Why do we send them to school?

When my son was four, his kindergarten teacher complained that he didn’t listen and seemed to want to spend all his time socializing. My wife asked him if he knew why we sent him to school. I thought his reply, “No, I have no idea,” quite sophisticated for a four year old. Still, we had our reasons for sending him. So do most parents. As a lifelong educator teaching public and post-secondary students, I have heard many such reasons. Parents want their children to get a good education. They want their children to succeed at university and careers for which university is requisite. They want their children to have opportunities to be creative, to have fun, to learn new and exciting things. They want their children to be disciplined and diligent in their studies and respectful of others. For their children, parents want a lot from school. Chiefly, parents want school to give their children advantages they couldn’t get elsewhere … and that’s great, because, at its best, that’s what school delivers. How do schools do this? By being the place where students do things they will do nowhere else.

Only at school are students required, on a daily basis, to put aside other concerns and concentrate on academic subjects for more than a few minutes at a time. To help students meet this requirement, schools are avid in their pursuit of the curricular sciences. For instance, schools put a concerted effort into what reading is suited to each student’s level of development and how best to teach students to understand and appreciate what they read. Lots of children’s lit marketers advertise to target audiences and, like them, schools meet students where they are. Schools don’t leave them there, however. Only at school is each student observed with an eye to what they should read next. The school’s concern extends beyond what students like to what educated readers can and should appreciate.

Outside the school, the world is rife with the promotion of the latest electronic delivery systems for text and literary education. The emphasis is always on making reading and learning more user friendly. Some of this makes its way into the schools. There is a great deal of pressure – commercial, institutional and political – for the schools to take more. While this trend to the use of more gadgetry is all well and good, to a point, schools are to be commended on the extent to which they continue to expose students to text by way of the printed page and its organization into books. Aside from the mysterious contributions, both to the learning process and the love of learning, made by students’ tactile interactions with the illustrated and printed page, there is the fact that the printed book remains probably the most accessible delivery system for text ever invented. With the book, no knowledge of operating systems is needed. If the student can turn pages, the student can access at least some of what is in the book. On a more sophisticated level, the book’s pages can be dog eared and highlighted by the student to suit their own study habits and priorities. Also, the book’s many points of entry, every page is an entry point, allow the student an almost effortless and instantaneous access to any part of the text. In no other system do so many entry nodes wait so patiently to be points of instantaneous access: their availability encourages the reader not only to read but to reread, and to begin anywhere so that, in effect, the reader becomes both co-editor and co-author of their own reading. Schools ensure that book learning is open to all students, even the many who fall prey to media hucksterism proclaiming the death of print. Print will never die because it brings reading alive in ways that nothing else can. If any environment remains to acquaint students with print’s undying authority, it will be the schools.

It is and will be the schools that teach almost all students all of the math they will ever know. I have heard many students wonder aloud why they have to learn a math skill that they will never use once they leave school. The answer to their concern is in two parts. First, students can’t be sure what they will use once they leave school. Second, they learn math skills at school precisely because they will not encounter them anywhere else. As such, school exposes students to ways of thinking that are novel to them. Also, school exposes them to the opportunity to master difficult concepts and to develop the study and learning habits that makes such mastery possible. The math students learn in school teaches them to think with greater precision and discipline, and that is thinking which is useful anywhere.

Of course, there are a great many other things besides book learning and mathematics that students learn at school that they will not learn elsewhere. When I was walking through Robarts Library at University of Toronto some years ago, I saw a student reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. That is, her book was not about hieroglyphics, it was written in hieroglyphics, and she knew how to read it. I thought, what a marvelous place is this university. People can do anything, here. Chiefly, what they do at university is participate in the only real progress society ever evidences; that is, progress in the sciences, the arts and the humanities. Thus do students become part of a civilized minority that provides the only antidote society has to mob rule. But they can go to university only because their schools prepare them as no other institution can.

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