son to grow up in an environment that is only semi-structured with a lot of room for individual decisions – and more importantly, the ability to say “no” to his authority figures without fear of baseless reprisal.
Man, education is complicated.