Thursday, June 19, 2014

On educating my son in less than 1,000 words

My wife and I are considering entering my son into a private school. Part of the application requires an essay from the parents on why they want their child to attend the school. It's been a long time since I wrote an essay to get into a school and I wasn't sure I'd warm up to the task, but as I wrote I considered just why I feel this is a good choice. This is what I came up with.

As a stay-at-home father who was educated as an engineer and works as a writer, I have taken an active interest in Ethan's education with a careful view of what it means to educate. I was the valedictorian of my high school class and graduated from the United States Air Force Academy, and more than twelve years after departing the latter institution, I find that I very much sympathize with Erica Goldson, the high school valedictorian who declared in her graduation speech that she felt like a slave of an institutional process. She famously confessed that she felt terrified because the education she'd attained was wholly inadequate in preparing her to deal with the chaos of the world she was about to enter. One of my greatest fears for Ethan-- both as his father and teacher-- is that he will be subjected to that same institutionalism. I am also acutely aware that I could potentially become that kind of institution as easily as any school. My greatest hope for him is that he will be able to discover just how large and filled with opportunity the world is at a much younger age than I did, and consequently find the path of greatest enlightenment and happiness for himself before he feels he's become a fixture along its wayside.

To that end, I am delighted to tell you that I don't know all of Ethan's strengths and weaknesses. I do not presume to have him figured out. As convenient as that would be to my parental dominion on a day-to-day basis, it would also mean that I've become the worst sort of educational institution I so fear. I can tell you some of the things he knows. He knows how to read quite well (better than an average first-grader, I'd warrant). He knows how to add and subtract. He knows who Yo Yo Ma is and he knows that he prefers to listen to 'Gangnam Style.' He can spell words and write them in his own hand. He knows that fire is hot and knives are sharp and that we shouldn't touch them. But he also knows that clone troopers and Jedi knights have exciting adventures with bombs and light sabers. He knows the names of all the planets, that the sun rises and sets every day because the earth spins, and that gravity is a force. He also knows that, as a result of these astronomical arrangements, daddy will make him have lessons every morning and insist that he pedal his bike back up the hill after he rides it down. He knows that sunsets are pretty and that it's important to observe them. He knows the Legos can be used to build a monster truck. He knows that getting them to actually assemble into the monster truck requires patience and concentration. He is still learning patience and concentration, but I can attest that he has mastered diligence and perseverance.

As with his strengths, I am just as unfamiliar with his weaknesses. I can tell you what he doesn't know and what confuses him. He doesn't know that the "good guys" sometimes lose. He would be surprised to know that the good guys aren't always actually good. He has no concept of treating a person differently because of the way they look. He doesn't understand why so many people on television are hitting and shooting each other or why tanks and soldiers are all around the place where he currently attends daycare, and yet mommy and daddy tell him that it's bad to hit or shoot people. He doesn't know what a war is. Sometimes he doesn't understand certain household rules. Sometimes he doesn't understand why he's the only one who has to follow them. Sometimes he doesn't understand what sense there is in my rules or what power invested the authority in me to make them in the first place.

 And I must confess that I am also confused by a great many of these things. I am certainly at a loss to articulate what I would believe to be an irrefutable explanation of them. This is why I seek to enter him into the Radford School. I could home school him. I could teach him calculus by ten, walk him through Plato's The Republic by thirteen and have him fluent in Mandarin Chinese and HTML by sixteen. I know he and I could do it because many other parents and children have done it. But the question on which everything hinges is to what end? Would that constitute a good education? More important than the skills and knowledge he acquires is how he will use them. Will he be a good and decent person? Will he be happy? Will he even know how to determine what it is to lead a good life, and will he possess the intellectual agency to effect the necessary changes to achieve one?

I believe that our modern society has nominally tried to settle the moral-intellectual education dialectic in public schools by method of partition-- the parent teaches right from wrong and the school teaches fact from fiction. I believe the relationship should exist on a continuum. I could teach him myself. I could also hand him over to the public education system and let them do it. Neither option gets the best results, because both of them inevitably lead to one kind of institutionalism or another. I want a third option. I want my son to attend a school where he and I are welcomed as part of the process, and where it is understood that the standard by which the quality of the final product is measured will change as a result of the influences exerted on it. Because in the end, there is only one person who will be able to tell us if Ethan received a good education. And that's Ethan.

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