I have a deep skepticism of a lot of what passes for “progressive” education. For grades 2-4, I attended a progressive school that was pretty disastrous for me. They had lots of touchy-feely, student-centered ways to teach math and science, but they weren’t very interested in just letting me sit in a corner and read books; and nobody was interested in argument. There was such a premium placed on interacting, and movement, and playing together, that a kid who just wanted to read and talk about ideas was seen as some sort of reactionary.
I didn’t go to a progressive school, just an ordinary public school, but that resonates with me — and does so in ways that reveals a tension within my thinking, and the way I approach the world. I learned how to read early, and was often bored by elementary school. I am temperamentally not a joiner, and hated hated hated enforced cheerfulness and what would have been called “team-building” techniques had they been used in a corporate setting. We had this one teacher who came around to show us some hideous circa 1977 hippy-dippy video about diversity and the brotherhood of man, and I wanted to hurl — not because diversity and the brotherhood of man are bad or unimportant, but because the attempt to railroad us into embracing this viewpoint was so crude and cheesy. I remember in fourth grade, being assigned a group social studies project, and finding it difficult to work with others. I finally offered to do the whole thing myself, in exchange for their chilling out and pretending that we’d done it all together. They agreed. I got it done quickly, and we all got As. No problem.
So I’m a strong believer in letting kids work to their own strengths, and against egalitarianism in education and vocation. I think it hurts individuals and hurts society. If a kid like Mark Oppenheimer is better suited to working alone, so what? Let him do it. Why sand down the edges that make kids like that interesting, in the name of a destructive egalitarianism? That’s my view. My kid Matthew, who is homeschooled, is a lot like I was back then, except more extreme. People keep saying, “You’ve got to socialize him! How is he going to be socialized if he’s not in a classroom?” — as if we were abusing the kid by keeping him away from a classroom. But he doesn’t want to be in a classroom, and finds group activities deeply frustrating. I wish he didn’t find it so difficult to work with others, but he does, and I don’t think there’s anything especially wrong with that. His little brother is the complete opposite, and loves working in groups. We’ll adjust his educational plan to accomodate his strengths. I don’t see any reason why we should jam square pegs into round holes.
But my instinctual libertarianism on this subject runs smack up against what I know to be true about the importance of community norms and a communal sensibility. It’s why I think Ayn Rand is fairly monstrous. It really is true that no man is an island. A weakness people like me struggle with, or ought to struggle with, is a sense of pride — a pride and a self-centeredness that assumes because we find it hard to work with others, that we shouldn’t have to make the effort. Longtime readers know that I am often critical of the hyper-individualism of American society, and the problems it has caused us. I write all this from the point of view of someone who has benefited in many ways from that individualism, but who sees in himself the great strengths of that individualism, but also its weaknesses. Very tricky, trying to strike a balance.