On Wednesday I submitted my resignation from the school district, effective June 17, the last day of the school year. It was another piece of paperwork, with little emotion attached. I worked for the district as a substitute for a year and a half, and fulltime in a grade school for another year. I’m not leaving education. In Houston, I’ll return to Rice University as a science writer, and will continue working with and for young people, but that’s a different population, largely self-selected for learning. What I’ll miss are the younger children, especially that fraction who somehow remain thoughtful, affectionate and enthusiastic.
Working in schools has been an education. I’ve enjoyed myself and have no complaints about my treatment, but I’ve learned I’m not cut out for social work. In my experience, public schools are a vast laboratory dedicated to a misbegotten experiment. Enormous amounts of time and money are spent preaching the “guidelines for success” – right-sounding platitudes – while the staff mollifies indifferent, distracted, self-absorbed young people and their parents. Almost a century ago, on Jan. 31, 1914, G.K. Chesterton wrote in The London Illustrated News:
“I do not think the modern elementary school spreads enlightenment. I do not think it spreads anything—except occasionally mumps.”
Enlightenment, bringing light to children, sounds quaint, but how can there be success without failure? We’re instructed to praise students for any effort, no matter how paltry or dishonest. No one fails, so everyone fails by succeeding. Successes are incremental and rare. I’ve taught math to a fourth-grader since the start of the year. She knows her multiplications tables, at last. She can divide and juggle fractions. When I told her I would not be returning to her school next year, when she’s in fifth grade, she asked: “Can you help me by email?”
In Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning (1991), Jacques Barzun writes:
“All children can learn and do learn. By the time they first go to school they have learned an enormous amount, including a foreign language, since no language is native to the womb. So if they stop learning when in school, it must be because the desire to learn is killed by protracted non-achievement and non-teaching…
“For the normal and healthy, it is the very character of the school that seems to stop learning, and this at a point of no great difficulty: simple reading, writing, and arithmetic. The fifth grade is for many too many the stopping place.”