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What's the point of school anyway?

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Normally, I get sad when people start talking about “back to school” while it’s still August.

(Maybe because I spent most of the first 18 years of my life as a compulsory student, and then the following decade as a classroom teacher- summer was sacred, every moment precious!)

And even now, I still savor the summer vibes- the sun the fun and the freedom.

But once we started homeschooling our kids, (years before Covid) education became more of a joy than a dread.

As someone who loves learning (I’ve always been something of a geek), it saddens me how successfully schools snuff out many little humans’ natural joy of learning. My heart goes out to families and teachers who are worrying about what happens this fall.

When our family sits down in August to map out our scholastic year, we like to think about the “point” of education. Growing up in institutions that assume and predigest curricula for us, this question doesn’t get asked often. It's almost a given.

What’s the point of education? To graduate? To keep kids off the street? To eventually get a job? To impress the neighbors?

The way I see it, there are several primary goals of education:

  1. Basic intellectual literacy: The ability to read, write, compute, calculate, and reference simple necessary knowledge and cultural references, to interact and function productively in civilization. Most of this education has been completed midway through middle school.

  2. Fostering intellectual curiosity: Knowledge for its own sake. Humans are natural born scientists. Toddlers begin life like sponges, soaking in language and concepts, constantly questioning and reveling in the joy of discovering more and more about the world. Ideally, this should be a lifelong, pleasurable process.

  3. Character development: Moral and ethical knowledge- establishing values, what it means to be a good person, make wise choices, cultivate emotional intelligence, integrity, work ethic, and social skills, communicate effectively, respect multiple opinions and personalities, contribute to humanity and Earth. Traditional brick and mortar schools tend to neglect this vital area of psychological development. Religious schools try to incorporate more of this, but even then, often in a very specific, narrow, agenda-based framework.

  4. Marketability: For most careers, some level of formal education is deemed necessary. This is cultural; there are plenty of individuals who can demonstrate diploma-evidenced mastery of certain scholastic skills but are relatively incompetent in real life skills. And conversely, there are many high school drop-outs or poor students who go on to achieve notable success in their chosen fields. But most job applications, and certainly for the professions, require a modicum of academic proficiency. Basically: you spend high school and college studying mostly irrelevant minutia, so you can earn the opportunity to go to grad school and learn what you actually need to know for your career, IF your field requires a degree.

And while each specialty or interest may value having a background in a given subject, ultimately, it’s not 9th grade bio that qualifies our doctors to practice. They re-learn all the relevant doctor-stuff in medical school. But by then, their brains are cluttered with Shakespearean sonnets too, which of course are necessary to help them learn how to do surgery.

I realize that this may sound a little cynical, but that’s only because I am.

There are endless subcategories within the four mentioned above. The basic curricular requirements: language, math, science, social studies, and computers. Enrichment areas like phys ed, music, the arts, health and wellness, and advocacy. Spirituality, community service, Bible studies, national heritage, and culture. Life is essentially a journey of endless learning, which begins at birth, and should continue throughout the life span. Childhood is the opportunity to nurture the skills, curiosity, and orientation to continue and focus onward.

What’s funny about my take on this, is that I actually had a pretty good academic experience, overall. I like classroom learning. (In fact, if I didn’t have to work, I would maybe go back to grad school and major in all the things. See? I told you: geek.)

But I remember distinctly, sitting in my 7th grade classroom (the teacher had curly red hair) and wondering: “How do they decide what random facts we all need to memorize? I bet most adults don’t remember or care about most of this.”

And it was true. I liked learning, but I love doing it on my terms - the luxury to what’s important to me to know. It’s one of my favorite features of adulthood. And then I internalize, analyze, apply, and integrate it. So the knowledge becomes part of me.

Kids have the same capacity. Experience is the best teacher.

I’ve seen a great quote:

“In school we have lessons and then take a test. In life, we are tested, and that’s how we learn our lessons.”

My oldest son’s 8th grade yearbook quote was: “I try not to allow my schooling to interfere with my education.”

Whether you go to school yourself, send kids to school, or have nothing to do with schools at all, learning, intentional or instinctive, is lifelong process and privilege.

Happy learning!

PS If you’re considering homeschooling this year, and want to know more about it, check out my new blog post about that and/ or my course for prospective homeschooling families.

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