I admit the first time I watched the video “Don’t Stay in School” I felt incredibly irritated. David Brown recites in an edgy rap the kinds of things he had to learn in school instead of useful things he thought would have prepared him for life beyond school. He hoped to begin a conversation about education reform and it appears he has succeeded! Chances are your children have seen it and have an opinion about it. Watch it here: Don’t Stay in School Video (3 minutes). There is some objectionable language.
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, and the wives of Henry VIII ad nauseum.
He says it did not prepare him for getting a job; nor was he taught about personal finances, economics, the English political system, English law, his human rights, first aid, mental health, current events, or how to raise a child.
Did you notice how his medium amplifies his message? He uses a provocative title. He uses pieces of subjects to represent the whole (for example, isotopes to represent Chemistry, and the solar system for Astronomy), an effective use of the rhetorical device synecdoche. He appears to use false dichotomy (either the quadratic equation or first aid) but I suggest this too is used for effect. David Brown actually did very well in school, went on to college, and launched a successful career. He is not simply whining about missing out. His anger is fueled by the ways in which his education was inadequate. Once I understood this, I could calm down and listen to his argument. After all, we share a similar frustration; I have not entrusted my children’s education to the public school.
His message is that no student should be forced to spend time on lessons that few will ever need, and that in their place life skills should be offered. Since I teach my children many lessons that have no immediate use for adult life, this pinched my soul and made me wince. But after thinking about this for days, I know what I would tell Mr. Brown if I had the chance. I suggest the two real problems are that schools cause students to lose their natural curiosity and that schools no longer equip students to think as free people.
First, every child begins with curiosity, but by eleven years old or so most have lost it. I watched it happen to my music students in elementary school. Fifth graders were still asking questions, but by sixth grade many had grown indifferent. Somehow learning turns into a chore. The best classrooms are the ones where teachers are able to stir up the students to wonder, “Why?”, “How?”, and “What if?” Those teachers are able to inspire every student, not just those who will eventually work in that field. Why is curiosity smothered in so many schools? It is natural to want to understand the physical and metaphysical world. Rather than remove the topics that feel like a waste of time to students who no longer care to learn them, nourish the love of learning that is inherent in every child.
For every child needs a foundation upon which to build his future. Every young woman needs an education that is broad enough to allow her to find her way through the complexities of adulthood. The young man who can derive the quadratic equation on his own will have the confidence to learn how to work with mortgage rates later. The young woman who studies Shakespeare has an early encounter with the complexity of the human psyche, which opens her mind and heart to the diversity of people she will meet. It is not necessary to teach every single thing a child needs to know for life; no school could be in session long enough to meet every practical need! We want graduates who are life-long learners, willing and able to continue to find answers to the challenges of life for another 60 years.
And this brings me to the second part of my response: What is education for, anyway? I believe it is to develop the whole soul— mind, heart, and will— so no area of study will be off limits to the graduate. Ultimately, we educate the next generation with the accumulated wisdom of the ages in order to prepare it for the challenges of their world. Society’s need has always been the same: for good governance, for a strong moral fabric, for protection for the weak, for comfort for the suffering. Only the details differ. Ideally we launch our young men and women, not weighed down with backpacks stuffed full of unconnected facts, but walking confidently, equipped with a strong mind that does not fear to tackle new situations. Let school teach them to persevere through hard tasks, go beyond their mental comfort zone, and ponder the consequences of ideas. The goal of education is to train lifelong self-teachers of good character who will provide for their families and serve where there is need.
See, this is one of the things that bothers me about the video. It comes across as saying, “The syllabus needs a different stack of facts,” which is not enough of a change, in my opinion. Education is still falling woefully short of its purpose if it does not rediscover the liberal arts, the arts that make men free. It is the funniest thing: David Brown exhibits a self-teaching mind, able and willing to research and press for solutions, but does not see that, to some degree, his education gave him this. Does he know how to get this result? As he studies education systems he will likely become aware of the vast conversation that has already been taking place for thousands of years about educating the young. He does not need to start from scratch. (If he does, anything he and his peers create will likely be dated and inadequate twenty years from now.) As Dorothy Sayers says in “The Lost Tools of Learning” in 1947, we need to rediscover the education that made mature thinkers who were still in their teens. It does not look anything like what this video proposes.
Despite my first impression, I do not 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 explores knowledge for knowledge’s sake but it 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.
Public schools offering a classical liberal arts education is as likely as reducing the national debt to zero. However, private classical schools are increasing, and homeschooling families have found ways to build a classical education. Classical Conversations offers a blend of homestudy and a classroom experience with a trained tutor. It has given me a better education as I have gone through it with my children. Classical Conversations prepares the student to think deeply and compassionately about the human condition, while fostering a curiosity about the natural world and equipping the child to learn for the rest of life.
I hope Mr. Brown’s frustration and curiosity lead him to discover the classical liberal arts, and that he may someday be able to give his own children this most practical education.