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Education and Children

This is a follow up to the first "Ask Regi" article. That question was essentially about the availability of homeschooling curricula and material other than that which is mostly Christian or Biblically oriented.

Some Thoughts on the Homeschooling Movement

I do not believe in a God, and am certainly not a Christian, but one thing I credit the Christians with is being the driving force behind the anti-government home-school movement. I think it is one of the most important of today's movements, because it is first an essentially individual one, and secondly a movement against the collectivization of society at every level, and finally, I believe it is the one issue that will ultimately test whether this country will retain what little freedom still exists, or will ultimately abandon it.

The whole purpose of government education, an idea originally imported from Prussia, is the creation of a compliant society ready for totalitarian control. Today's society and the state of education in the West is proof of the success of that program.

The Christian's motives for opposing government schools is not entirely the same as mine. They object to government schools because their children are forced to attend and be taught things which are contrary to their beliefs. Though I cannot agree with their beliefs, their objection is both valid and very important. No one should be forced to have their children taught what they do not believe, there is hardly a worse form of oppression.

Of course, they also object, as do I, that no government school is providing anything that might rightly be called an education. Instead of providing children with the knowledge and skills necessary to live successful independent prosperous lives, they are filling children's heads with endless disconnected, "facts," and ideas that make it impossible for them to think for themselves or ever have an original idea, resulting in a dependent, mindless society of robots repeating government socialist mantras.

[Note: The mind-numbing results of government schools is not a failure, it is exactly what those schools are created and designed to do. Please see "Our Prussian 'Public' Schools" to see where our school systems came from, why we have them, and what their purpose is.]

Unfortunately, to some extent, almost everyone has bought the ideas of the Prussian model of education, and even homeschoolers frequently implement many of those same wrong principles in their efforts to educate their children. This article has ideas that may help those who choose to homeschool to decide for themselves how to do it. Public school is not the best model.

Why Educate Our Children?

Whether one chooses to homeschool or not, it is assumed we ought to be concerned with our children's education. But do they really need to be "educated?" What does it mean to "educate" children?

Notice that all children learn the language of their parents and peers without any intentional "teaching" at all. Parents certainly do try to make their baby's understand certain words like, "Tommy's nose" and "say 'cookie,'" but while we are trying to "teach" our children these few words, they learn hundreds more without our ever noticing how or when they learn them.

Obviously children learn a great deal on their own, but some things they will almost certainly not learn on their own. The alphabet is certainly one and how to count, is another. Once they've learned their "letters," and have learned to "sound out" words, reading advances very quickly if it is encouraged. This much, at least, many children can learn even before "school age."

[Note: See how easy it is to fall into the "accepted view" trap. I used the phrase, "school age," with complete confidence everyone knows what that means. But who decided at what age children should be in a school? In truth, there is no right age, because every child is different, and learning is a continuous thing.]

What Should Children Be Taught?

Knowledge is an absolute necessity for human success, and is one reason we want to provide our children with as much knowledge as possible. But what kind of knowledge should we provide them?

There is a sense in which no one can tell someone else what their children ought to learn, because again, every child is different, and what they'll need to know to live their life successfully will be different for every child. That is one reason a curriculum is usually a bad idea. None will fit every child and will probably not fit any child.

Nevertheless I think there are some basic principles to be observed regarding the goals or objectives of childhood learning. Those goals are very simple:

1. Knowledge is Hierarchical. Begin with the basics.
2. Independence is the hallmark or human achievement. Provide the principles that enable individual independence.
3. Learning, like all work, is easier with the appropriate tools.
4. All achievement requires effort, a long view, and doing some things that are not immediately pleasant or liked.
5. All true knowledge is non-contradictory, and requires thinking (reason) by which what is true, and not true, can be identified. A child needs to learn the principles of correct reason.

These five principles do not exhaust all that needs to be said about what is important to learn, but a kind of minimum set of objectives. They also are not, "rules," but principles. Again, how these will be accomplished will, and ought to be, different for every teacher and every child. I have some suggestions and thoughts about each of these, but every individual must decide for themselves the best implementation.

The Basics

Two very bad things have been thrust into government schools that cripple young minds from the beginning. One is called the "whole word" method of teaching reading, the other is called "set theory" in mathematics. The "whole word" method (which is called other things as well) insures a child will never develop a large vocabulary or ever be able to read anything with serious content that requires learning new words and concepts. Teaching "set theory" to children before they have mastered the basics of arithmetic insures a child will either hate mathematics, or never become proficient in it. These harmful affects are not accidents, they are intentional "dumbing down" of children.

[The "whole word" method is an assault on phonics, or phonetics, that is learning the sounds of letters and how they are combined to form words. Set theory, which cannot really be properly understood before basic algebra and some number theory is understood, is thrust on young children before they have a clear ideas of what numbers are, much less, the basics of arithmetic. Both of these mind-crippling ideas were intentionally injected into government school curricula to replace the essential basic principles further learning depends on.] Once a child has learned the alphabet, and the "sound" of each letter, it is quite easy to teach them how words are formed with combinations of letters, and how the sounds of the words are derived from the sound each letter represents. This is basic knowledge for all one will learn in and by any language.

The basic knowledge of math is counting; then addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, complex numbers and so on. This obvious hierarchy illustrates how all knowledge requires certain fundamentals before the next level can be learned. It is possible for people to learn disconnected facts, such as what an "average" is, but if they have never learned how to add, count, and divide, it will be just a vague term, and the mathematical basis for it will not be understood.

Independence

Independence is always the objective of education. The purpose of knowledge is to be able to think for oneself, to make correct choices, and never need someone else to tell you what to do or how to do it. That does not mean we cannot learn from others, or depend on someone else's expertise, especially as a matter of the "devision of labor"; it means that in any situation an individual does not depend on anyone else to live their life successfully, it means being a competent and capable individual worthy of the society and pleasure of other's company, not being an incompetent dependent parasite, the usual product of government education.

Learning is largely an independent endeavor. This is the reason why I emphasize the "The Basics."

Once a child has learned the phonetic nature of words, with minimum help, the child can learn to read almost anything where their is a desire to learn and read. Of course that desire will only exist where what is available to read is of interest to the child, but here one must be careful not to underestimate what will interest a child. Whatever a child indicates an interest in should be made available as reading material if possible, and suggestions the child might never think of on their, ought to be made, but not forced on the child if the interest is not there. There are exceptions to this last, however.

The object is to encourage the child to learn on their own, which will also teach them that they can, which will reinforce their own self-confidence and independence.

Tools For Learning

Learning is work, and for all work, human beings use tools. By tools for learning I mean both intellectual tools and material ones.

The first two intellectual tools a child must have are the basics, the alphabet and counting (numbers). These are learned by rote, as are most intellectual tools. Some other very important intellectual tools are the times tables, spelling of all the more common words (emphasizing the non-phonetic exceptions), vocabulary, basic rules of grammar, (the parts of speech, for example), major elements of the periodic table, basic derivatives and integrals (the Calculus).

Obviously all of these are not for all children, and there are many more not included here. I do think the times tables, spelling, vocabulary, and basic rules of grammar are important for all children, however, because they will make all other learning easier, including the use of the material tools of learning.

The material tools for learning are first books, books, and more books. There cannot be too many books. That does not mean one must own them all, but they must be available. Libraries are wonderful places for children.

Some important books I think ought to be in any setting where children are learning would include:

1. Good dictionaries. More than one if possible, including one with pictures.

2. An encyclopedia. It does not need to be a new one, and for younger children should be a good one, but not one of those encyclopedias that attempts to be exhaustive, such as Americana or Britannica.

3. Lots of story books, beginning with those classics that are hated today, like Little Black Sambo, Grimm's Fairy Tales (be careful, many modern publications which are terribly watered down or made pc) and Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. Old books if you can find them are probably best.

4. Non-electronic things that "work" or can be used to make things. There used to be lots of toys of this sort, but am not so sure there are many these days. Everything from mechanical building toys (like "Erector Sets") to chemistry sets (which probably don't have any real chemicals in them today). But regular tools are wonderful teaching tools as well, like hammers, screw drivers, saws, pliers, wrenches and of course materials to use with them like screws, and nails, and scrap wood and metal, which are things one can probably obtain free. Don't forget cooking and the tools and utensils used for that, and cook books (the original technical manuals).

5. Electronic things may be tools for learning. I do not agree that electronic toys, or television (or any other entertainment media) are learning tools, for the simple reason that the mind is mostly passive, and not an active participant; one's consciousness is merely observing and experiencing, not analyzing and integrating. Computers can be good tools for learning, if used actively and creatively by the child. They should never substitute for books. (Although, reading online books is OK, I think.)

If it is beginning to look like just anything is a good learning tool, you are correct. Whatever engages the mind, imagination, and enthusiasm to discover things is a good learning tool.

Requirements For Achievement

There is an idea, especially among those who like the "unschooling" idea, that children should be allowed to learn anything they are interested in, but no particular effort should be made to encourage them to learn anything they are not particular inclined to. I do not agree with this view.

I think that approach fails to teach something very important. Nothing of real value in life is easy or comes without effort, and sometimes is unpleasant at the time. Real achievements almost always are accomplished over time, even very long times. It is very important to learn that the greatest achievements, with the greatest rewards are almost always future ones, and they will require enduring some level of grueling perseverance to accomplish.

If the objective of learning is one's competence and independence to live successfully in this world, one has to have the kind of knowledge this world requires. Learning that immediate present comfort and gratification, as pleasant as it might be, will often bar the way to having and being what is of a much higher value is a reality of this world. I think every child needs to be encouraged to learn some things they are not particularly interested in, and perhaps at least one thing they think they loath.

Beyond the subject matter itself they will also learn they can accomplish important and rewarding things, in spite of their distaste for them, and many times they will even discover that what they thought was going to be boring or tedious turns out to be very interesting, something they may never have discovered if they had not been encouraged to study what they thought they would not like.

This will only work, however, if the encouragement is by means of a reward, not by means of compulsion. You cannot force anyone to learn anything. The reward can be anything that the child would really like and only given when the child has demonstrated they have mastered the material. The best reward is one commensurate with material mastered. Perhaps a laptop computer for mastering boolean algebra, or a trip to a country where the language a child has learned is spoken. Rewards do not have to be so elaborate. Often just a new level of freedom recognizing the child's proven sense of personal responsibility.

Learning How To Think

Whether children can be taught to think or not is questionable, but what is certain is all that goes on in schools that is called "critical reasoning," will destroy any ability to reason a child might have.

To think and reason comes quite naturally to most children, and for them to reason correctly only requires things around them to be reasonable, and to make sense. Honesty and forthrightness in the adults dealing with children is essential. (Most children can spot a phony immediately.)

Children begin asking questions almost as soon as they can talk, and soon after do something else, which bewilders many parents, they begin to argue. Unfortunately, this is often discouraged. (Arguing should managed, not discouraged.)

Thinking, in the serious sense, is very much like arguing, but it is arguing with oneself. When trying to decide what to do in the face of alternatives, one considers various thoughts or ideas about a possible choice, considering the consequences, and deciding which one would prefer and why.

When a child argues with you, he may honestly disagree with you, which may be because he does not understand or have all the facts. (I do not mean arguments that question the parents integrity, and about behavior questions.) However, children learn very early that there are two forms of argument, although they usually do not identify the difference, (nor do many adults). Rational argument appeals to reason and should always be answered with reason. Much argument, however, is an appeal to feelings or emotion; such argument does not require an answer beyond pointing out, the argument is not reasonable and not acceptable.

The field of logic, which is the formalization of correct reasoning is very large and technical, but there are basic principles on which all correct reasoning is based. These should be taught, not formally, but addressed as they are encountered. These are not "rules" for reasoning, but ideas to help children avoid ideas and habits of thinking that are bad reasoning. These are some examples:

  • All contradictions are a mistake. (There are no paradoxes.) While there is no such thing as a priori knowledge, some things are learned so easily and early it just seems as though we always knew them. That there are no contradictions is one of them. In formal logic one might say "if A is A, A cannot be non-A," but informally, everyone knows the kitty cannot both be outside and in the closet.

    It is not so important to teach the concept of non-contradiction explicitly, at least until and if the child becomes interested in philosophical questions, but very important to avoid contradictions in your own dealing with the child, and of course to point out any such contradictions that might show up in the child's own thinking.

  • Consensus never establishes truth, or what is right. If you are a parent, there is one thing you are going to hear a lot: "everyone one else ..." is doing it, is going there, is buying one, has some, believes it, or says it. The earlier a child learns what "everyone else" thinks or does has nothing to do with what is right or wrong or true or false, the better. This should be explicitly taught. The next is related to this.

  • Other's approval is never required. I do not know what the modern day form is, but I'm sure there is one. When I was young, when someone chose not to do something other children did, especially if it was wrong, the children would call him a "sissy," or worse. There were two lies in that which I was very fortunate to have a very wise mother make me understand. The first is that I never had to have the approval of anyone else to know what I was doing was right. "A real sissy is someone who is more afraid of being called a sissy than of not doing what they really want to do," she explained.

    The other thing she taught me is a little poem, "sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me." This is one of the most profound truths I have ever learned. How I feel as the result of someone else's words, is not caused by the words, or the person saying them, even if it is their intention to make me feel something, like "insulted" or "hurt." How I feel is determined entirely by what I think about what is said, what I make it mean to me, and the amount of importance I attribute to it.

    You have no idea how liberating these two simple truths are, or how important they are to one's independence. The first is integrity itself. With regard to what is true, or not, what is right or wrong, what anyone else thinks, or thinks about you, or says or says about you, it is totally irrelevant. If you know you are right, you never need anyone else's agreement or approval. The other is sometimes called learning to have a thick skin, but the truth is, it is learning how to be free of the manipulation of others. No one can hurt you with words. If you are hurt by other's words, you have done it to yourself, and have made yourself their victim.

    Feelings and reason are mutually exclusive. This may be the most important thing to understand to prevent bad reasoning. It does not mean that one must ignore their feelings, or should not think about them, or consider them. It means feelings never provide information other than about themselves, and that nothing is ever true or not true because of what or how one feels.

    Most adults never learn to clearly discriminate their feelings from their thoughts, and consequently have both confused thinking and confused feelings.

    Feelings are just that, feelings, and nothing more. The feelings are like pain. A pain provides no information beyond the fact of it's existence, its severity, and where it is located (sometimes). A pain does not provide any information about its cause or what can be done about it. What causes a pain and what can or cannot be done about it must be discovered and decided by investigation and reason. This is true of all feelings. A feeling provides no information beyond the fact of its existence, what it feels like, and its intensity. A feeling does not provide any information about its cause, or what should or should not be done about it. A feeling's cause and what someone should or shouldn't do in relationship to it must be discovered and determined by reason.

    I've covered the nature of feelings (which includes desires) elsewhere, [Feelings, Desires, Emotions: Their Importance and Control], which you can explore if you like. The important thing that children have to learn is: what is true is true no matter what they, or anyone else feels.

    What Curriculum?

    I would have no idea what curriculum you might use, and even doubt if you should use one. Perhaps a loose idea of some particular subjects you think your child should have mastered at some point in time, but, unless laws are going to force your child to be tested by the state (a disgusting idea), it really does not matter as much as those of us accustomed to the Prussian ideas of when a child should have learned what tend to think. Neither Einstein or Edison were able to fulfill the requirements of a public school curriculum, but both did quite well (no doubt much better than they would have if forced to fit into the mold of some preconceived curriculum.)

    No one is going to know better than you what is best for your child, and along the way, you are not going to know better what is good for your child, than your child, especially if you have encouraged your child's independent learning, thinking, and responsibility. We all make mistakes. None of us are omniscient or infallible. Mistakes are great teachers, especially when the mistakes are made entirely on our own, and not at the prodding or encouragement of others. Don't let them kill themselves, but let your children make mistakes.

    You see, I do not have much in the way of specific advice in how anyone should teach their children. I'm sure there are many specific answers I would suggest to specific cases, and would gladly answer questions about such things. Such as, "my child would like to take piano lessons, but I cannot afford them. Do you have any suggestions?" or "Our 14-year-old daughter has been asked to go on a date by a boy four years older than she. She is very responsible and I trust her, but I do not trust the boy. Do you have any suggestions?" Oh boy, do I! Especially to the last.

    —(05/11/10)