A measure of free will
We have all experienced the seemingly infinite nuances that vary and change across learning individuals and experiences over time. It seems reasonable to conclude that no single lesson brings about exactly the same results in any two students or even the same results in a single student who experiences it more than once. In light of this reality, John Gatto  calls it “defective pedagogy” to expect “from 20 to 60 young people in a group
- to learn the same thing
- at the same time
- in the same manner
- and to show enthusiasm for this rejection of personal uniqueness.”
Gatto goes on to make some important historical observations about how schools in the past dealt with this dilemma.
“Infinite variety was a law of nature and no command of bureaucrats could change that. Nevertheless school-driven cultures like those of Prussia or Imperial Japan insisted upon forcing conformity upon their young … putting square pegs in round holes … until rebellious behavior forced gradual abandonment of the obsession that human beings are as alike as a carpenter's nails. The breakthrough came from schools for the sons and daughters of the elite … in Germany the “realschulen” not the “volksschulen” … and in America the elite private boarding schools not the public schools. The reason was that, like their privileged parents, privileged children retained a measure of free will during the learning years. In time, the performance of the graduates of Groton and St. Paul's (for example) was so obviously superior that it gave rise to demands for similar methodologies to spread into the public sector.”
However, Gatto concludes, a fundamental inconsistency exists between the needs of individual students for “a measure of free will” and the goal of public schools to produce conforming outcomes.
“Children have highly individualized ways to learn. But bureaucratic systems, by their very nature, can only pay feeble lip-service to this truism, because, face it, when ‘systems’ allow variation they cease being ‘systematic’ … which is the ultimate sin for a bureaucrat or a socialist. And so universal institutional schooling by force is a self-imposed road to inferior education … an inescapable dead end … until a pill is invented to render protoplasm uniform like machinery. Nor can socialism succeed as long as politicians allow free will to exist.”
Whether or not you agree with Gatto’s conclusion about the vital importance of free will in education, very few can argue with the proposition that a pedagogy founded on faulty premises about how learning takes place will inevitably produce a lot of frustration to deliver an inferior result. Can we do better? If so, how?
A White Owl cigar and a Danish princeAn iconic cigar brand used to make the following claim in its radio and TV advertisements.
“Sooner or later you're going to try a White Owl … and once you do, we're gonna get'cha!"
Perhaps, educators can learn something [once again] from those who have to sell their products to people who are not forced to buy them. And the lesson is simple, but, as Hamlet reminds us, also profound:
“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.” Hamlet. Act v. Sc. 2
“But”, most educators would object, “we cannot afford to wait on each individual student to come to his or her own moment of enlightenment. We must either gear up and hope that everyone gets something from the lesson [the approach of most private schools] … or dumb down and accept that some are going to be frustrated no matter what we do [the resignation of most public schools].” In either case, we comfort ourselves by concluding that our pedagogical problem has been resolved … while we all know that is not true.
Saturate them with the Trivium
But what if we think of “readiness” as also being the continual obligation of the teacher and the curriculum rather than merely the momentary state of the individual student? And what if “the lesson” we are trying to teach is not sequentially dependent on specific subjects or grades but is instead common to all subjects in all grades?
One of the distinguishing characteristics of a liberal arts school should be that its teachers and curriculum consciously and continuously expose every student of every subject in every grade to the use and interdependence of the same common tools of learning embodied in the Trivium … grammar, logic and rhetoric. Why? Because one of the fundamental purposes of a liberal education is to enable the student, sooner or later depending on his or her own individual readiness, to become aware of and even master the use of these learning tools which, in “the time remaining”, will enable the student to master and even contribute to any specific subject regardless of that student’s age or grade. This kind of education is not only “liberal” … it is liberating … respecting free will while assuring a good education.
You can imagine many consequences of such a pedagogy, but here is a list of a few important ones that come to mind:
- Tests become exciting opportunities to glimpse success rather than dismal sentences that condemn failure.
- Age diversity replaces grade segregation removing artificial social barriers and the frustrations that arise from attempts to force identical maturation rates on unique individuals.
- Confidence replaces fear as faith and patience grow into proven virtues.
- Helping hands reaching out remind everyone of our shared responsibility to encourage and enable each unique and awesome individual to reach their own potential in their own time.
Community not conformity
We are born and die as unique individuals. But all our lives there are social forces which press us into molds … of all sorts … familial, religious, economic, political … and the list goes on. The liberal arts is one of the best pedagogies we have when it comes to enabling our individuality while building our community rather than extinguishing our personality by enforcing conformity. And what could be better than that?