I enjoy Mark Twain, because he is able to see from multiple perspectives. I like his raw cynicism. It makes it more realistic when hope breaks through. I enjoy his ability to see every social institution honestly, because he has an honest view of humanity. I don't get the sense, as I read his novels, that he is trying to reform me. He's the anti-Tolstoy.
I'd love to have a chat with Twain about education. Sometimes I get really tired, and I mean physically exhausted, when I read the commentary on education in the papers and the magazines. Each pundit has an idea on how to move forward, with no thought about what we're leaving behind.
I rarely mention this, but I sometimes miss elements of the one-room school house. True it was a little paternalistic, but there was a community. The, subjects blended together. Students helped one another, despite the age difference. We were a social unit, rooted in our rural community, an extension of the local politic. I'm not suggesting it was perfect (our teacher thought that a paddle was better than a one-on-one conversation) just that in moving forward, we left a few good ideas behind.
* * *
So, I'm having a pint with Paul the Pre-Industrial Poet. I tell him, "People assume that I am a Progressive Educator. I'm not much into -isms, progressivism included. I just want students to learn to think well about life."
"If that's progressive, I'm a bit surprised. It seems like that's an old idea. Socrates?"
"I'm not so sure. It seems that Socrates would have liked the current factory model. When I read The Republic, I'm struck by the militarism of the ideal education. Not only do the children and the parents have no voice in education, the military seems to be raising the children in a strict disciplinarian framework."
"It's scary, huh?" he adds.
We talk about Tolstoy and Dickens and the reform-oriented factory educationists and how it all connects to this idea of the society forming the perfect child. We talk about the danger of treating children as talking points in arguments about education reform.
After awhile, though, he takes a deep breath, chugs from his pint and adds, "I think Socrates says a lot about the perfect education because he has to prove that he is providing Athens with something better, something much more Spartan in nature. But my guess is that he would have hated the system he proposed. When I read the Socratic dialogs, I get the sense that Socrates would want a conversation - a conversation outside the walls of a factory. He'd want kids engaging in their world, asking and discovering."
"I think he'd want mystery and paradox instead of this new factory system where teaching is an assembly line."
I think that's what I want for my own students and that's what Paul wants for his. I wonder if we're both just putting words into Plato's mouth. Neither of us are reformers, really. Yes, we have pencils in our classrooms, but neither of us are interested in developing some new, cutting edge system. We just want our students to think well about life, with the help of a pencil or two.