The other night I told my friend Katharine about David Brown’s scathing rebuke of education in England. She experienced the English school system herself. To my surprise, she confirmed important parts of his critique. When my 15 year old son brought it to my attention, I was defensive because after all, I am the one who inflicts on him his homeschool education. Many of the elements Mr. Brown disses are things I consider necessary to good education; many of the things he complains are missing are taught to every American teen, several times, whether they listen or not. I thought he exaggerated.
Watch this: Don’t Stay in School Video (3 minutes)
To recap: he says his education covered dissection of frogs, the quadratic equation, isotopes, mitochondria, abstract and mental math, cursive, hues of light, Old American West, the wives of Henry VIII ad nauseum.
He says it didn’t prepare him for getting a job; he wasn’t taught about personal finances, economics, the English political system, English law, human rights, first aid, mental health, current events, how to raise a child.
I was astonished when Katharine confirmed English education does not teach about English government. It does nothing to prepare the English children to contribute to society. In contrast, some accuse American schools of dwelling too long and too frequently on how our government works. In our home-centered program, Classical Conversations, freshmen read original documents; they outline and memorize the key points of the Constitution. Any country in which its people have a voice in its government ought to train them. To omit this seems…odd.
My first impression of his video was that he was yet another young twenty-something ranting about how bad he has it. The easiest thing in the world is to critique and tear down. He is a gifted fellow but he uses false dichotomy: e.g. either the solar system or the political system. Concepts long considered a part of traditional education he would cut. Science and Math take the largest share of criticism.
I don’t believe he really wants a utilitarian education, one that merely trains a child to become a worker. Since he is an artist, I know he expects an education to develop the human soul, and that includes encouraging curiosity about the natural world. Pure science values knowledge for knowledge’s sake but this is also the foundation for applied science. We dissect frogs and study mitochondria so we can understand and take care of our own bodies. First aid principles are rooted in human anatomy. Though I graduated from high school almost 40 years ago, I still draw on what I learned in Biology for taking care of my family.
Likewise, abstract math trains the mind in problem solving, creative thinking (since once you know how numbers work you can get to a solution in more than one way), accuracy, care for details, and logic. It has the delightful quality of having absolutes; there is an answer and I can measure my success against it. I am right or wrong. Even as I go through Algebra II again this year so I can be a better tutor, I feel real joy and a sense of accomplishment in getting right answers. And yesterday I was able to derive the quadratic equation on my own. I pinned it to the ground! So satisfying.
Since he doesn’t complain about literature (except Shakespeare) I assume he does see how important it is to explore our humanity as characters wrestle with the big questions of life. If I were to help him write the constructive counterpart to Don’t Stay in School, I would list Philosophy as essential to a good education. We aren’t workers; we are humans who need to treat ourselves and others humanely. We need to know how to think about how we live.
Education is for training us for life as an adult in a complex world. The best education trains the student to learn so she will be able to teach herself anything she needs going forward. She will not be limited; she will be free. That is the meaning of the Liberal Arts, the arts that make man free. A truly classical education has this goal.
I hope Mr. Brown’s anger and curiosity lead him to discover the classical liberal arts education, and that he may someday be able to train his own children in it. Maybe his ideas will be heard by those who have the gift of making ideas concrete and his video will lead to school choice for the next generation of English children.
This video teaches me gratitude for the deep blessings of a homeschool. I am so glad I am having a second chance to become truly educated. A classical education has taught us priceless lessons and has equipped me and my children to learn for life.