1860 View Of School

The October 2010 Scientific American, p.102, quoting the October 1860 issue:

A child who has been boxed up six hours in school might spend the next four hours in study, but it is impossible to develop the child’s intellect in this way. The laws of nature are inexorable. By dint of great and painful labor, the child may succeed in repeating a lot of words, like a parrot, but, with the power of its brain all exhausted, it is out of the question for it to really master and comprehend its lessons. The effect of the system is to enfeeble the intellect even more than the body. We never see a little girl staggering home under a load of books, or knitting her brow over them at eight o’clock in the evening, without wondering that our citizens do not arm themselves at once with carving knives, pokers, clubs, paving stones or any weapons at hand, and chase out the managers of our common schools, as they would wild beasts that were devouring their children.

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  • Jonas

    This is an important topic, also for universities. As a student I have exams coming up in 5 days that require the exact same method of studying. Believe it or not, but in order to being able to pass those exams, it is even hindering to study in an integrated manner. All they want us to do is to basically repeat phrases. Studying for this truly feels like a chicane. The funny and grotesque thing is this: they are both on idea and innovation management.

    • Chuck E

      Wow, that’s hilarious! 🙂

  • david

    It’s a good thing they were so dissatisfied with 1860s schooling, or we might not have seen the changes that schooling has undergone since then.

    • Aaron

      So now we box up kids for eight hours instead of six. What an improvement!

  • anon

    Robin, you blog a lot about how you think that the purpose of traditional schooling is to train our hunter-gather minds for a career of working in a hierarchy (which it would not naturally tolerate), signal to future employers, etc. Importantly, you think school is not about learning the material.

    Have you written anywhere about how you think schools should be run? What would you do for your own kids?

  • vozworth

    the bulk of educational formalities are a function of an indoctrination to structured response to input/output (see:scantron).

    The result of prosperous utilization of understanding is modern day money gathering.

    Oh know, Yu dint.

  • Yeah, education is SO much better now. Where, exactly, are we ranked? Our students are ranked at the very bottom in math, but 1st in confidence about what they know in math. That’s about the worst combination one could possibly imagine.

    People remember through repetition. If the information isn’t repeated, it won’t be learned.

    • fructose

      That isn’t even close to being true. US kids are below average for OECD (rich) countries, but there are several below us even among other rich countries.

  • It is more than close to being true. It’s embarrassingly true. Denying it is what keeps us behind.

    In Math we are tied with Spain and Latvia for 25th. And we are behind places like Hungary, Poland, Luxemborg, Norway, Slovakia, Ireland, Germany, Austria, Sweden, France, Denmark, Iceland, Czech Republic, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, Macao (China), Belgium, Canada, Japan, Leichtenstein, Netherlands, South Korea, Finland, and Hong Kong.

    But at least we are ahead of Russia, Mexico, Uruguay, Tunisia, and Indonesia. But just barely.

    In reading, we do a little better, ranking 12th.

    Science is at an embarrassing 20th.

    So perhaps we’re not technically at the “bottom” in math, but we’re much lower than we should be. Maybe if we had fewer distracting pictures in our math books, we’d rank somewhere closer to Japan, whose math books are rather sensibly filled with . . . MATH

  • nanosegregator

    Country-by-country is a silly way to compare. A far more illuminating set of comparisons:

    European American students score better than European students.
    Asian American students score better than Asian students.
    African American students score better than African students.
    Mexican American students score better than Mexican students.

  • That only compares those who are descended from those smart and educated, etc.enough to have come to the United States to those who weren’t and, thus, stayed behind. In other words, it shows nothing but that the best have pretty bright kids.

    Country by country, which compares everyone regardless of IQ, etc., is the only legitimate measure.

    If I get to pick and choose who to count, I can certainly prove most anything.

  • nanosegregator

    That only compares those who are descended from those smart and educated, etc.enough to have come to the United States to those who weren’t. In other words, it shows nothing but that the best have pretty bright kids.

    Since you are making the very un-PC admission that populations can differ in IQs, you might want to make another such admission, well verified by IQ tests that show that populations in Latin America and Africa can differ substantially in IQ from populations in Europe and Northeast Asia. Whereas the IQ gap between emigrants and non-emigrants is much smaller. Many U.S. students descend from countries with lower IQ populations than others, and the IQ gap between these populations remains large. As a result comparing mixed-population students like like the U.S. to an unmixed high IQ population in Northeast Asia or Europe is even more inaccurate than comparing the descendants of emigrants from a country to the descendants of non-emigrants.

  • orglethorpe gumza

    If you react so strongly to 4-6 hours a day, you would be aghast at what goes on in Asia. Children are loaded up for most every waking hour, and for some it works. Having been in Taiwan for almost eight years, I would say that education is wasted on those that can’t cut it, for those many various reasons, but for others, it is like anything you practice and do well at.
    As for Canada, check out the PISA results. Canadians tested are ranked #2 behind only Norway. A 15-year-old’s reading comprehension dictates success/failure acdemically.

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  • Bea Moeller

    As someone who excelled at school, but found “real life” needed a different set of skills, I have to side with the “against homework” crowd. A point of the quotation is that we are right back where we were 140 years ago, so what we have “achieved” as far as methods of teaching, is really nothing. Having a talent for test-taking, I learned how meaningless, except in school, scoring on standardized tests (where all the comparisons noted come from) is. Country-by-country comparisons are questionable, because the test instruments vary by country as well.
    Wish I knew whose quotation that was–sounds like Bronson Alcott, or his daughter.