Sunday, September 18, 2005

19th century educational pioneers vs. the 21st century educational status quo

Following up on my announcements of new electronic versions of classic 19th century works on education by Friedrich Froebel and Herbert Spencer are two examples of the difference between their ideas introduced well over a century ago and the educational practice today.

Last Tuesday's health section of the New York Times had an appalling article, "Tough Day for Kindergartners (and Parents)" by Laurie Tarkan, about the unhappiness both children and their parents face when the children begin attending kindergarten; and how this unhappiness is being dealt with only by increasingly elaborate methods of "greasing the wheels" to make a smoother transition into the system. In the blandly matter-of-fact account of such methods, there isn't the ghost of a suggestion that the system itself is the problem, even as it acknowledges that the new environment is less individualized and breaks up the students' previous relationships with their parents and preschool community. For instance, "not wanting to go to school" is listed as one of the experts' "Signs that the transition may not be going smoothly for a child". Erich Fromm, who had the courage to use psychology to critique rather than reinforce the status quo, pointed out with his concept of an "insane society" that when a society's norms run counter to the conditions for human mental health, what is considered to be normal behavior is actually mental illness.

Could there be a greater indication of how modern kindergartens, with their ever-greater "academic demands" in order to "move the needle on achievement", and their function of breaking kids away from their parents and into an artificial environment before clamping down on them with stricter control in later grades, are the polar opposite of the intentions of Friedrich Froebel when he created the kindergarten? He was recognized as one of the first educational theorists to insist that education has to follow the needs of children rather than molding them to educators' preconceived ideas, and that the teacher's responsibility should be to assist the students in developing their own abilities and inclinations to learn. He was the sort of guy who as a teenager apprenticed with a forest ranger in the local Thuringian Forest so that he could be in the middle of nature.

For the real thing read his autobiography.

And in contrast to Spencer's ideas on physical education in which "free plays are vastly better than formal exercises of any sort" (Charles W. Eliot), comes this snippet from the letters section of this month's National Geographic, about a photograph in the May 2005 issue (in the same feature, by the way, which discussed a market socialist hippie commune last month):
I was disturbed by the photo showing children in the FBI's on-site day-care center being "marched" to recess. Can someone explain what educational purpose is served by requiring the children to walk with their hands on their head like they are under arrest?
to which the editors matter-of-factly reply:
Teacher at the Lasting Impressions Child Development Center—a nationally accredited program—employ follow-the-leader type activities to get the children organized and concentrated on going out to recess.... This particular day the teacher asked them to walk outside with their hands on their head.
So even walking out to recess has to be done in a controlled matter!? Words fail me.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2005

some cool books from Prometheus

Prometheus Books is the largest and most well-known publisher of books about secular humanism in the United States, but it also has a few books that are a bit more offbeat. Here's a list of random interesting-looking books from them, prepared as part of my research for possible topics and guests for Equal Time For Freethought. In fact, a couple of books on the list (the ones by Litman and Davin) are ones I knew about and was interested in long before I noticed they were from Prometheus.
Liberation blasted open the doors of business to women, but failed to answer one unavoidable question--who is left to take care of the children and attend to the minutiae of daily home life while the husband is also at work? The essentials of cooking, cleaning, and caring for the children are not "small stuff" and seem to require a Ph.D. in life lessons to be handled properly.... This is an urgent call for women to negotiate equality in the home and for men to understand that motherhood and "housework" are just as important as breadwinning.
This very personal exploration of the fantasies that populate the underworld of sexual desire will shatter preconceived notions that S&M is based on perversion and pain; Jacqueline argues that the act is founded on consensuality and mutual agreement, a 'bond' lacking in such truly perverse sexual encounters as rape and other forms of sexual abuse.
There are a lot of classic older texts in the catalog, many being well-known and reprinted elsewhere. However, I find the selection of classic feminist books, including many critical of religion's role in perpetuating male dominance, particularly interesting:
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market socialist hippie commune in National Geographic

National Geographic magazine has a regular series where they look at a particular ZIP code area of the United States in each issue. In last month's (August 2005) issue, the feature was on the East Wind commune in Tecumseh, Missouri—a prototypical 1960s hippie commune that's lasted until today. While it's always nice to see the idealistic 1960s alternatives still around (for instance, contemporary alternative schools that began in the "free school" movement during the 1960s and early 1970s), it also happens to be an interesting example of market socialism in practice. While the work and resources within the commune are distributed collectively, the commune's revenue comes from the half-million dollars of annual profit which they obtain from a nut butter business. The article makes there out to be a sharp, ironic contrast between such market profitability and the socialist ideals of the commune—the name "East Wind" comes from a quotation by Mao Zedong—but from a market socialist point of view it can be seen as quite consistent. From that viewpoint, there is no need either to reject all communitarianism as rigidly autocratic and un-capitalist, or to dismiss the possibility of alternative structures that don't resemble a corporation thriving in the marketplace.

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