Afterword - On Education
You are providing for your disciples a show of wisdom without the reality. For, acquiring by your means much information unaided by instruction, they will appear to possess much knowledge, while, in fact, they will, for the most part, know nothing at all; and, moreover, be disagreeable people to deal with, as having become wise in their own conceit, instead of truly wise.
It is customary for everyone from politicians to housemothers to give their opinions on education – and most of them are not worth the paper they are printed on. In order to make my credentials (or lack thereof) clear, I will outline my own educational history first. You can then decide for yourself if I’m talking sense or if I have just wasted a few hundred thousand electrons.
I have never been a teacher. The closest I have come to serving as an educator was when I assisted other students at university. However, I have been a subject – I might say a victim – of the British educational establishment. I spent seven years at a primary school in Edinburgh, four years at a secondary (boarding) school in Fife and two years in another secondary school in Edinburgh. After that, I spent three years in Manchester in a university, after which I emerged with a BA (HONS) that was largely worthless. I confess that I understand little of the pressures facing British teachers. But I do not consider such pressures an acceptable excuse for the poor education I received at their hands.
I left university in 2003. My experience may be outdated.
I should add to the above note to explain that I am largely referring to British schools. The statements I have heard about American public schools suggest that they suffer from many similar problems to British schools, but I have no direct experience to draw on. Handle with care.
I did not enjoy my schooling. Being what is called a ‘special needs’ student (I suffer from an odd form of dyslexia), I required special treatment to move ahead. I did not receive that treatment from my primary school, at least until my final year there. As it was, they sent me to a boarding school for (in theory) such children. Many of them had far worse problems than I, others were (in my rather biased opinion) actually stupid rather than dyslexic. (To be fair, one of the worst bullies played a mean game of Chess.) By the time I left there, I had six Standard Grades (O-Levels) and was something of a nervous wreck. The two years I had at the next school were perhaps the best years of my education, although it was far too clear to me that I was quite some distance behind my classmates. Suffice it to say that I had real problems in staggering away with four Highers (A-Levels) and was quite surprised when I actually got into university. By then, much of my course had already been set.
Looking back at my education, certain things become clear. Those of us who were considered ‘special needs’ children were not really expected to do well. The real objective was to keep us out of the regular schools while getting us the minimum necessary to pass onwards to further education. We were not, for example, granted the resources necessary to learn about more than the basics. For example, there was no internet and only a handful of computers. For someone with poor handwriting, like myself, it was a nightmare.
In hindsight, the real marvel is that I did as well as I did.
And, compared to students who undertook a more regular course of study, my achievements were bloody pathetic.
If a foreign nation had imposed this system of education on the United States we would rightly consider it an act of war.
-Glenn T. Seaborg
So, what is wrong with British schools?
There are a multitude of problems. Some of them stem from being ‘good enough.’ Some of them are caused by poor educational policies, often flowing from political correctness. Some are problems of scale, caused by classes sizes; some are caused by badly-chosen educational material. I have decided to examine the most common problems; you can tell me, if you like, if these problems exist or existed in your schools.
I’m not talking about mixing male and female pupils together. Nothing I have seen in my educational journey has left me with strong feelings one way or the other about mixing the sexes. I’m talking about mixing children of different educational ability or aptitude. In every class, there will be 10% fast children, 80% average children and 10% slow children. Not stupid (although some people are genuinely stupid), but pupils who require additional patience and time from the teacher to go over the material.
Several things will happen in this class, none of them good. The fast children will be bored because they are not being tested to the limits of their ability. The slow children will either drain the teacher’s time and energy or be left behind until they cannot really catch up. In the meantime, most of the average kids will be largely ignored by the teacher because he or she is busy tending to the fast or slow children.
It is verboten to suggest that children perform at different levels, even though it is self-evidently true. We sort classes by age because it provides an inarguable way to separate out different sets of children. But there are kids who could move a year or two ahead and kids who should be kept back, just to give them a chance to learn properly.
What do you think this does to both fast and slow kids? The fast kids will develop an exaggerated idea of their own capabilities. The slow kids will start to think of themselves as stupid. (I’ve been in both places.) And this tends to lead to other problems, such as ...
-Discipline (or lack thereof).
The educational process exists for two reasons, only one of which is broadly acknowledged. One is to ensure that children are taught the basic skills they need to know to get on in life; the other is to socialise children, to teach them how to fit in with other children and adults. Guess which one is acknowledged? It isn't the socialisation process, that’s for sure. Indeed, the boarding school I went to seemed to specialise in turning out little barbarians, rather than good-natured adults.
Put bluntly, teachers do not have the power to effectively discipline their pupils. They are often put into the position of bluffing their charges – and, when the bluff is called, find that they are unable to actually carry it out. For the average student, being excluded from school for a week or two isn't really a punishment. When that student suffers no real punishment for bullying his fellows (or her fellows, as bullies come in both sexes) he will happily carry on bullying them.
In my experience, male bullies tend to fall into three categories; the stupid, the over- privileged and the psychopath. The stupid hates the smarter kids (often, he’s from a poorer home) and since he can’t beat them academically, beats them with his fists instead. The over- privileged was granted too much too easily (either from his parents or on the sports field) and consequently sees himself immune to punishment. The psychopath is simply sick in the head; he gets his fun hurting and humiliating his fellows and everyone else he can reach.
These pupils need discipline. They rarely get it.
Their victims need protection. They rarely get it either.
Failing to provide discipline does neither the bullies nor their victims any favours. The bullies generally discover that adulthood is far less accepting of their idea of fun than the schoolyard. Adults go to jail for stunts bullies can pull and get away with it. Their victims, in the meantime, withdraw into themselves or snap completely.
-Poor work experience/vocational training.
One of the things I love about being a writer is that I am effectively being paid to enjoy my hobby. My previous career as a librarian did not offer that sense of fulfilment. People who want a particular kind of job want it because they believe they will enjoy it. When you’re a kid, making decisions that will affect your future, you rarely get a chance to really experience life in your chosen career.
I had precisely four weeks of work experience from my third school and another four weeks from university. As my luck would have it, I was ill for part of both courses. (In addition, there were a handful of visits to various places in primary school, which didn't even scratch the surface.) Neither of them was really enough for me to make a final choice, nor did they come in time for me to change my picked courses.
-Little Practical Work.
One of my pleasures when I was a child was playing with Lego bricks and building vast structures. As I grew older, I played with my father’s Meccano (the modern plastic stuff is generally disliked by anyone old enough to see how condescending it is to kids) and learned a great deal about how machines actually worked. I often had to work out ropes, clockwork and suchlike for myself.
I didn't get to do that at school.
Some of my readers will probably point out that playing with toys isn't actually schoolwork, is it? To which I would reply that such ‘toys’ taught me the basics of physics and how to solve problems and puzzles. Further, what practical work I did have at school was very limited and often involved being told to follow the instructions, rather than figuring out the how and why for myself.
It doesn't just involve toys and games. I was rarely told why certain kinds of maths were so important, or what practical use they had beyond tormenting me. Had I been told, had my work been linked to something practical, I believe that I would have done better at school.
-Poor Book Choices
Reading is one of my great pleasures ... but that was no thanks to school. The books I was expected to read were often too easy for me (I learned to read very quickly) or boring. My English course in particular insisted on us reading Sunset Song, which – although a genuinely important piece of Scottish literature – was quite boring to a young boy. I was lucky in that I was able to read books outside class, thus cutting my reading skills on books I actually liked.
I can understand why schools might frown on Harry Potter. The books are not great literature, but they serve an important purpose by shaping the reading muscles and encouraging future reading. One might move from Harry Potter to The Lord of the Rings and then to Sunset Song. It’s harder to do it the other way around.
-Poor University Courses
My university degree was intended to prepare me to work in a library. Practically speaking, everything I ever actually used during seven years as a librarian could have been taught in six months, with the net result that all I really achieved was a considerable debt and a degree that was useless outside the field. (I don’t think I exaggerate to say that I could have handled my job at eighteen, without going to university at all.)
I am told it is actually worse in the USA. The modules I did in university were related (sometimes quite loosely) to librarianship, although their practical value was somewhat limited. In the USA, course requirements include subjects that are of no value to the eager student – and, in fact, serve no other purpose than padding out the course.
Ah, political correctness. The fear that something, no matter how well-meaning, will be taken as offensive by someone. (It is contemptible at any time, but it is even more contemptible when measures are taken against it before someone has a chance to complain.) Anything can be taken as offensive, anything at all. In pursuit of the bland miasma of political correctness, schools have been forced into an endless series of ‘compromises’ and outright surrenders.
Let’s see now. Discussing the Holocaust is hard; it might offend someone. Discussing the Crusades, or Islam, or any other controversial subject? It might offend someone. Books like Huckleberry Finn? Barred on the grounds they might offend someone. Discussing racial, sexual or political issues? Someone might be offended.
Kids aren't stupid. They can tell when they’re been talked down to.
And believe me, there’s only so many politically-correct lectures (or sensitivity training) you can take before you start developing those undesirable traits.
“Treat kids like equals! They're people too! They're smarter than you think! They were smart enough to catch me!”
-Sideshow Bob, The Simpsons
As a kid, if I had been asked to name my favourite TV show, it would have been Thunderbirds. Even by today’s standards, it stands up well ... and it was groundbreaking at the time. The magnificent machines (the true stars of the show), the tension of watching as everything that can go wrong did go wrong ... and the genuinely mature storylines. Thunderbirds treated kids as equals; the handful of episodes that did feature kids had them as kids, not mini-adults or kids who have to save the world after the adults bugger it all up.
And imagine my horror when I saw the live-action movie directed by Jonathon Frakes. It managed to fall right into the pitfalls that the original series evaded quite neatly. (Frakes really should have known better. There is a reason the most hatred regular character on Star Trek: The Next Generation was Wesley Crusher.) The adults are useless, the kids save the day ... and are rewarded with adult responsibilities that they are in no way prepared for.
Some people will say that this is a silly observation – or at least irrelevant. But I do have a point; if you treat kids as intelligent, capable humans, you will have kids learning how to think, question and develop into mature adults. On the other hand, if you talk down to kids and make it clear to them that you're doing so, the kids will act out. Why not? They’re not being treated with respect.
With that in mind, how might we fix education?
First, we need to bear in mind that kids need discipline and boundaries. Teachers should have the power to discipline kids and, at worst, remove the truly disruptive children from the classroom permanently. There is always someone who acts up, either because they haven't learned better or because they’re genuinely not right in the head. Tragic as that is, it would be better to remove him rather than let him drag down the rest of the class
Second, we need to organise classes by capability. Even separating out the fast kids from the slow kids will be genuinely helpful for both sides. The fast will not be held back and the slow will not be unable to catch up.
Third, we need to concentrate on core skills. Reading, writing, maths and (these days) information recovery. Teach kids to read, encourage them to choose their own books and actually think about the material. Maybe they’ll pick something lowbrow like Harry Potter or Superman. You can still get them to think about the material. Believe me, kids will do what they enjoy and if they enjoy reading, they’ll read. For maths, link the basics into daily living. Show them how to calculate their own income, spending and saving. (It’s all too easy to get into money trouble simply by not being able to calculate interest.)
Fourth, in addition to the third, give them puzzles and see how they solve them.
Fifth, and perhaps most important, be honest. Yes, some subjects are controversial; yes, some people will be offended. Instead of nagging kids and telling them that this is wrong, wrong, wrong, why not discuss why people are offended? Then you can point out that whatever the issue is, people can still discuss it rationally and there is room for disagreement.
There are people who will say that some material is too advanced for Small Children (note the capital letters.) But I disagree.
There’s a dirty little secret about politics that also applies to education and just about everything else. Only a handful of people care. For everyone who rants and raves about what the kids are being taught, there are thousands of people who don’t pay attention, let alone make a fuss. Special interest groups generally succeed because they look loud, while their opponents rarely organise.
If you’re a parent, take an interest in what your kids are learning. If you don’t like it, talk to the teachers, then get organised. One voice is crying alone in the wilderness, hundreds of voices will be heard. Get out there and push.
The child is the father of the man, as the old saying goes. What sort of fathers are we growing?
Christopher G. Nuttall
Kuala Lumpur, 2013
I have a habit of writing these afterwords before actually writing the story itself. Normally, switching from writing fiction to writing factual articles relating to said fiction is harder than the other way around (at least for me). It was something of a surprise, therefore, to discover a case so directly related to the theme of this novel that I just had to write a postscript.
If one needed an example of the kind of lunacy school administers are capable of, one needs look no further than the case of Erin Cox. (Google is your friend; a good précis of the entire case is available on Mike McDaniel's blog.) To summarise the case as I understand it, Erin Cox was called by a friend and asked to pick her up from a party. Her friend was too drunk to drive. Erin, who hadn't even been at the party (and wasn't drunk, as a police officer attested), was threatened with arrest. (I don't understand the legal issues under US law, so l don't know how serious this was for her.)
What was significant was that her high school administration decided to punish her. They stripped her of her position (a Captain in the school’s volleyball team) and suspended her for five games.
Let’s look at this again. Erin helped a friend. She was not drinking (let alone drink-driving); she was not arrested. And yet she has been punished. Punished for doing the right thing.
Honestly, compared to this, does anything I wrote in Reality Check seem implausible?
I confess I know nothing of the school’s legal rights over a pupil when he or she is not at school. Nor was I ever the type of person to put myself out to get onto a school team. But this is pretty much a flagrant failure of common sense. The message sent is simple; don’t try to help a friend. You’ll only be punished for it.
Pretend that you are in her position. What would you have done?
And what would you do now? Would you take the risk of helping your friend, knowing that you might be punished by an unreasoning, careless and generally imbecilic school administration that is utterly incapable of applying common sense?
I have no love for team sports; I certainly have never played in any competitions. But there are students (like Erin) who love sports, who work hard to be on the teams and do their very best to bring home awards. Those students have now been told that their achievements, which they prize highly, can be snatched away for trying to do the right thing. Maybe it makes sense to boot someone off the team for drunkenness or otherwise showing bad judgement, but Erin did neither.
The only people who showed bad judgement are the school administrators. I’d bet good money they will not be held accountable for it.
And then they will act all surprised when students lose all respect for them.