An article in The New Republic this week kept poking at me, so I decided to jot down a few thoughts about it despite it being the holidays and all, because I just want to enjoy my excessive eating, drinking, sleeping, game playing, and then guilt-ridden gym-going without this nagging at me.
Naturally I found this article through an angry homeschooling parent online, who didn’t like the stupid stereotype of homeschoolers:
The new interest in homeschooling—-the demented idea that children can be competently taught by people whose only qualifications for teaching them are love and a desire to keep them from the world—-constitutes another insult to the great profession of pedagogy.
And normally, you know, who cares? People think homeschoolers are ignorant creationist isolationists — whaddya gonna do? After seven years homeschooling this stuff is like mosquitos in a Minnesota summer — you can complain about it, but you can’t really do anything about it.
But in the course of the short editorial Leon Wieseltier said a few things that were way off base, and something that struck close to home as right.
First, because it’s fun for us homeschool veterans, another choice howler:
The only form of knowledge that can be adequately acquired without the help of a teacher, and without the humility of a student, is information, which is the lowest form of knowledge.
Should we have contest to see who can come up with 100 counterexamples the fastest?
But in decrying the anti-college, pro-entrepreneur, pro-make-your-first-million-on-an-app attitude of many home/unschoolers, Wieseltier, I had to concede, was describing a phenomenon that has bothered me too.
“Here in Silicon Valley, it’s almost a badge of honor [to have dropped out],” a boy genius who left Princeton and started Undrip (beats me) told The New York Times. After all, Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, and Dell dropped out—as if their lack of a college education was the cause of their creativity, and as if there will ever be a generation, or a nation, of Jobses, Gateses, Zuckerbergs, and Dells. Stephens’s book, and the larger Web-inebriated movement to abandon study for wealth, is another document of the unreality of Silicon Valley, of its snobbery (tell the aspiring kids in Oakland to give up on college!), of its confusion of itself with the universe. To be sure, all learning cannot be renounced in the search for success. Technological innovation demands scientific and engineering knowledge, even if it begins in intuition: the technical must follow the visionary. So the movement against college is not a campaign against all study. It is a campaign against allegedly useless study—the latest eruption of the utilitarian temper in the American view of life. And what study is allegedly useless? The study of the humanities, of course.
I see this in lots of ways, especially in the gifted homeschooling world. Parents (and I include myself in this group) will spend big money to get a good science co-op class for a kid because they “can’t do it at home,” yet they feel sure that their vague memories of reading “The Good Earth” in ninth grade are more than enough to do justice to the Western (let alone the non-Western) canon. One homeschooler told me to my face — to my face! — that she would discourage her children from following my educational path or entering my profession.
Much of this, I’m sure, is born of ignorance — you can’t miss what you never had, and many people running around with a Bachelor of Arts degree have never had a real liberal arts education.
But there is something more disturbing at play as well, which I think Wieseltier gets at:
The equation of virtue with wealth, of enlightenment with success, is no less repulsive in a t-shirt than in a suit.
You could argue that in saying this Wieseltier does not get the class privilege built into his own argument: seeking enlightenment through Homer and Shakespeare takes a backseat to breaking the cycle of poverty or just staying debt-free for many lower- and middle-income students.
At the same time, it’s sad to think that kids are stepping off the institutionalized education treadmill merely to get on the professionalization treadmill even sooner. I love books like Blake Boles’ “College Without High School” and Cal Newport’s “How to Be a High School Superstar,” but it’s easy to (I hope, misguidedly) take away the message that the secret to many of their case studies’ success is not being precocious learners but precocious income-earners. So yes, Wieseltier is talking about something real, and something it pays to be mindful of when thinking about homeschooling the high school years.
Nevertheless, what Wieseltier is missing is that homeschoolers and unschoolers could truly be his allies here. Classical and humanities-based education is being embraced by homeschoolers in droves: consider the popularity of “The Well-Trained Mind,” “A Thomas Jefferson Education,” or the work of Charlotte Mason, or so many other popular homeschool authors. He needs to read, or re-read, “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.” Homeschoolers *are* the “nonconsumers” whose innovations have the potential to improve education for everyone. Online classes like those from Online G3 are leading tech-obsessed kids who IM in class to fall in love with Shakespeare.
Humanist education in a variety of forms is alive and well on the educational frontiers. No doubt it has its enemies, too, but they aren’t the well-read ladies in the denim jumpers.
6 responses to “A Few Eggnog-Soaked Thoughts on Wieseltier’s TNR Education Article”
This is really helpful for me as I try to sort out what bothers me (as a homeschooling parent) about the un-/anti-college trend (it’s clear why it bothers me as a college professor). You are absolutely right that there is an anti-humanities bias underpinning much of the “skip college” talk… Glad I found your blog!
I’m glad you did too! I have visited your blog a few times before — who could resist that title? — and am a former academic with a focus on British 18th c. lit. (Well, the Restoration really, but you know, long 18th century &c.). After teaching college students I’m very sympathetic to the idea that some young adults would be happier and more successful outside of a traditional four-year liberal arts degree program. But I’ve also seen kids have the dawning realization that there is a long conversation about ideas going on and they can take part in it too. I still believe that every time a student comprehends that language isn’t transparent an angel gets its wings. 😉
Yes, after teaching college students, one cannot help but think that many of them have no idea what they are doing there or why; I’m glad (some) people are starting to approach the universal “go to college immediately after high school” goal critically. But that doesn’t mean that what we do as college instructors, especially in the liberal arts, isn’t immensely valuable.
Very cool that you have the dix-huitiemiste passion! I’m from Minnesota too (Duluth)…
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No denim jumper here, but otherwise I’m with you on the need to embrace a “disruptive” form of education…I usually use the word “subversive.”
(I found my way here through a link on Melissa Wiley’s blog.)
Thanks for visiting! I can’t do the jumpers either — I’m more of a “how dirty are yesterday’s clothes?” kind of girl when it comes to dressing.