Sunday, October 1

A while back, I promised to respond to Brent on a couple of points, so here goes.

Our culture has codes of conduct. Note that I don't mean arbitrary cultural beliefs; I'm talking about the standards embodied by the idea of dressing nicely when meeting with a customer. It's a matter of good culture. We encourage kids to avoid swearing just like we encourage them to comb their hair.

Why? Because these things are important. Culture is important. When you belong to a group, it's important to respect the cultural norms of that group.

Cultural norms of groups I still, in some sense, belong to include racism, homophobia, sexism, nationalism, strongly dogmatic religion, censorship, corporal punishment, a deep-seated respect for authority, a misplaced emphasis on organized athletics, contempt for scholarship, an aversion to rational thought, routine denial of empirical reality, and a highly developed hypocrisy of language. I generally don't respect these norms. The language thing may seem relatively minor, but I don't actually see any reason to encourage it.

Certainly hypocrisy is useful and sometimes necessary in the real world, and becoming an adult probably means realizing this.

Anyway, maybe all I needed to say is that I disagree: "Don't swear" is an arbitrary cultural belief, and simply lacks sufficient moral force to justify its imposition on free speech.

I like the Rule of St. Benedict, because Benedict addresses these sorts of issues in a beautifully practical way: Societies need simple rules, and humans in those societies needs to humble themselves to obey those rules (unless harmful). The best societies mute power, and this is one of the ways in which they do that.

(Similarly, allowing any and all language unleashes those who use language to abuse others, both directly and indirectly. We all know people who, if given the chance, won't shut up, abusing this power. Children have a particularly strong tendency towards this behavior.)

I have my issues with the first point, but it's the parenthetical statement that really interests me. I think it highlights something fundamental: If the educational environment is built on the assumption that things have to run smoothly, it follows that children should simply be constrained in that environment in order to prevent the behaviors you don't want. Strict, top-down rulesets and rigid, mandatory-minimums sorts of punishments should be in place to enforce the mechanics of the system, because the system and its correct functioning are the highest value.

As to behavior outside the system and its rules, we've always been given to understand that when you force kids to stop doing stuff, they'll forever afterwards Know Better. I think this last is demonstrably false, and the whole paradigm sort of falls apart on closer examination.

If you start out believing that education is a process wherein things work themselves out, with some help, and that it is usually messy and time consuming, then you can dispense with a lot of this.

At any rate, though I can't speak to other schools from personal experience, the system at Tamariki doesn't allow "any and all language", in the sense of personal abuse. This is not because it prohibits the right List of Bad Words. It is because the rules say that you can't use language to hurt other people - and the rules, unlike the forms of censorship most schools rely on, are subject to student input and enforcement, and apply as well to teachers.

Brent's final points are about the scalability of democratic ed:

Seriously, I think that education of the sort Brennen is advocating does not scale.

Note that this can be okay, depending on the type of education you want. If you want a holistic education that prepares a child ethically and philosophically, you can't find it in public education. That sort of thing simply doesn't scale up, from what I can see.

This is why I'd like to see public education become much more focused on skills. In my opinion, public education works best when it's teaching something relatively straightforward, rather than coaching a child in concepts of freedom, personal responsibility, etc.

I sort of think that it's not so much the concepts of freedom and personal responsibility we ought to be concerned about as it is their practice. They may not be straightforward, but I think there probably are not many skills more important than being free and taking personal responsibility. That said, I guess I would far rather see a school environment that focused purely on conveying useful skills than one full of mislabeled ethical content - is grading really about "accountability"?

Brent alludes to something important here: There is probably a long-term trend of expecting schools to fill more and more functions formerly left to family members or delegated to other social institutions (largely religious ones, I suppose).

(Put another way, asking why public education can't be like Tamariki is akin to asking why McDonald's can't serve six-course French meals. French cuisine works on a restaurant-by-restaurant basis, but not when you're trying to serve fifty million customers a day.)

I can't directly challenge the scalability thing. It's my biggest single problem with advocating any alternative educational program. Simply scaling Tamariki and applying it to the U.S. would require more (and different) teachers, a drastically different approach to facilities, the strong support of most parents for a system that would challenge their basic beliefs... In fact, it would require a radical shift in most of American society on a completely unprecedented scale. This is not going to happen.

Which I don't think changes the basic question: Why would you want to serve borderline-toxic shit to fifty million customers a day?

And on that note, I am going to sleep. More (if not more coherent) thoughts tomorrow.