Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


Education and individualism

posted by Rod Dreher

Journalist Mark Oppenheimer, from a good Conor Friedersdorf interview:

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.



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Juliana

posted June 24, 2010 at 11:15 am


My husband and I are planning to homeschool our son. He was in a private school for Kindergarten, but we now have an opportunity to be a part of an Orthodox Christian homeschool co-op. I will be leaving a good job, with a good boss, in a terrible economy to do this. Needless to say, we are getting a lot of grief from family and friends.



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Jason

posted June 24, 2010 at 11:30 am


Whew! I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels like this. I always hated group projects and even in grammar school I knew that all that “Free to be you and me” junk was a waste of time. But that stuff was crammed down our throats so thoroughly that I always felt like there was something wrong with me for not embracing it. Years after school I had the liberating realization that it wasn’t me, it was them!
There’s a happy medium in there somewhere, but the public school system is way out of whack against individualism and in favor of homogenization.



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Dan O.

posted June 24, 2010 at 11:32 am


Hear! Hear! I still have nightmares about being made to hobnob around class like bits of a tossed salad, exulting both in togetherness and in difference. Barf. I preferred the melting pot, where I could have been invisible.



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Peter

posted June 24, 2010 at 12:00 pm


So I’m a strong believer in letting kids work to their own strengths, and against egalitarianism in education and vocation.
That’s a progressive education model. The traditional schooling model was egalitarian and vocation oriented.



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Andrea

posted June 24, 2010 at 12:09 pm


Oh, how I hated group projects and team work and all of the other approaches that seem to be so in vogue right now. I had one fifth grade teacher who apparently didn’t know how to handle me so he did let me sit in a corner reading the encyclopedia while everyone else was working on group projects. I didn’t learn a thing from him that year and got terrible grades, but I did do a lot of independent research and taught myself. My approach to group projects was usually to tell my partner “I’ll do this, you’ll do that, you give me your work and I’ll put it all together the night before the assignment.” I ended up doing the lion’s share of the work but I preferred it that way.
I’ve covered professional development sessions where they give teachers the Myers Briggs personal inventory test. Most of the teachers have personalities that are perfectly suited to group projects, team work, hands-on learning, collaborative teaching methods and such. They are extroverts and sensors and feelers. I am either an INTP or an INTJ, depending on which day I take the test — introverted instead of extroverted, intuitive instead of a sensor, and a thinker instead of a feeler. I’ve yet to encounter a teacher with those traits. I don’t think the profession attracts many of them. So the teachers who design the curriculum and teach the classroom are ill-equipped to deal with kids who can’t learn well with those teaching methods. I don’t know if I’d have survived in today’s elementary classrooms. It would drive me crazy.



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Ekval

posted June 24, 2010 at 12:19 pm


As a public school teacher and a former gifted student who struggled in the same ways you did Rod, I agree with you on most of that.
The issue, in education as in politics and other things is that no one can seem to understand that both sides have valid points. I agree that group work sucks for a lot of kids and I hated it. At the same time, I think there is value in learning to function in a group.
What most proponents of the “progressive” model you are talking about forget is that while some elements of their plan work well in certain situations, as an overarching theme for all of education, it doesn’t work well. It is all well and good to say that kids need to learn to think, that they don’t need to memorize facts, but without any factual knowledge it gets pretty hard to rationally think about anything.
My point is that often a blend of two systems works, like phonics and whole language, that debate has cost tons of money and brought a lot of animosity into education. As a parent as well as a teacher, I can say that the best method is a blend of those two things, not an unswerving adherence to one side or the other.
But we like to bite on those dichotomies, pick a side and die for it no matter what.



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Richard

posted June 24, 2010 at 12:30 pm


Rod, as you know I am the principal and teacher at a school for kids with learning challenges (autism, Asperger’s, ADHD, etc) and I will agree with everything you wrote.
The only minor dissent I will make is about balance. Sometimes it’s necessary to do a little jamming of round pegs into square holes (a very little).
We have encountered students who literally CANNOT work with others. They have absolutely no social skills – for these kinds of kids, you’ve got to push them or they’ll grow up thinking that they can have whatever they want, that their way is the only way that matters. Many of them come to us from public schools who gave into them constantly just to keep peace, and that does nobody any good.
But basically you are right on about teaching to strengths! Amen!
P.S. Balance is just as important for homeschool as it is for private or public school. I know many fantastically well educated people who were homeschooled, but a few who were allowed to study anything they liked with the result that they grew up largely ignorant of anything beyond their pet subjects.



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Sharon Astyk

posted June 24, 2010 at 12:39 pm


One of the things that I think is fundamentally wrong with much of education is a deep lack of perspective about *when* things must be introduced – I wonder how much this has to do with the model. When my disabled eldest son was 2, he went part of the day to a developmental preschool that was absolutely wonderful. Still, I remember entering the toddler program and watching the two year olds practicing “pre-K” skills, so that when they entered kindergarten, they would know how to do the things expected of them. I wondered about this emphasis – my child was disabled and perhaps there was a case to be made for his needing 3 full years (although he was bright) to master sitting in a circle, cutting with scissors, etc…), but did the larger percentage of developmentally normal (75/25) kids in the class really need that long?
When a friend’s son was 4, in a preschool he attended, he was extensively tested for disabilities because at 4, his tracing of his name and other pre-writing skills were lower than average – these things can legitimately indicate fine motor issues, of course, but in my friend’s case (and I knew others like this), he simply was 4 and not ready to write yet. Left to himself, he learned to write a year later.
Our kids must learn to use computers…which means that there is ever more pressure to make them use computers from day one, whether that screen time is a good idea or not. They must learn to work in groups so that they can do so as adults – so we bring it to the earliest levels of school and do group work whether it fits them or not. Kids must learn to play by the rules and be participants in larger society – so we leap to the conclusion that it is better to learn these things as early as possible, bad to say “well maybe they can wait a while.” Thus, in the arguments for all-day kindergarten in our state, I heard someone quite seriously argue that our district should adopt all day kindergarten because we were “not sending enough kids from our distrct to the Ivy Leagues.”
And there’s a legitimate societal concern that if we don’t begin early, we don’t repeat enough we may miss something. But at the same time, there’s another risk – if we teach our kids things before they are ready, if we don’t offer an appropriate education to the now because our eyes are on the future, we risk alienating some of them.
Sharon



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David J. White

posted June 24, 2010 at 12:43 pm


I too always preferred to work alone. One reason I hated group projects was because everyone in the group would get the same grade, regardless of each one’s contribution, and I was always one of the ones who worked harder.
One of my English teachers my senior year of (Jesuit) high school got so disgusted at the lack of knowledge of basic grammar, etc. displayed by so many of the students, that she gathered together several of her better students (me included) and told us that for the rest of the semester we were to report to the school library instead of coming to class, and give her a paper at the end of the semester. She then focused the rest of the semester on giving the rest of the class the remedial English she felt they needed. Needless to say, I was in heaven that semester.
My preference for being left alone has carried over into my religious life, as well. I’m Catholic, and I think the sort of scripted, enforced happy-clappy “community” is one of the main things that cause me really to hate the Novus Ordo (post-Vatican II) liturgy and drove me to love the traditional Latin Mass. To this day I refuse to hold hands during the Our Father at Mass. I realize that the idea is that things like this are supposed to foster a sense of “community”, but that sort of scripted “community” has always felt really fake to me. At the Latin Mass everyone leaves everyone alone during the Liturgy — and then those who wish to get together to be social afterwards.
Having said all that, I can understand that there is value in nudging students out of their comfort zone. I mean, there will come a time in many students’ later, working lives when they have to work in a small group; better to learn how to do it in school, when the stakes are lower. Similarly, I think it’s important for students to make class presentations (which I also hated). In some classes I have required students to give an oral report, and only very rarely have I exempted students from it. When students tell me that they hate speaking in front of a class, I point out that in their later working lives, there might very well come a time when they have to stand up in front of a roomful of people and give a talk. Better to have the experience now when the stakes are much lower than they might be in a job situation.
Captcha: read shepherd



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Franklin Evans

posted June 24, 2010 at 12:51 pm


So, the question becomes two-fold:
What did I (general-individual) like/dislike about my education experience?
How does my experience impose demands on how all children should be educated?
…does anyone else see the flaw in that?
With much respect, sincere and unhesitating, the abstract question really is: If we are to provide an education to each new generation, and if we expect it to be effective, how much are we willing to spend to accomplish it?
I’m not talking about school budgets, property tax fights, or even the false inequities proposed by those who don’t have children or whose children are beyond school-age. I’m talking about education in the same light and at the same level as defense (military), infrastructure (roads, utilities, etc.) and any other widely-agreed need of our society.
Public education has long been a single-model approach, broadly labeled as an assembly line. Age defines each “station” on the line, and the “conveyer belt” is the children’s reaching their next birthdays.
Many schools had longstanding detailed adjustments and modifications to that model. They offered categorization according to ability and need for extra attention. They imposed professional standards by category, just as a college has standards for background, training and content mastery, i.e. one wouldn’t hire a classics expert to teach physics.
Over the last several decades one can track a slow and steady, but arbitrary shift. How much money was available to spend became the first priority, and contradictions to the professional standards followed suit (or the administrations got fired and replaced). Parents, no doubt expert in the abilities and needs of their own children, were permitted to project that anecdotal expertise on entire populations of children. Parents in denial, insisting that Johnny could so become a doctor or lawyer despite professional determinations that Johnny just didn’t have the potential, projected that denial on all the Danny’s who did have it.
And money rolled on as the juggernaut of control.
My question, the one I posit as the ethical question, is simple: If we know what our children need, and we train professionals to measure and provide those needs, why aren’t we working out how to do that with the money we can get instead of just saying, “Oh well, the expensive parts are at each end of the curve, so we’ll just cut them out and succeed with most of the kids in the middle.”
That’s why some parents give up and do home schooling. That’s why school districts have insane rules imposed on them, like being prohibited from suspending a “special needs” student no matter what his or her violation might be, up to and including those zero-tolerance rules like weapons or illegal substances. (And if you think I’m exaggerating, only privacy ethics prevents me from giving the full story of one student I know who loudly boasts to his peers that he can do anything he wants, and then demonstrates it daily.)



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Andrea

posted June 24, 2010 at 12:51 pm


David, I completely sympathize with you. I’ve never liked holding hands during the “Our Father” at Mass either or the touchy feely quality of the Mass. I did most of the work in group projects by choice, sometimes because I knew I could do a better job than some of the less able students in the group as much because I preferred working alone and then getting together at the end to go over what we were going to present. If teachers are going to insist on group projects, they really ought to adapt the approach in ways like that.
On the other hand, I was NOT allowed to just go my own way all the time and I don’t think that’s an appropriate education, either. I do know how to work in a group and how to speak at a meeting and participate in class discussion and I took public speaking. I think those are necessary survival skills for any kid. But schools also need to recognize that introversion is not patholigical and not everyone can learn best through “collaborative learning” or “group projects” or whatever term is in fashion right now. I learn best when you turn me loose in a library or on the Internet and I can research a topic until I’ve had my fill. So do others.



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Laura

posted June 24, 2010 at 12:57 pm


I agree with a lot of Andrea’s comments. I go between INTJ and ISTJ on the Myers Briggs. I think she’s right; most people in the educational system didn’t seem to understand me. My kindergarten teacher had assignments called “have-to’s” and “like-to’s”, the “like-to’s” all being things involving scissors, arts and crafts, etc., which were not things I liked to do at all! I would much rather have been reading or writing stories.
Also, I do suspect myself of having Asperger’s, which is at least partly responsible for my lack of spatial/motor skills and uninterest in group work, and I think teachers are often ill-equipped to deal with such kids. Especially back in the 80s when Asperger’s and high-functioning autism were not even defined conditions.



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Andrea

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:04 pm


“Pathological,” not “patholigical.”
Franklin Evans, cost is probably always going to be the major factor. Right now special education is a huge part of school budgets and is growing every year because schools are required to provide those kids with an appropriate education in the least restrictive environment. Laws protect kids from being removed from the classroom because of behavior related to their disabilities. Hence, more money is spent on aides, equipment, special training for all the teachers who teach kids with special needs, therapists, etc. These children have individualized education plans. Likewise, No Child Left Behind requires that schools demonstrate improvement in test score, which means kids have to be at grade level. Schools don’t get rewarded for the number of kids who are advanced or the square pegs (those who don’t have disabilities, anyway) who have NOT been forced into round holes and have been provided environments in which they can best learn. Most of the time the schools are rewarded for cramming the square pegs into the round holes as long as those kids are performing at grade level. It’s not cost effective to provide IEPs for every single kid in the school and schools are required by law to teach to the test and to provide IEPs to kids with special needs. I don’t foresee that changing any time soon. At the moment the educational colleges emphasize collaborative learning, being a team player and group work as needed for tomorrow’s society. Teachers are supposed to provide differentiated instruction for kids with different temperaments, learning styles or ability levels but in practice they probably don’t have the time to do so with the other things that are mandated by law.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:08 pm


Andrea, I would guess (this being an exercise in hypothetication) that there was at least one teacher who observed you and thought “If the district had enough money, I could make that child so much happier while still teaching her peers effectively.”
It may be idle speculation, but I had the rare mother who told me about her conversations with my teachers. Enough of them made statements very similar to that about me to make me go out on a limb and assert that if money were not an obstacle, this thread would never have been authored.
About those conversations: My mother made me an equally-responsible partner of my teachers. If I couldn’t cooperate with them at least minimally, she would not protect me from their appropriate responses (like giving me failing grades even if I’d already mastered that subject two or more grades ahead.) Education is a service, but teachers are not servants. Letting children see them as servants — because their parents not only see them that way, but talk about them and treat them that way — puts, I suggest, the majority of the blame for public education failure squarely on those parents.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:16 pm


Andrea, I see that we are cross-posting our way to agreement. My wife has been a public school special ed teacher in Philadelphia for over 35 years. Special Ed (covering both ends of the curve) is a PA state mandate with no funding allocated to it in statute. In one fell swoop, districts were forced to fit a 125% budget into 100% revenue. One can see how the numbers were done since then, as that 100% declined.
NCLB and inclusion are, IMO, perfect illustrations of the arbitrary demands placed on education professionals, the Johnny vs. Danny false fight, and the attitudes encouraged in children to be jealous of achievement and disdainful of disability.
Instead of addressing the flaws of the assmebly line, they have been exacerbating them. Look up the original meaning of the acronym SNAFU.



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Matushka Anna

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:20 pm


Boy, this is a full article. I was one of those introverted, hard-working, group-project-hating, idiocy-detecting kids. I loathed most of my pre-college schooling. Most of what I learned I learned by myself – I read non-stop. I detested any fake “community building” exercises (and yes, I was Catholic at the time and hated the same goofy stuff there). I would have seriously benefited from homeschooling, but it apparently wasn’t an option for my family. Needless to say, I’m homeschooling my own five.
I agree that there needs to be a balance. Sometimes kids must be nudged out of their comfort zones. Most often in schools that amounts to an enormous shove, not a nudge, and backfires. I also think that progressing children along acording to age is mostly nonsense. Some children are ready for something at one age and others not ready for a few more years. This doesn’t mean the late bloomer is stupid by any means. I remember getting Jane Eyre at a used book store when I was in sixth grade thinking that I would like it. I hated it and stopped about twenty pages in. I picked it up spontaneously the fall of ninth grade and read it in one sitting (until 5 AM. I remember the half-package of oreos I ate while reading too.)
The fact that there are so many variables means that each child needs individualized education. Expecting a public/private school to do this is rather ridiculous. For fairly average students this setting may work just fine but there are a lot of kids outside of the average. That’s why it’s so hard to make a general statement about “the best way to educate children”.
As for me, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing until it’s proved not to work.



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Alison

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:21 pm


I have a Master’s degree in Education, and I am completely against progressive, touchy-feely education and trying to make kids feel like education should always be fun. I went to a rigorous, private high school and received a very traditional education (we learned mostly by lectures and note-taking). I fully agree that kids’ learning should be individualized to some degree. That being said, I do fear an overemphasis on individualism in education because when those kids become adults they will need to be able to work with others. When you are in the work force, you don’t have the option to “do your own thing” if you want to keep your job. You will need to follow rules, conform to some degree, and be able to work with others.



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Andrea

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:22 pm


I think we do agree. Both of my parents were high school teachers and now community college teachers and I’ve covered education for a newspaper for 15 years. I’ve seen a lot of the same issues in the school systems here that you’ve talked about. They don’t get enough money to provide the services they are required by law to provide and the number of children with special needs has only increased.
As for my education, I suspect you’re right. I also wasn’t an easy kid to teach, so my teachers probably deserve more sympathy than I do.



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LutheranChik

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:23 pm


Oh, how I despised group assignments. And, as I suspect was true of other respondents, when I tried to be a good, supportive “team player” I got a poor grade; when I willingly took on the bulk of the strategizing and busywork even with the knowledge that the “team” would receive the credit, my grade shot up. That phenomenon in itself taught me more about the real-life dynamics of working in groups than “team building” ever did.
Ironically, I still experience bad flashbacks of gradeschool “team” exercises when I’m in church committees. Sometimes I don’t want to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” — I want to simply get a job done without having to talk it/consensus-build it to death with a half-dozen other people. Ugh.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:37 pm


The first thing to do is examine the assembly-line model, and decide if you want its economy of scale as the top priority (the most kids educated for the lowest per capita cost), or a system that has the internal flexibility to measure, identify and deliver “customized” services to those children who need them while keeping those economies of scale that are proven effective.
In the meantime, if you demand services for children who don’t actually need them, don’t bemoan the lack of money for those children who do need them.



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kevin s.

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:38 pm


I was fortunate enough to go to an elementary school that allowed kids to work at their own pace. In a sense, that is a progressive model, but not one that educational bureaucrats will allow for public schools.
When I switched to public school, where the bureaucrats and administrators have free reign, things were vastly different. My 9th grade science class was ALL group work. We even spent the first six weeks learning about the importance of group work. Literally. We had a whole lesson plan on group work.
We even had group projects in trigonometry and calculus. My favorite was a calculus project that involved designing our own soda container. We devoted four weeks of our school year to this.
And of course there was the political indoctrination from the likes of Howard Zinn.
That was back in the days of the disastrous outcome based education, which emphasized the social aspect of schooling. For all of NCLB’s flaws, I don’t think people remember how out of control our educational bureaucracies had gotten with their frou-frou experimentation and refusal to accept any measure of accountability.
The solution is to provide more options. Parents who want to home school should get money to do so. After all, they’re saving the local school district money. Parents who want to start co-ops and enroll their students in private schools should be similarly reimbursed. There is no valid reason why this has yet to happen.
Then you don’t have to worry as much about square pegs.



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Rod Dreher

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:40 pm


It’s hard to know, though, to what extent a lot of the socializing stuff is just useless, therapeutic crap, and how much of it is important for deeper reasons that cannot be explained in terms of efficiency.
I once worked in an office culture in which our bosses were sold on programs to build group dynamics. Heaven knows how much they spent bringing in outside consultants to do these mandatory workshops. These events just ended up pissing everybody off; we were journalists, therefore naturally grumpy and skeptical, and all we could think about was how much work we weren’t getting done because we had to sit there listening to theories and exercises we all thought were pretty silly. Similarly, in my view, the whole “diversity training” industry is a money-making scam through and through, something designed to make middle-class managers feel better about themselves and their social consciences, as opposed to something that actually improves an office culture and helps folks to do better work.
On the other hand, I think there are times and situations in which observing foolish or irritating social conventions is really important. John Derbyshire, who is deeply conservative, once wrote a piece about the importance of affirmative action in India. Yes, he said, it makes for inefficiencies, but when you consider how ethnically and religiously fractured Indian society is, and how dangerous that can be in terms of actual violence, the idea of ethnic set-asides and suchlike, while frustrating for both efficiency and for some individuals, makes overall sense, re: keeping the peace.
I bring this up not to start an argument over diversity, affirmative action, etc., but to point out that there really are times when the greater good of the whole requires significant sacrifice on the part of individuals.



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Rod Dreher

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:46 pm


Another thought: I was fortunate enough to attend a public boarding school for accelerated students. It was complete liberation, both academically and socially. I graduated 25 years ago, and it’s clear to me from this distance in time that the greatest gift that school gave to me was psychological and emotional. I could finally be at a school in which I was normal, and didn’t have to be made to conform to a group in which I felt like a radical outsider.
Interestingly, though, I think the school made a mistake with my class. We were the first one to complete the school, so I suspect they learned a lesson from us. They seemed to think that gifted kids were equally gifted in all areas. It’s not true. I was a good math student, but I was nowhere near as capable as many of the kids in that school. I burned out quickly on math, shut down, and failed my course. My particular gifts were verbal; I imagine many of the kids who were exceptionally gifted in math struggled hard in our English and humanities courses. I don’t know this for a fact, but I bet the school learned over the years to adjust expectations.



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Marian

posted June 24, 2010 at 1:56 pm


All I wanted when I was in school was for the teachers to get out of my way and let me educate myself. Dunno how common this is. Some of them did it, some of them didn’t. It worked better in high school than in grade school.



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Marian

posted June 24, 2010 at 2:01 pm


Re: group work–I discovered the usefulness and fun of group work long after finishing college, mostly during my years in law school. Law school, of course, is where Study Groups reign supreme. I don’t know anybody who succeeded in getting a JD who believes s/he could have done without a study group. At the same time, I was also a member of a collective that published a countercultural Jewish newspaper (called, reasonably enough, Chutzpah) which gave me a different but equally useful approach to group work. I think group work is effective for grownups in ways that it usually isn’t for children, because grownups are involved in whatever groups they work in for jointly agreed-upon reasons and purposes. Kids, OTOH, really don’t know WHY they’re in school, except that everybody tells them they’re supposed to be.



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Matushka Anna

posted June 24, 2010 at 2:02 pm


Rod, I too (and I suspect many, many more) suffered at the hands of the work-place bureaucrats whose group-activity-diversity-training agenda kept us from doing actual work. I was a charge nurse at a large teaching hospital and all I could think when trying to put on my “mildly interested” face is: at least I’m getting paid for this. Ugh.



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Matushka Anna

posted June 24, 2010 at 2:04 pm


And I would add, in agreement with Marion: groups voluntarily formed by the participants for a common purpose tend to succeed. Groups imposed by an outside force on unwilling participants don’t.



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Peter

posted June 24, 2010 at 2:21 pm


I was a charge nurse at a large teaching hospital and all I could think when trying to put on my “mildly interested” face is: at least I’m getting paid for this.
OTOH, I’d hate to be a patient on a floor of nurses and medical professionals who didn’t know how to work together and function as a group.



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AnotherBeliever

posted June 24, 2010 at 2:24 pm


In the military you really really actually learn to work together as a team. I’m not sure it’s a lesson a young teen is ready for, because it takes a considerable amount of flexibility, discipline, commitment and a clear-headed acceptance of reality. Or then again, maybe it’s just that it can’t be taught independently of an actual important job. A social studies project doesn’t cut it. ;)
At any rate, you learn that everyone plays a particular role in a group. You are not all equal. Some people will pull more weight than others. When there is no option of switching groups or firing anybody, you simply have to adjust to everyone’s working styles. Some are the creative idea producers. Some are the workhorses or highly skilled technicians. Some provide direction and leadership. Some inspire everyone towards the group’s mission and ethos. And some don’t do much of anything. C’est la vie. Honestly, for the first six months of working together intensively, there’s a lot of strife and division. After that, people begin to accept each other’s differences and eventually to capitalize on them. Maybe the problem with group work in school and at work is that there isn’t enough time to build the deep relationships and understanding it takes for the whole thing to work.
Just my ten cents. I’ll be interested to see how teamwork works in a civilian job. I may have one of those by the end of the summer. My first “real” job, ever.



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deb

posted June 24, 2010 at 2:31 pm


Leaving the discussion of larger educational, workplace, and social policies and practices to others, I just want to say: Rod, I think you’re doing exactly right by Matthew, and he’s so lucky to have parents who recognize his strengths and are responsive to his preferred modes of learning.
Keep trusting Matthew to show you how he best learns. I trust that you and Julie are also responsive to his needs for appropriate, healthy social development that proceeds at his own pace, and therefore you may blithely ignore those who would try to scare you into their muddy-headed, counter-productive notion of “socialization.” (What on Earth makes people look to the elementary school classroom, with a couple dozen or more kids all the same age thrown together for hours a day, kept apart from the larger community, with one adult to herd them, as a model for healthy child development? Honestly.)
Trust your child and your own intimate parental knowledge of him. You’ll be amazed at what kids can do when they are given freedom to learn in the ways that work best for them, under the guidance of attentive, responsive, and responsible parenting. (I know you’re already familiar with these good results.) This environment may come to blend homeschooling with public or private schooling, or not, but you and Matthew will make those choices, not have them made for you. Keep it up, and one day, you’ll have a teenage son who has taken ownership of his own education and works happily and diligently to meet his goals, ready to launch into adulthood with insight about himself and empathy for others.
You go, Rod. (And Julie!)



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Rod Dreher

posted June 24, 2010 at 2:32 pm


Peter, I believe the point your missing is that there may have been no evidence that the group wasn’t working well together. I’ll never forget the mid-1990s, having to sit through a mandatory diversity training course at my newspaper. It was a moronic joke — and nobody did more to blow the thing sky-high than my black, openly gay colleague, who had us all in stitches as he made fun of the session all the way through. The paternalistic assumption was that we were all a bunch of knotheads who needed edumacation on how to treat each other civilly. That we couldn’t be trusted to work well together until and unless we had been processed by a professional. It was insulting, and deserved mockery. As another colleague told the facilitator when she asked, in a Romper Room voice, for someone to tell us why we were all here today: “Because the insurance company told our bosses to make us.”



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Peter

posted June 24, 2010 at 2:40 pm


I wasn’t talking about diversity training. I was talking about the need for people on a hospital floor to be able to communicate well and work on a team. There are lots of job where people–involuntarily and not getting to choose the people they work with–have to work as a team. Sometimes that needs facilitation.



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AnotherBeliever

posted June 24, 2010 at 2:48 pm


Marian, I think you have something there. A group of adults working towards a common agreed-upon purpose will do far better at teamwork than a group of young schoolchildren forced into a false situation, or a group of adults who haven’t really committed to the mission or each other (probably because the mission just isn’t important enough.)
And I am an INTJ for anyone who tracks that kind of thing. We are all very different and we all have different roles to play in any group, regardless of how accurate you may think the Myers-Brigg scale of personality is.



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Andrea

posted June 24, 2010 at 3:01 pm


Managing reporters is a bit like managing cats. I wouldn’t expect diversity training to go over that well. I find it a complete and utter waste of time. I don’t know that group meetings ever have much of an impact on actually helping people to work together. I think most grown-ups can usually work that out for themselves, by talking with the other people in the group. If you have one person who’s determined to be a jerk, you take it up with him and then with human resources.



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Matushka Anna

posted June 24, 2010 at 3:01 pm


Thank you, Rod, for helping me clarify my position.
Peter: The point was that I wouldn’t have *been* a charge nurse had I not known how to work with others, others being defined as patients, family members, doctors (from interns up), subordinate nurses, nursing administration, non-medical administration, ancillary staff, and therapists of all kinds. I can guarantee you that none of what I knew or learned about working with others came from any of those d***ed classes. We were treated like kindergarteners.
(And yes, there were people occasionally who were unable to work with others. They didn’t last long.)
captcha: functions noxious (oh yeah)



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Erin Manning

posted June 24, 2010 at 3:13 pm


I think the question that needs to be asked is, what is the purpose of education?
If the purpose of education is to produce adults who will be docile and functional in a typical corporate environment, complete with “team” rhetoric and individual-backstabber reality, with “diversity” rhetoric and “this is presently our favorite minority group so promote the h*ll out of anyone in that group,” reality, with “group project” rhetoric and “you’d better be doing two other people’s work including your own to stay employed” reality, then education programs which promote teamwork, diversity, and group projects are doing a fine job of preparing children for the world they will occupy for most of their adult working lives.
Of course, if the purpose of education is *not* to produce corporate drones, then we’re doing the individualistic, creative, self-motivated loner children a disservice. But in actual fact, education seems to convince most of them (or I should say, ‘us,’) that they will be miserably unsuited to a forty-plus year career in a corporate office building, and that they should therefore pursue other paths that may be less lucrative or “success”-oriented but that at least will not cause their interior landscape to resemble a certain Edvard Munch painting long before they reach the halfway-mark.
Captcha joins in with “averted ship,” which isn’t bad at all.



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Peter

posted June 24, 2010 at 3:18 pm


Before this turns into a typical blah blah blah rant on diversity training and the workplace, it’s interesting to think about how education has historically been in the U.S. Group work–while viewed as “progressive” is actually very regressive and retro. When public education began in Europe and the U.S., group work and collaboration were the usual approach because of limited resources. That, and rote memorization.
The push for individualistic approaches is actually an offshoot of the progressive education models of the 1960s and 1970s where teachers learned about individual learning styles and kids were sent off into corners with bean bag chairs to read. This is when the Montessori method has a resurgence.
Those advocating for different learning tracks, individualize instruction, student-centered learning and curriculum, letting students roam around in the library or sit in the corner in read are advocating for a very radical, progressive approach even if you don’t realize it.



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steve

posted June 24, 2010 at 3:38 pm


The emphasis on group activity also takes place at our son’s public school in a pretty conservative area. My family tell me this is common where they live in the Midwest. This seems to be very widespread, along with an abundance of busy work homework and arts and crafts projects.
Pre-college, they should get grounded in basics with wide exposure to the classics. Lots of reading and fewer projects. They should begin to learn how to learn. College should finish that task. College should rarely be seen as prep for a specific job. It should teach you how to learn on your own, while exposing you to a wide variety of ideas that will challenge your core beliefs and make you learn why you believe what you believe.
I would also agree with the author that kids need more exposure to speech and debate. They are useful lifelong skills.
Steve



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Lord Karth

posted June 24, 2010 at 3:53 pm


Marian @ 2:01 PM writes:
“Law school, of course, is where Study Groups reign supreme. I don’t know anybody who succeeded in getting a JD who believes s/he could have done without a study group.”
I had no such privilege; working anywhere between 20 and 40 hours per week all three years forbade it. No work, no tuition money. Besides, I was newly married my second year, and my wife and I had to eat.
I managed to get my JD “solo”. By the skin of my teeth in some classes, but I managed.
Your servant,
Karth, Lord sutai-D’vistrill, tai-Fulton, zantai-Fisher
J.D., Syracuse U. College of Law, Class of 1989.



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Ben Jordan

posted June 24, 2010 at 3:55 pm


Group learning is the most important part of a child’s elementary education. Children must learn to work together, even if they don’t like it. Elementary school is THE place that kids learn to get along and learn how to act in social situations. Home schooling is not an option. I have known people who have been home schooled, including 2 cousins of mine, and they do not show mature social skills. They have never learned how to do so. They are both older than me by 4 and 6 years, yet they act as if they are way younger. It is very sad and I do not want this to happen to anybody else. On another note, this author contradicts himself many, many times in this article. That says to me that he does not believe what he is saying, he is trying to make a point. Irresponsible, in my opinion.



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Matushka Anna

posted June 24, 2010 at 4:03 pm


Boy, tell my five children that in homeschooling they “don’t have to learn to work together” and they will laugh you out of our very small house. (c;
(captcha: minivans give)



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David J. White

posted June 24, 2010 at 4:07 pm


Similarly, in my view, the whole “diversity training” industry is a money-making scam through and through, something designed to make middle-class managers feel better about themselves and their social consciences, as opposed to something that actually improves an office culture and helps folks to do better work.
Yeah, I find that when I’m subjected things like being lectured never to say “x” word because it’s offensive to members of “y” group, there’s always a little voice in the back of my head that says, “Great! Now when I really want to piss off a member of “y” group I know that I just have to call him/her an “x”!”



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Peter

posted June 24, 2010 at 4:23 pm


“Great! Now when I really want to piss off a member of “y” group I know that I just have to call him/her an “x”!”
You are a management employment lawyer’s worst nightmare and a class action lawyers dream.



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Your Name

posted June 24, 2010 at 4:46 pm


I have known people who have been home schooled . . . and they do not show mature social skills.
People think that our 12yo son has immature social skills because he learns at home. They are confusing cause and effect.
RE teaching kids to work in teams: teachers should realize that this is a skill that can/should be taught, and it isn’t best accomplished by merely forcing students into groups and handing them a “group project.” There are specific skills you could help them learn about.



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David J. White

posted June 24, 2010 at 5:00 pm


Thanks, Peter! It’s what I’ve always aspired to! ;-)
I guess I just resent being dictated to / sent to re-education camp by the Thought Police, as well as the assumption underlying these “diversity seminars”, i.e. that of course everyone wants to be sure never to offend anyone else. Well, there *are* in fact circumstances when people *need* to be offended. (Not to say that these are frequent, or that they are likely to occur in most job-related settings.)
I’m reminded of a scene in the musical *1776*, when the Second Continental Congress is debating the text of the Declaration of Independence. Various members propose changes and deletions in the language so as not to offend various parties. Finally, in exasperation, the John Adams character says, “This is a Revolution, damn it! We’re going to have to offend somebody!”



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Peter

posted June 24, 2010 at 6:04 pm


Well, there *are* in fact circumstances when people *need* to be offended.
Sure, but not on the company’s dime or his his/her workplace.
The workplace isn’t a free speech zone but instead a place where your employer expects you to do his work and follow his rules. So if a boss, afraid of someone who thinks they have a license to offend, needs to take action, who can blame them?



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stefanie

posted June 24, 2010 at 6:14 pm


Our two youngest attended a “progressive” (Waldorf) pre-school through first grade for a few years. One thing I liked about Waldorf education was that it focused on the whole child, not just academic subjects like reading and math. Sometimes academically “advanced” children are not so advanced in other ways. They may have kinetic issues like balance; not be able to clap out a rhythm; have less developed fine- or gross-motor skills. They may be able to read at a higher grade level, but can’t tell you a simple story (or act it out with puppets.)
You may have children who are highly verbal, but who lack emotional intelligence and/or awareness of body language & nonverbal communication. They are miserable in preschool because they *don’t know how to get along with other children,* not on a cognitive level but on a basic non-verbal, body-awareness level. Sometimes they appear to not be really “in” their bodies at all. These children do NOT need just more academics. They need to bring their bodies *and* minds *and* hearts into balance with each other. Education is part of this process.
Those are just some examples. It’s funny that this thread is so full of autonomous individualism (“I don’t need anybody else!”), and so dismissive of other traditions besides the “classically academic” – esp. for “crunchy cons.” When 3-4 year old children learn to dance together, sing together, tell each other stories, act in plays, learn to crochet and play the recorder, dig in the community garden, they are learning *all kinds of things* on many levels, not just the academic. (Of course these types of learning don’t have to take place in Waldorf or Montessori school – many parents incorporate them into their homeschooling and/or daily lives as well.)



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AnotherBeliever

posted June 24, 2010 at 7:22 pm


Stefanie, you have something there about individualism. I wouldn’t want to live somewhere where no one took into consideration individuals’ wants and desires, but at the same time they are not the be all and end all. Getting exactly what you want when you want it is NOT the path to growth and joy.



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Indy

posted June 24, 2010 at 8:29 pm


Lots going on here with the original essay and the comments. I was educated in public schools and mostly have pleasant memories of school, although I was a bookish type of person. As I grew up, I came to understand that some of the problems I faced with other kids were due to my own errors or poor choices. Some were due to their inherent characteristics (we all have to deal with some bullying and teasing). People do learn at different rates. What I initially thought of as “their fault” later became, “well, I could have handled that differently.” Overall, I found that age brought greater humility but also greater acceptance of the need to learn and move on when I messed up on things as well as greater appreciation for peoples’ differences. Academically I did very well, however, everywhere I went to school.
I don’t think either public education or homeschooling is problem free-or the perfect solution, in general terms. Each can vary greatly depending on who is involved. One is based on an opt-in to the system, the other on an opt-out. Teaching math, science, English grammar and to some extent literature are less challenging than teaching history or social science and civics related topics. Both forms of schooling can tilt into ideological rigidity in teaching history and civics if mishandled or poorly structured. Ideological judgmentalism in the civic arena is different than forming value judgments about personal conduct, of course.
Thing is, if you don’t like what the school is teaching your kid, you can supplement it in the home. There’s no age limit to that, you can do it whatever grade your kid is in. If you skew or are off course in what you’re teaching in the home, and that is the only source of education for your kid, the course corrections, if needed, will come later, at the college level or in the workplace. I don’t mean course corrections in values, I mean in some of the areas involving critical thinking, diversity, socialization. Sometimes the course corrections may go too far in an opposite direction and backfire. Sometimes they work well and prepare the young adult to work well together with others.
The real challenge with “socialization” isn’t whether kids in a family or classroom learn how to interact with each other as they play or work on projects together. It’s what they do with the values they learned and how they adjust to other people once they get into a workplaces that is the key to success. Their personal standards on some issues may become irrelevant, although obviously still very important during off-hours in their personal conduct. Once you sign on to work somewhere, you’re going to be judged by whether you are an asset or a liability to the employer.
Diversity training, although often poorly done because it isn’t nuanced or sophisticated enough (Rod, love your stories about your former workplace), really is aimed at lessening risks and reducing employers’ liability. Someone who fails to treat people unlike himself (or herself) fairly because of race, religion (or lack thereof), gender, lifestyle choices, and other personal characteristics, when those issues are irrelevant to job performance, is going to place the employer at greater risk than someone who does. More importantly, they may miss unarticulated cries for help or signs of trouble among co-workers or subordinates, because they’re not good at reading people unlike themselves. A lot of workplace communication of problems actually is non-verbal and indirect. That’s where a well socialized person often beats out colleagues when its time to be promoted–by displaying the ability to navigate some of that.



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Jon

posted June 24, 2010 at 8:59 pm


Re: John Derbyshire, who is deeply conservative, once wrote a piece about the importance of affirmative action in India.
Mr Derbyshire, his bigotries not withstanding, is also a very practical and clear-sighted man. He was the last guy on NRO I still enjoyed eading before the rising tide of idiocy there drove me away. I really wonder how he’ll fare in the long term since the Right has no tolerance for any truth that does not meet their preconceptions.



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Liam

posted June 24, 2010 at 9:37 pm


I too managed to go through 3 years of a certain (in)famous law school without being in a study group, and most of my classmates did not participate in study groups; maybe books about study groups at our school chilled us to the value of them? This was from ’83-’86.



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polistra

posted June 24, 2010 at 10:56 pm


A while back I wrote a tribute to one teacher who managed to strike exactly the right balance. This wasn’t in a “progressive” school; it was a working-class public school in 1956.
http://polistrasmill.blogspot.com/2010/05/miss-hunholz.html
I don’t think it would be possible in current conditions, with educrats and psychologists and lawyers hammering on teachers from all sides.



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Pat

posted June 24, 2010 at 11:53 pm


Well, required seminars are just not worth getting tied up in knots over. They are opportunities to knit. Or, for people without foresight, they are opportunities to watch others knit.



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No Name Today in Beantown

posted June 25, 2010 at 12:10 am


I would like to add my $.02 worth especially in response to Erin Manning’s comments above.
I work for a firm in Boston that specializes in financial management for high net-worth individuals. Our firm provides investment management advice, trust services, family office services, estate planning, private charitable foundations, etc. for our clients whose net worths range from, say, $5 million to $200 million.
Yes, we took a little hit last year with the recession, but we are doing quite well, thank you, this year. Billings and profits are up from last year.
Now, in further response to Erin Manning’s observations:
Yes, indeed, we do use the apparently “discredited” (by Erin!) team approach in our company!
Hey, it work’s for us!!
I work on the Trust/Family Office team and in that capacity interact with other teams. Our company is not large, about 45 people. Our business model works very well for us, Erin.
Your experience, Erin, is perhaps otherwise?
I would certainly would be interested in your input as to how we could improve our business model.
One small anecdote: A couple of years ago our firm took off an afternoon in July to go on “scavenger hunt” in Boston. The teams were not composed of people who worked together on a day-to-day basis.
A light went off in my head, and I realized the purpose of this exercise was to bring people together from different teams who did not work together. The result: Bonding, cheap and cheesy prizes, drinks and dinner at Quincy Market. Team-building, and a good time was had by all.
(Am guessing Erin would not approve).
Now, a final observation: My company would never waste time and money on cheap-and-chintzy “diversity training”.
We are quite beyond that: I am a male homo, and, quite frankly, no one cares about my sexual orientation, what-ever.
My fellow workers care only about the work product I produce.
BTW, Erin, what is your experience in the business world? Please share!



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Andrea

posted June 25, 2010 at 1:07 am


No Name Today in Beantown — it’s great that you enjoy what you do and you’re successful at it. I, on the other hand, would loathe doing what you do and working in that kind of setting and so would a lot of other people. Put me in your office and I would look like the screaming man in that famous painting Erin referenced. Not everyone is suited for a “team environment.” That’s what most of the posts you objected to are about, not about how successful you are at what you do. Not everyone can or should be forced into that particular role or educated in that sort of environment. At a guess, I’d say you might have a temperament and abilities suited for whatever it is you do. I don’t.



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AnitaAshland

posted June 25, 2010 at 11:06 am


As a mother of 4 daughters who homeschooled for several years and has also sent kids to parochial school, private school, and, soon, public school, I’ve pretty much gotten over any certainties I may have once had about education.
The Millenial generation is the most over-parented generation ever. I don’t think my Silent Generation parents engaged in conversations like the one in this thread back when I was in school. As much as I disliked school for the same reasons Rod did, I sometimes long for those days that were free of helicopter parenting and agita over education.
Many of the parents at one of the local public schools here are up
in arms over talk of potential closure of that school and merging it into another and hostilities. Parents at my kids’ local parochial school get highly agitated about wanting more funding for SMART boards (among other things). Local homeschool parents get into debates about unschooling vs. homeschooling and there are tensions between those two communities.
So there’s a downside to every option and choosing what’s in the best interest of one’s child sometimes has a much to do with what’s in the parent’s closet of anxieties (a la Binkley in Bloom County) than it does the child.
By sending my kids to school – a school that isn’t perfect, to be sure – I’ve finally been able to actually experience what it’s like to have the help of a village. I’ve been nothing short of astonished, and often reduced to tears of gratitude, that my kids have teachers that care about them and have showed them empathy. That keeps in check any tendencies I might have to raise a fuss about SMART boards or
stupid standardized testing, whether group vs. individial learning is best, etc.
Moreover, it’s helped clean out my closet of anxieties. It really isn’t so bad out there after all.



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AnotherBeliever

posted June 25, 2010 at 11:58 am


AnitaAshland, it sounds like it’s been something of a relief not to do it all on your own for a change. That, I think, is the only real disadvantage to homeschooling. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a very good support network, it must be extremely difficult to keep at year after year.
Andrea, I would argue that teamwork is essential for many professions, if not all of them. Even so-called loners should be a part of a wider community, a community which can accept them for who they are and offer them support when they need it. Where team-building exercises seem false is where they are artificially brought in for the purpose of building a team from scratch, where the people in question have no common mission or purpose to start with. It is no wonder that participants would see such an arrangement as fake.
And unless the team-building exercise is a very thoughtfully designed one, it will also be annoying to those teams which are already well-formed and coherent. I can remember “Field Days” in the Army. When we were still trainees in a big group just learning the basics and not yet engaged in our work or in each other, these exercises were useful and even fun. We were still new at working with a diverse group of people, we could learn a lot from each other (and diversity goes far beyond race – there’s city kids, country kids, new immigrants, Old Blood, brainiacs, gearheads, etc and etc on top of race and sexual orientation.) When they did the same thing when our team had been together for several years, and had deployed to Iraq together, truly learning each person’s roles and value and strengths and weaknesses inside and out; long after we had grown accustomed to diversity – these team-building exercises were superfluous and widely regarded as a waste of time. We would have been much better served with a large gazebo at a nice waterside park, a barbecue pit, and free beer.



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Andrea

posted June 25, 2010 at 12:39 pm


I wouldn’t say that teamwork isn’t important. I wouldn’t have a job if I didn’t know how to work with other people. You pick up the phone when someone else is busy, you work the night shift five nights in a week when everyone eise is on vacation, you take one part of a story and someone else takes the other part, you sympathize if someone’s had a rotten day and you pick up some of the slack. If you aren’t capable of that kind of give and take or working together, you probably won’t be able to function anywhere, much less at a job. But at the same time, I’d go crazy with too much enforced togetherness/artificial teamwork and I wouldn’t pick a job where that sort of thing is demanded of me. Going into the military was never even an option for me. I need to work alone much of the time to recharge my batteries. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to recognize and respect those differences in temperament when organizing schools or designing other types of environments. For the most part, the world is designed for extroverts, which can be pretty exhausting for the rest of us!



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AnotherBeliever

posted June 25, 2010 at 2:48 pm


Andrea, I agree with you. Real teamwork is a good thing, it’s those artificial and unnecessary togetherness exercises that need to go. :)



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