Daddy, What Did You Do During the Educational Revolution?When you are in the middle of a revolution, the best way to go is not obvious. Recently an opinion article in our local newspaper explored the problems faced by schools in educating young people in an era of “No Child Left Behind,” charter school alternatives, and home schooling. Throw in some teachers’ union considerations, taxpayer reticence, and improved online teaching techniques (cheap ones, too!), and you have some real confusion about what is best. In fact, I do not even know how to define “best education” — either in content or technique. That is a first class problem in decision making!

We have no reason to believe that one-hour sessions in a classroom with a teacher is the best, or even near the best, way to learn. In fact, I have no idea what the best way to learn is because I have only the faintest idea of what learning is. Please do not mistake what I mean here. Surely we all understand what it means to learn to read or to recite the multiplication tables. These types of skills have been considered valuable tools for many years. But thousands of years ago, other skills were more highly valued because skills at hunting or farming were critical for survival. More recently, my knowledge of the operation characteristics of pentode vacuum tubes is of limited utility, but at one time, it was valuable knowledge. Children have not always spent time learning to tie shoes because they did not always have shoes that tied. Driver’s Ed was not important before cars were plentiful. One skill that has not changed in importance is learning how to get along with other people. The skill itself has changed. What “get along” means has changed from time to time and from society to society, but integrating into a society to some degree is always important. Without society, a person is not just a hermit; such a person is essentially a smart animal working on survival. To become a hermit, one must first learn a lot from society.

So we probably cannot define an optimum system of education independent of a society and the level of technology in that society. Throw into that definition that fact that the societal resources allocated to education vary with the temperament of the times and general availability of resources. I was able to become the first person in my family to graduate from high school and to attend college in part because World War II made a lot of people realize that education was important, and besides, by making college education more available, massive unemployment could be avoided by store-housing returning veterans for several years. That is, our government wanted to stockpile physicists and engineers and simultaneously prevent large groups of disgruntled young men from demonstrating. More money for education was the answer. This impulse was renewed with the launching of Sputnik, and I benefited. Young high school graduates today face a totally different economic situation.

Economic considerations also drive much online teaching now that the technology, both hardware and software, have advanced enough to be generally available to non-experts.

Home-schooling is much more than an enclave of religious apartheid. I do not know the breakdown of what percentage of home-schooled children are being indoctrinated into a specific religious tradition, but I do know that at one point, my wife and I removed our children from public school because we felt the level of teaching was below our academic standards. We later resorted to a private school of the traditional type. We did not have access to online teaching at that time, but if it had been available, then most likely our children would have had more home-schooling than they did. Would that have adversely affected their development as contributing members of society? I do not know.

As I said, when you are in a revolution, things look murky. For instance, I tutor seniors in various aspects of computer literacy. This can be either private one-on-one sessions or traditional classes. But, ironically, the material that I present is composed of things that I have taught myself. Now there is a contradiction. Should I be encouraging seniors to teach themselves as I have done? Well, self-teaching is only a method. It is a method that works for some people, but not others. Which method is better? Depends.

The same can be said for online teaching. It works very well for some people, and when complemented with interaction with a human teacher, can be a universally valuable method for rapid learning of factual material economically. Gaining societal skills and athletic development probably require more traditional methods.

What is the best method of educating at this time? Depends. It depends on the mores of the society and the expectations of education. One thing for certain is that the best method changes. And it can be a test to eliminate less-than-optimum methods without being forced to define a true optimum (which might not be definable). If a learning program has not incorporated generally accepted ideas, then it should be considered suspect. For instance, ignoring Darwinian evolution as an explanation for bio-diversity is an indication of sub-standard education. Teaching a single reality (e.g., religion) as the unquestioned truth is a warning sign. Teaching as truth things that are really only wishful thinking — such as class distinctions or racial superiority — invalidates the program.

None of this will help a person decide which OS is the best or which new computer to buy. These are things that seem to be best self-taught, but with input from friends, relatives, and fellow travelers.

Think about this: Of all the things you do every day, how many did you learn in a schoolroom? How many did you learn by doing? How does this differ from what your parents did? How will this likely differ from what your children and grandchildren will do?