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Why have schools?  An excerpt from Providence, by Daniel Quinn.

...."No, the only way to organize learning is to give children a reason to learn all at the same time. This is called motivating them. You have thirty children in your class and the curriculum says it's time to teach them some map-reading skills, so now you motivate them to learn about maps. You try to manufacture something that approximates the interest kids have when they learn to figure batting averages.

 

Of course it doesn't work, that goes without saying. No one expects it to work. When kids learn to figure batting averages, they're responding to a motivation that arises within them. This is something they want to do. Map reading is something you want them to do. No matter. Your task is to "motivate", so you "motivate''- the more the better.

 

Our entire program is based on this argument. "We know kids learn effortlessly if they have their own reasons for learning, but we can't wait for them to find their own reasons. We have to provide them with reasons that are not their own. This doesn't work and we know it doesn't work, but it's the only practical way to organize our schools.''

 

What? How would I organize the schools?  To ask this question presupposes that we must have schools, doesn't it?  I prefer to think about problems the way engineers do.  If a valve doesn't work, they don't say, "Well, we must have valves, so let's try two valves."  If a valve doesn't work, they say, "Well, what would work?" They're rule is, if it doesn't work, don't do it more, do something else.

 

We know what works for children up to the age where we ship them off to school. Let them be around you, pay attention to them, talk to them, give them access to as much as you can, let them try things, and that's it.  They'll take care of the rest.  You don't have to give them crawling lessons or walking lessons or running lessons.  You don't have to spend an hour a day showing them how to bang two pots together; they'll figure that out all by themselves - if you give them access to the pots.

 

Nothing magical happens at the age of five to render this process obsolete or invalid. You would know this if you observed what happens in cultures that we in our arrogant stupidity call primitive. In primitive cultures, parents simply go on keeping the children around, paying attention to them, talking to them, giving them access to everything, letting them try out things for themselves, and that's it. They don't herd them together for courses in tracking, pottery making, plant cultivation, hunting, and so on. That's totally unnecessary. They don't give them history lessons or craft lessons or art lessons or music lessons, but -magically- all the kids grow up knowing their history, knowing their crafts, knowing their arts, knowing their music. Every kid grows up knowing everything - without a single minute spent in anything remotely like a school.

 

No tests, no grades, no report cards. Every kid learns everything there is to learn in that culture because sooner or later every kid feels within himself or herself the need to learn it -just the way some kids in our culture get to a point where they feel the need to learn how to compute batting averages. . . .

 

Yes, I understand - believe me, I do. What you're saying is exactly what our educators would say: "That system might work in primitive cultures, but it won't work in ours, because we just have too much to learn. This is just ethnocentric balderdash; you might not like to hear this, but any anthropologist will confirm it: What children learn in other cultures isn't less, it's different. And in fact nothing is too much too to learn if kids want to learn it. Take the case of teenage computer hackers.  These kids, because they want to, manage -unaided! -to achieve a degree of computer sophistication that matches or surpasses that of whole teams of people with advanced degrees and decades of experience. Give kids access and they'll learn. Restrict their access to what you think they should learn, and they won't - and this is the function of our schools, to restrict kids' access to learning, to give them what educators think they should know, when they think they should know it, one drop at a time.

Are you able to remember yourself at age five, seven, nine, ten?  Do you recall yearning to be allowed to sit in a classroom for six hours a day?  No, neither do I.  Do you remember where you wanted to be?  Or can you imagine where you might have wanted to be? Well, yes, certainly out-of-doors, not in a school, but . . .

 

Here, let me imagine a place for you. It's a sort of circus, a collection of acrobats, jugglers, animal trainers, high-wire artists, clowns, dancers - the whole thing, every kind of performer you'd expect to find in a circus.  And this place is parked nearby and it's open round the clock and the idea is anyone can walk in and say to any of these performers, "Hey, I'd like to learn how to do that!'' and they say, "Well, of course! That's what we're here for!''

 

Of course there'd be room here for a lot more.  Maybe a small zoo where you could learn to take care of the animals yourself.  Maybe somebody would have a pretty good telescope and could show you what's what in the night- time sky and lend you some books if you're interested.  And maybe there'd be a photographer with a bunch of cameras and a darkroom, and somebody with a printing press and a bindery. And while we're at it, why not a weaver and a potter and a sculptor and a painter and a pianist and a violinist, and maybe even someone who knows how to build a piano and how to make a violin? And indeed there would always be building projects under way, so you could learn how to use all the tools and read the blueprints and all that. And someone who was always prepared to take a bunch of kids out into the wilderness to learn whatever there is to learn out there. And maybe an archaeologist who could take some kids off to a dig someplace. And you could even have a writer on hand in case someone was crazy enough to want to find out what that's all about.

 

And a roomful of computers with someone who knew how to use them.  And somewhere in there someone who could teach you any math you wanted to learn, and someone else who could teach you any electronics or physics you wanted to learn, and so on.  And gee, everybody has books they can lend you.  For your young entrepreneurs, you could even have people around who could help them make and market their products.

 

Are you getting the idea here? I could go on for hours this way.

 

Anyway, the rule is, you can come and go as you please, do anything you please, study with anyone you please for as long as you please. How does this sound as someplace you might rather have been than in a classroom? . . .

 

Exactly, exactly.  It'd be a never-ending feast of learning, and if you wanted to keep kids out, you'd have to put up a razor-wire fence. . . .

 

Oh, well, of course educators would hate it. Educators would be superfluous in such a setup: functionless.  They'd say: "Sure, everyone's having a wonderful time, but how do you know they're getting a rounded education?"  My answer to that is, "Rounded according to whom?" and "Rounded as of when?" Who says education has to end at age eighteen? Or at age twenty-two?  If there were a place like that in my neighborhood, I'd be ensconced there right now, teaching writing, teaching editing, teaching publishing, teaching word processing, teaching everything I have to teach - and learning, getting that "rounded education'' I certainly didn't get in sixteen years of schooling . . .

 

No, don't call this a school.  Didn't you hear what I just said? It isn't a school, it's a city. It's a place where people live who are willing to let their children have access to them. People who are willing let the children of the community hang around, willing to pay to attention to them, willing to talk to them, willing to show them how things work, willing to show them how to do things, willing to let them try out things for themselves. Nothing difficult, nothing very demanding, just the ordinary things people did on this planet for the first three million years of human life.

 

 People in this city wouldn't get as much "done" as people in New York City, wouldn't have as sharp a competitive edge, but they'd have a hell of a lot more fun and they'd find out what it's like to live like human beings instead of workers - and they wouldn't pay a nickel in school taxes.  It would be costly in terms of time, of course, but how many hours does the average worker spend right now paying for a system that doesn't work?

 

 

 

 

Yes, definitely a book worth reading. 

Excerpted from Providence, by Daniel Quinn.  ISBN 0-553-10018-1 

This is his book explaining what he had in mind when he wrote Ishmael.              

 
   

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