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What I Learned in School

What I Learned in School
By Amy Milstein

What is the barometer we use to measure our children's learning? How do we know if they are learning “enough”? When I think about the journey we are on as a life learning family, it sometimes helps to reflect back on my own experience growing up in the public school system as a juxtaposition to the place in which we now find ourselves.

To that end, John Taylor Gatto’s most book Weapons of Mass Instruction is a useful tool. It outlines the methodology that is the motivating factor behind our compulsory schooling system, which has nothing to do with educating young minds. Even as life learners, many of us are not immune to the pressures of standardized testing and the anxieties of “Does my child know the things she should know at a given age,” both of which are the result of standards randomly imposed by a system that has long outlived its usefulness.

As a child, I remember being asked, “What did you learn in school today?” The funny thing is, I don’t remember ever answering that question. I suppose I said something vague or general. The reality is that I probably couldn’t think of anything. Even now, looking back over my twelve years in public school, the list of things I actually remember learning is a short one. Once you get past the basics of reading (which I could do before going to kindergarten), writing, and arithmetic, the things I remember learning are as follows:

1) How to write a check. In fifth grade, Mr. Howe taught us how to write checks one day in class. I remember we were all excited because it was something that grownups did.

2) How to write an outline. In ninth grade, my social studies teacher Mr. Webb made us learn how to write an outline, and we outlined our entire textbook over the course of the year. I remember nothing about the content of the textbook, but to this day I can still properly write an outline.

3) Touch typing. (On those old electric typewriters.) Oh, it was dull, rote stuff, but guess what? It is probably the single most useful thing I learned in twelve years of school.

Aside from these three things, I had three schoolteachers who made a lasting positive impression on me: Mrs. Gentry, who dared to teach The Great Gatsby to a bunch of eighth graders; Mr. Galbraith, who started a Modern Literature class when I was a senior in high school and taught us Candide and Crime and Punishment and who lauded my use of a double-negative in class (I believe the phrase was, “He couldn’t not do it”); and Mr. James Worley, who taught Senior English.

Mr. Worley had a reputation as a bit of an eccentric, and on our first day in his class he stood up and told us that ninety-eight percent of what we had learned in school up to that point was garbage. You can imagine the shock that went through the room! We were Seniors! How could almost all of what we learned over twelve years be garbage? I found myself leaning forward in my seat, hanging on his every word. He didn’t believe in grades! He hated multiple choice tests! I liked him immediately, but I was in the minority. Mr. Worley told us that all we had been taught to do was act as tape recorders; come to class and hit “record” while the teacher hits “play,” and then at test time, come in and play back the tape to the teacher, who would then be recording. We hadn’t been taught to think. He made us think.

It is probably due to him that I went to Earlham College and majored in English and German Literature. Although I enjoyed my time at Earlham and felt it was a large improvement over high school, I see now that much of what I “learned” there was also in the tape recorder fashion. This was made painfully clear to me when I recently discovered two exam essays I wrote for one of my German Literature classes. Reading them was like reading something a stranger had written, except it was in my handwriting. The subject was not familiar and I have no memory of writing the exam or of the books that are the subjects of the essays. While reading them, I was struck by how intelligent I sounded; how well-versed in the subject. Then I realized with sadness that when writing those exams I had merely been playing back the tape – a tape which has long since been recorded over or discarded.

So, what did I learn in college? At Earlham, my world-view was expanded because I met people from different backgrounds and beliefs, and that is what I most remember from my four years there.

The question is, did I need college for that? Did I need to spend all that money and time on a campus instead of spending it out in the world? And as for my time in public school, I probably could have learned touch-typing, how to write a check and even how to outline without taking twelve years to do it. Of course, it is possible that I am exaggerating. I’m sure there are things I was taught in school that are useful and that I use in my life today, even if I don’t remember exactly where I learned them. But the point is this: John Gatto and James Worley are both right. Training children to regurgitate facts and figures on demand is not education. True education can only come when the mind can think on its own and is allowed to follow whatever is of interest to it.

I didn’t become an educated person because of school. Most of my true education has come of my own accord and well after leaving the world of classes, bells, and textbooks. I try to keep this in mind when I find myself anxious because my life learning daughter has no interest in the ancient history that many of her friends are reading about in Story of the World, or when my son very matter-of-factly states that he’s not interested in learning to read books on his own at the age of five. We don’t need to fit our kids into some neat little standardized package that tells us if they are on par with other kids their age. That’s tape recorder “learning,” and as we all know, tape recorders are virtually obsolete.

Instead we should encourage our kids’ natural curiosity and teach them to think for themselves, so that when they are grown, they will never have cause to look back with dismay and realize they have no good answer for the question, “What did you learn in school?”

 Amy Milstein lives, takes photographs, and writes in New York City. She is the life learning mother of two.

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