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Mis-spent Youth

April 6, 2010

I’ve been reading some of John Holt’s early books on childhood education and something he said has been on my mind this morning. He says that schools attempt to conduct learning though symbols (i.e. spoken or written language) rather than tangible experience, and because of that most children won’t fully understand what they’ve learned – if indeed they are able to understand or learn anything at all.

This is an issue worthy of several blog postings in itself but right now I’m wondering about how it fits into the whole issue of alienation in our society. I always thought that much of the damage done by schools was caused by children being taught to rely on authority to do their thinking for them instead of developing their own judgement. Certainly this must contribute to alienation and disconnection as people stop listening to their own inner voice but thanks to John Holt’s analysis of this kind of learning I can see that a childhood being taught first to manipulate symbols and then being further taught about the world via those symbols (as opposed to the tangible experience we are supposed to have) can only serve to disconnect us further from reality.  Talk about a mis-spent youth

Modern man has disappeared inside his own head says Ursula Le Guin (or he’s disappeared up his own %#&$^ as they’d say around here). Those that become successful at learning via symbols go on to successful careers manipulating them, all the while losing touch with the people around them (especially those on the lower rungs of society that aren’t good at manipulating symbols such as cleaners, labourers, rubbish collectors and their own children). Those that are really successful at manipulating symbols but forget how to operate in the real world go on to be university lecturers and lose touch with reality altogether.

Of course symbols are essential for communicating but the key, according to John Holt, is that we need to learn about things via real experiences and then move on to manipulating their symbols and any theories that may come from them. By rewarding those that learn to manipulate symbols disconnected from reality and giving them great power in our culture……well…. just look around you to see the results of that.

I realise that by saying this I’m probably insulting most of the people who are likely to read this (as well as myself) but really are we intellectuals as smart as we think we are? The people who fail to operate in the world of symbols from an early enough age tend to conclude (well, they get told) that they must be stupid and give up thinking altogether so it’s not like there’s anything much to compare ourselves to.

* Not entirely sure I got the Le Guin quote word perfect there but I’m sure you know what I mean.

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One comment

  1. I often think about this since I read Holt’s books. The most obvious instance of this that I had to deal with had to do with a handyman we hired, generally very intelligent and even wise, who had been a government-employed scientist earlier in his life.

    We have an upstairs bathroom which vents through the attic. Whenever the outside temperature dipped below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, and we took a shower, water would drip down from the ceiling. Obviously water vapor goes up, meets cold pipe in attic, condenses and drips down, right? Not so obvious to anyone but me, however. The handyman refused to believe it and argued that there must be a leak where the vent meets the roof. My husband said to listen to the handyman as he must, with his superior experience, know what he is talking about. I actually hired the guy twice to try to fix this supposed leak in various ways before, finally, the third time, I went and bought some pipe insulation and just told him to wrap the pipe. I’d have done it myself except for crippling allergies which made me hesitant to venture into the attic.

    Of course it worked. Had my husband and the handyman (both with physics training in college) never sat and breathed on a cold glass of ice water in the summer and played with the resulting wetness? How can people be so blind? And why did I listen to these oblivious theories? (Well, because I’m trying to be less arrogant. I guess this sort of thing is a place where stubbornness would serve me better.)

    For me it’s visual – I see the steam go up, and in my minds eye I see it bead up as it hits the pipe wall, and drips slowly down. I’ve seen it many times in real life, and I can see what’s happening up in the pipe.



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