Friday, January 22, 2010

Sentimental about Education

I've been working on my first assignment for my course. It's not terribly arduous -- I just have to compare the mission statements of five libraries. And it's pretty much done. And it's not due until February first. In fact, the lecture on which it's based only officially came out today. When the course started on February 15th, there was a message mentioning that the first lecture would be posted in the lectures folder, but I couldn't find anything in there other than the welcoming message. So I emailed the professor (great. First whiny annoying student with a hand waving in the air going excuse me, excuse me, I can't find the lecture, where's the lecture). So she posted Lecture #1, which was actually dated today -- the second week of the course. The welcome message was the first lecture. We were supposed to spend the first week familiarizing ourselves with the software (which is stupidly easy to use, and I use the term advisedly, since I can use it).
Photo by Audra B

But hell, if it was up, I was reading it, and taking notes, and doing the class participation exercise.
I was supposed to interview two people about their library usage for the exercise, but since I know everyone's busy I sent out about a dozen emails asking people for their comments. And of course everyone I know is really freaking nice and efficient as well as being busy, so I got a dozen replies (thanks everyone!). So I emailed the professor asking if I could amend the assignment to include everyone's thoughts. And she emailed back: "Look, you incredibly annoying keener, can't you just do the goddamned assignment the way I wrote it and quit being a pain in my ass?". Well actually she wrote back that it would be interesting if I did it the new way and to go ahead, but I could tell she was thinking the other thing.

Then there's the first assignment. Which, as I said, is not that hard. So why has it been doing my head in? Granted, it was a little difficult getting the old gears moving in that way again, but I know I can put a paragraph together in a way that doesn't totally suck. I know I can think critically, or at least fake it. Why did I absolutely NEED to finish it once I started it, just so I could get it out of the way and stop brooding?
I would chalk it up to my good old obsessive, annoying-perfectionist, perspective-lacking me-ness, but I know for a fact I'm not the only one. My friend Janis took a course and at one point thought she'd gotten a five out of ten on an assignment (it was actually only marked out of five) and freaked out and didn't sleep all night. Okay, admittedly this is a small sample, and one could argue that Janis is every bit the older-child keener-freak that I am. But I think it might say something larger about the whole concept of 'school'. I remember a friend who studied science once saying that she decided to read The Brothers Karamazov. About halfway through, she stopped and considered what it would be like if she was reading it for a course, and she could feel all the pleasure drain out of the experience. How is it that 'learning' has somehow become twinned with this concept of regimented, rote, joyless fact-ingesting?

This isn't a well-thought-out treatise or anything. I know it all comes down to money. I know there are alternative schools that claim to break the mold of traditional education. I know that there are teachers in my kids' school that do make learning fun. In J.K., they keep caterpillars until they spin their chrysalises, and then set the butterflies free in the summer. In grade one, Eve gets a bean every time she speaks French in class, and gets to trade the beans for treats at the end of the week. Angus's class had a medieval festival with jousting and poetry and pancakes (they couldn't get a license for mead and pottage, I guess).

Still, every now and then I wish things were a little different. I don't really think homeschooling was for us -- my kids need other kids too much, and I'm not sure I have the fortitude to be responsible for their education. They both get a little bit of everything -- music, sport, art, literature, and good old-fashioned play. They're not being stifled. Eve especially still really enjoys most of her time at school. Maybe it's more my hang-ups than theirs.

Clunky segue to the relevant book quote. Earth Abides by George R. Stewart -- it's an end-of-the-world book, but not with aliens or bombs or John Cusack. It's quieter and more meditative, more a what-would-happen-if? story, with real characters and thoughtful questions. This is what it has to say about work and play:

"When once they stalked the deer, or crouched shivering in the mud for the flight of ducks to alight, or risked their lives on the crags after goats, or closed in with shouts upon a wild boar at bay –that was not work, though often the breath came hard, and the limbs were heavy. When the women bore and nursed children, or wandered in the woods for berries and mushrooms, or tended the fire at the entrance to the rock shelter – that was not work either. So also, when they sang and danced and made love, that was not play. By the singing and dancing the spirits of forest and water might be placated – a serious matter, though still one might enjoy the song and the dance. And as for the making of love, by that – and by the favour of the gods – the tribe was maintained.

So in the first years work and play mingled always, and there were not even the words for one against the other... But centuries flowed by and then more of them, and many things changed. Man invented civilization, and was inordinately proud of it. But in no way did civilization change life more than by sharpening the line between work and play, and at last that division came to be more important than the old one between sleeping and waking. Sleep came to be thought a kind of relaxation, and ‘sleeping on the job’ a heinous sin. The turning out of the light and the ringing of the alarm clock were not so much the symbols of man’s dual life as were the punching of the time clock and the blowing of the whistle. Men marched on picket lines and threw bricks and exploded dynamite to shift an hour from one classification to the other, and other men fought equally hard to prevent them. And always work became more laborious and odious, and play grew more artificial and febrile.”


Mary Lynn said...

I think it's as much to do with an individual student's personality as how the teacher runs the class. For me, marks matter a lot. I could take a class that's a ton of fun and learn a lot, but if I got a low mark, I'd feel terrible about the result. My husband would not care all that much. If the same thing happened to him, he'd still be happy to have taken a fun class in which he learned a lot, regardless of what mark he got.

theycallmejane said...

This little description stood out to me: "my good old obsessive, annoying-perfectionist" I, myself, am a bit OCD and hung up on perfection. I know this is the mark of a great mommy but I'm seeing this confession so often on posts I'm beginning to think it's the mark of a great blogger!

Amber said...

Older-child keener-freak here! I am totally, totally dependent on the praise of others. I want to do well, and if I can't do well I don't want to even bother trying. Being laid off is actually helping me with this, because it's forcing me to step outside of my comfort zone in a new way. It's uncomfortable, but it's good.

As for 'work' sucking the joy out of something, it's a fear of mine as my daughter is getting ready to enter the school system. I don't think it's a necessary result, but I think it happens often enough that it's usual. I am not terribly happy about it, but I'm also not unhappy enough to do anything differently, either.

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Lynn said...

I loved that quote from the book. It really rung true for me -- so wise. And yet, it made me feel very sad. I'm putting the book on my reading list.

I also think it's a huge challenge to find a way to keep kids interested in learning, when the drudgery and routine of the school system tends to pound that out of them. I feel like my mother did this successfully, but I can't explain how. Lots of field trips? Lots of reading? Lots of just chatting about things? I'm not sure.

Mostly I try to model a good attitude for my kids -- I love to learn new things and I like to show them how much fun learning can be. Hopefully it pays off in the future.

So glad to hear you are loving your class!