Stylocycle’s Blog


Snowed In, Snowed Under
February 6, 2011, 4:23 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The Blue Beauty is stuck in a snow pile over two feet deep. Until about 10 days ago I was still riding regularly. Winter arrived late this year insofar as snow dumps go. Another 10 cm last night brings our total over the last few days to something in the range of 30cm. Our roads are considerably narrowed by the ingress of snow-banks… but it can’t be too long now until the spring thaws start to take back our streets.

Meanwhile, I’ve been doing what I do when I’m not out and about. I think. I write. That’s my gig in this this life. Think. Write. Communicate ideas.

Here’s something that’s stuck in my craw and won’t leave.

I’ve recently heard the old adage that “parents are the first teachers of the child” much abused. The idea that parents are the first teachers is sometimes attributed to Schinichi Suzuki, and arises in much of the current public discourse about parental responsibility with regard to education. As a truism, it can suffer from being taken-for-granted as an obvious point that verifies whatever the issue that follows from it.

Here, I’d like to take it back to the point Suzuki was making: that children did not (when he was writing) generally encounter formal education before age 7, and yet were already aware of the larger world around them, and to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the ability of parents to invest attention and time in the children, would take on the values and talents and knowledge of the parents. I am reminded at this point of the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu’s work on the transmission of class values and tastes from one generation to the next as exhaustively described and assessed in his sweeping study, Distinction. Unlike so many current educators who are obsessed with transmitting the “superior” values of the middle-class, Bourdieu made the point that there was no inherent value-difference between ‘high’ culture and ‘low’ culture. He did not advocate for schools to colonize and wipe away the tastes and values of the working class. Nor did he see any rational purpose to disparaging the tastes of elites as ‘frivolous’. He did outline the interests served by the bourgeois rationalisation of formal education, and of the working class disparagement of elite culture, but understanding the mechanisms served by each strategy does not amount for Bourdieu to advocating a particular approach.

So what has this to do with parents being the first teachers of their children?
So far as I can tell, the truism is descriptive, not prescriptive. It tells us that a child will learn internal anatomy of different vertebrates from the parent who hunts for food, will learn the migration and dietary habits of birds from the same parent… The description accounts for the tendency of children to learn valuable information through informal but repeated transmission.

Here’s what it’s not about:
Getting ‘the jump’ on a state-supplied curriculum so that you can get a wedge of advantage in over the other children in the class.

“Parents are the first teachers of the child” is a description of what we already do, more or less unconsciously. To use this point — as schools increasingly do — as a coercive insistence that parents should be enforcing tedious homework, or supplying the curriculum in advance, or trying to figure out how to do the formal work of the school in addition to holding down two or three jobs is just abusive.

It is abusive because it exacerbates existing class inequalities between children by measuring their ability to learn only against the given curriculum instead of using the knowledge and interests children arrive with to help them learn in school. It is abusive because it problematizes some families and privileges others. It is abusive because the declared rules of the formal education system tell us that the curriculum begins at the same place for all the children (unless you happen to know how to get the jump on it and are not concerned with whether doing so breaks the apparent rules). It is abusive because it understands teaching as the rote repetition of decontextualized information and recasts that as ‘knowledge’ while ignoring all the pragmatic and aesthetic knowledge that children may actually have. It is abusive because it passes off the responsibilities of state-mandated education to parents and thus responsiblizes them for the failings of a system that is too large to serve the specific needs of individual children. It is abusive because it teaches some children that what they know, and what their parents know is not worthy.

My kid could read before he was 5 years old. Because his father has a musical talent and interest that our son also displayed from toddlerhood, our child had more musical training and ability by age 6 than most kids have at the completion of high school. Because we were fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in the countryside, our son learned a lot about the habitats and life-cycles of reptiles, amphibians and birds, about how beavers structure their dams, and about water cycles… all before he was in the third grade. We have no idea why, but the kid loved to play math-based games from a very early age and could do arithmetic in his head…

We sent him to school early so that he could have friends. He is an only child and when he was young he would look out our window longingly at the children who went to school and wanted to play with them too. We were not concerned about his ability to learn. It never occurred to us that school would end up being disastrous for him from an official measures stand-point.

The first 3 years were fine. But then we moved to a suburban location because my work required a move out of the city. In the suburbs, the new elementary school assumed that mothers stayed home and fathers earned income. The expectation was that we were at home to enforce the ‘extras’ required to master the curriculum, to police homework, and to supply the unpaid labour for the school in the form of fund-raising and child-supervision during lunch and recess. All of the things we had had to give the child that had made him ‘school ready’ were not enough. For other families who had produced school-ready children with other talents, but similar work-demands for parents, the results are predictably similar: failure to master the curriculum because the parents do not have time after work to do what ought to be accomplished with the child during the school day. It is made our failure instead of the school’s failure. We are labelled as uncommitted, as absent, as ‘poor’ parents, and our children are labelled as ‘problems’. We can find that our children are expelled from ‘good schools’ with provincial testing measures that they want to protect. Meanwhile, we are denied the right to educate our children in the talents and values and capacities that might actually profit them. Oh, sure, we can ‘home school’ but only if we agree to repeat the state mandated curriculum. Again, the knowledges of some families and communities are made abject.

As a professional with a work-week of 60-70 hours and more in the first years of my own career when the input required is steep, and as a parent in a commuter marriage with an out-of-town spouse, it was all I could do to get our son fed, clothed and out the door. When I was writing 5 new lectures a week, I simply could not police his homework completion. Of course, he was bright enough that he could sail through anyway, but it was clear on his projects and homework that they were missing the flourishes and embellishments of over-invested parents. We began to be the ‘problem’ family. The previous school board’s assessment of our child as probably intellectually gifted was sidelined and he was not assessed by the new board who decided simply to discard the previous board’s recommendation that he be formally tested. No pretty projects meant he could not possibly be that smart.

A little over a year ago, after a series of catastrophes, the state finally intervened and required an intellectual assessment. At age 16, our son who could not bring himself to pass his high-school courses tested as ‘at curriculum’ level for maths, and ‘beyond curriculum’ level for the complete humanities and social sciences requirements of 12th grade.

Ours is one version of the way that things can go horribly wrong when we abuse the idea that the parents are the first teachers. It does not mean that it is our job to teach (pre-teach) the curriculum.

For parents with less formally valued cultural capital, it can mean that all the really important things the child knows (l’m thinking of indigenous knowledges, for example) are derided and discounted. Not only is this latter issue morally repugnant, it’s also a pragmatic waste of all kinds of useful talent in working class and agrarian knowledge bases.

Finally, is the abuse of the truism, when used by state employed educators and state mandated education systems not a tacit recognition that they are failing at their own declared obligation to educate children in the things that the state has declared to be worthy of measure?

If we really are the first teachers (in this abused sense), then the state ought to be deferring to us, not dictating that it is now our obligation to use whatever privileges we have to get the jump on those who do not have easy access to Shakespeare, the Ballet, the art gallery and Saturdays with the retired teacher from down the street.

I’m snowed under, and really beaten down by an argument I had with a relative who is a retired principal who believes that there is nothing wrong with pre-teaching the grade 9 English curriculum to his nephew. I’m tired of the system trying to have it both ways, insisting that only its own knowledges ‘count’ while simultaneously asserting that it is the duty of parents to teach only those things (that are not necessarily part of the parents’ social and cultural capital) to their children. The point, it seems, is to get an ‘upwardly mobile’ job… a goal that for thousands of years was not the purpose of education at all.

We wonder all the time why our jobs are hateful, why shopping does not make us happy, why zoloft-use is through the roof, why over 60% of students in post-secondary are treated for depression…. and are missing what’s right in front of us.

It’s time to radically rethink what an education is for, and how to measure ‘knowledge’. I’d like to start by questioning the idea of measurement altogether.

My objections are part and parcel of the other things I reject: a car for every person, that labour is to be avoided, industrial farming and agrobusiness…

And I see a time in the not-too-far future when I may have to abandon the university because it has become too much like the state-mandated education from K-12, and no longer feeds any of my own soul either. That day is fast approaching.

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