Thinking deeply about the story of public schooling can land you in trouble. That’s why Zander Sherman’s first book, The Curiosity of School: Education and the Dark Side of the Enlightenment could well be the most stimulating Canadian contribution to the Great Education Debate in decades. It came from out of the blue — and has hit the world of public schooling with the impact of a Molotov cocktail.
The Curiosity of School is a searing indictment of every aspect of schooling, from kindergarten to university, offering penetrating insights and packing a powerful message. Since the days of the Ancients, Zander Sherman contends that education as learning stemmed from our natural curiosity and desire to know the world around us. Acquiring knowledge will never be out-of-fashion, Sherman argues, because it is the very essence of education, and “a good unto itself.” Today’s schools are driven by curriculum serving other purposes, mistaking rigour for vigour, killing curiosity, and robbing learning of its enjoyment. http://www.penguin.ca/nf/Book/BookDisplay/0,,9780670066438,00.html
Sherman is the agent provocateur that public schooling in Canada has been sadly lacking since Andrew Nikiforuk’s “Fifth Column” disappeared in the mid-1990s from Friday edition of The Globe and Mail. Raised on the rural fringes of a town in Muskoka, north of Toronto, he was home-schooled and, as a by-product of that experience, developed a fierce spirit of intellectual independence.
Like many inventive minds, Zander Sherman found his Canadian high school terribly deadening and very conducive to radical thinking. Bored to death in Grade 12, so accelerated that he enjoyed many “free periods,” Sherman began to question archaic school policies which limited the freedom of students.
When his high school barred students from sitting on the floor, he began writing and distributing his own pamphlet, The Anarchist, catching the attention of his principal. The cover featured a cartoon showing “a sinister administration puppeteering students forever unable to sit down.” When the principal ordered him to give out the pamphlets across the street, he complied but “looking menacingly in the school’s direction.” The principal finally relented, and the PA announcement was greeted with a chorus of cheers.
Sherman’s The Curiosity of School provides a sweeping and contentious survey of the origins of public schooling. Like American education gadfly John Taylor Gatto, he traces the modern bureaucratic education state back to Prussia in the early 19th century. Under the Prussian model, the state established a curriculum focused on “social control” and imposed it on everyone. The success of the Prussians in molding a disciplined youth and supporting the industrial system inspired system founders like Egerton Ryerson of Canada West (Ontario) and Horace Mann of Massachusetts to import that model into their own countries.
Sherman contends that the bureaucratic education state remains well entrenched in public schooling. Even today, he finds plenty of evidence that schools exist primarily to achieve state-defined outcomes, such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and other testing regimes. Behind it all, he sees an institutional commitment severely limiting students’ ability to find and pursue their own interests.
The science-technology-engineering-mathematics (STEM) -based curriculum is a particular bugaboo, because it demonstrates the system’s real priorities. It is, he claims, a government-driven curriculum that favours technology and science to the detriment of the arts and humanities, measures proficiency in these disciplines through standardized tests, and focuses university research in these disciplines. He is also critical of the corporatization of higher learning, reducing education to a ‘consumable product’ and promoting ‘required irrelevance.’
Sherman’s case goes a little wobbly when he turns from diagnosis in a search for prescription. The father of North American education progressivism, John Dewey, is panned for favouring “pragmatism” over intellectual pursuit, and A.S. Neill’s experimental school Summerhill is dismissed as a 1960s pipe dream. Yet Sherman still turns to Finland, the exemplar of progressivism, when looking for a means of salvation. http://www.montrealgazette.com/entertainment/books/Thinking+about+education/7071701/story.html
The popular fixation with Finland’s so-called “education miracle” is misplaced. Its national model of free education at all levels is attractive, but that country’s system is not without its imperfections, including the rigid streaming of high school students. Curriculum is more flexible, but teacher certification requires teachers to have Masters Degrees and they are more closely monitored, limiting their autonomy. For a system supposedly without standardized exams, Finland sure puts a heavy emphasis on winning the PISA international test sweepstakes.
Sherman raises all the right issues, but steps back from embracing an obvious option – public charter schools and smaller, human-scale alternative schools. That’s a little odd because he strongly favours precisely that type of schooling. If he feels that Wuthering Heights is far preferable to Harry Potter, that Latin and Greek teach mental discipline, and everyone can be a polymath, then it’s surprising that he doesn’t turn to the very schools that continue to uphold that educational legacy.
What’s really driving today’s public school systems? Why do public schools tend to kill curiosity in students? What explains the continuing fascination with the Finnish education model? What impact will Sherman’s The Curiosity of School have on education reform in Canada?