Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

January 5, 2010

You heard it here first: I am Deeply Unqualified to talk about this stuff

I thought very long and hard before starting this blog. I knew that I was passionate about education: I have been a fan of the unschooling movement since high school, and I love the books of John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Alfie Kohn, and Paulo Freire, among others. It’s a subject that I never get tired of talking about (as many of my friends can attest). Quite simply, it lights me up.

And since my friends have learned to avoid the topic of education around me, I wanted to find another outlet for my enthusiasm, where I could develop my ideas and start conversations with like-minded people.

But who was I to open my big mouth on the topic of education? Sure, I’ve done some tutoring, but I haven’t studied to be a teacher. I wasn’t homeschooled myself, and I don’t even have any children to homeschool now. But some of the most famous and successful personal finance bloggers (JD Roth, Adam Baker, and Trent Hamm, to name a few) don’t have degrees in finance. In fact, many of them started out as the exact opposite of financial experts: each writer I linked to was in a mountain of debt when he began blogging about the topic. They began it because they wanted something in their lives to change, and they felt that blogging was a good way to not only immerse themselves in learning about the topic, but to create a community where others could turn for advice and support.  These men have helped so many people with their blogs, and they inspire little ole’ unqualified me to do the same.

Saying that a person’s opinions on School and education are invalid because they were only a student and never a teacher is like saying that an adult, who no longer practices the religion she was raised in, should not be taken seriously when she criticizes that religion because she was never a member of the clergy.

I was there. I did the student thing for 14 years. I was deeply influenced by the experience. I think it’s important to critically examine the role that Schooling has played in shaping our lives, instead of just believing what are told about it: we’ll never be able to cope with adult life unless we are forced to do unpleasant things; degrees and credentials are the only tickets to success; if we don’t get good grades, it’s because we aren’t trying hard enough.  You know what?  I call shenanigans!

As John Holt said:

“Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very center of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we may make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.”

By publishing this blog, I claim my right to “think about [my] own experiences” and “find and make the meaning of [my] own [life].” I’m no longer afraid to say or do things just because I haven’t been certified and judged worthy to say and do them. It seems to me that the root of the mortgage crisis was a population trained in allowing “others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives.” We hadn’t thought we could afford such an expensive house until the man behind the big desk told us to trust him: he’d run the numbers, and we were going to wind up wealthier than ever!  Oops.  I guess it doesn’t always pay to let somebody else do our thinking for us.

As John Taylor Gatto points out,

Successful children do the thinking I assign them with a minimum of resistance and a decent show of enthusiasm. Of the millions of things of value to study, I decide what few we have time for, or actually it is decided by my faceless employers. The choices are theirs, why should I argue? Curiosity has no important place in my work, only conformity.”

Paulo Freire further argues,

“Any situation in which some men prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence;… to alienate humans from their own decision making is to change them into objects.”

I should point out that John Holt was a teacher for 20 years before becoming an advocate of educational reform and inventing homeschooling. John Taylor Gatto taught in the public schools of New York City for 26 years and was named New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991. Paulo Freire was appointed Director of the Department of Education and Culture of the Social Service in Pernambuco, Brazil. So the ideas expressed on this blog do not belong solely to one angsty, unenlightened college drop-out.

This blog is not where I expound on the infinite wisdom I gained in a few years of tutoring.  It is where I comment on the national conversation about education, share the revolutionary ideas of some very insightful writers whom I admire, and talk about my personal experiences as a student and a teacher.

This blog is not about criticizing teachers. It is about criticizing the institutionalization of education.

This blog does not debate what Schools should teach. It debates the heretofore unquestioned idea that we should allow a complete stranger to tell us what, how, and when we should learn.

I will close with one last quote from John Holt:

“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that. And we are not likely to become the majority in my lifetime. This doesn’t trouble me much anymore, as long as this minority keeps on growing. My work is to help it grow.”

I share his belief, and this blog is just my small contribution to helping the minority grow.

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9 Comments »

  1. Thanks for your honest and critical insight about a topic that also lights me up tremendously. I often catch myself failing to ‘act’ because I don’t often see myself as qualified or as an ‘expert’. I’m simply a learner along for the ride and I’ve only just recently transitioned into the blogging world so that I could begin to share my non-expertise yet deeply thought out ideas and learnings with others.

    Looking forward to more of your posts… Matt Hern is also another unschooling advocate worth checking out – his book Deschooling Our Lives is a compilation of several writers (many whom you already mention in your post) and others like A.S. Neill, Vinoba Bhave, ect… happy reading!!!

    Nicolette
    Unschooling mom of two natural learners

    Comment by Nicolette Richer — January 5, 2010 @ 8:21 pm | Reply

    • Hi Nicolette,

      Thanks for commenting! One resource that might encourage you to spread your blogging wings is this post written by Havi over at FluentSelf.com. I go back and re-read this on days when I feel like I just shouldn’t write anything because John Holt already said everything everybody needs to know on the topic. (EDIT: This one too. Particularly relevant on the topic of expertise.)

      Also, thanks for the recommendation! I briefly leafed through it once (that’s what I get for checking out 15 books from the library at once) and I keep meaning to pick it up again. I will have to keep an eye out for Matt Hern.

      Christina

      Comment by christinag503 — January 5, 2010 @ 8:46 pm | Reply

  2. i thought about your example of the refinance guy selling a complex mortgage to people who “trusted” him. I can see the importance of learning critical thinking skills so at least one knows the questions to ask. A mortgage is a fairly objective analysis yet it can be confusing for some.

    But then I thought about a couple analyzing their choices for a cancer diagnosis. Do you trust a doctor? Our world is so complex with endless information coming at us all the time. Sometimes you just have to trust others. And sometimes they can kill you or bankrupt you or simply do you a service. So, do we trust institutions to educate us? The good thing is that everyone else around you basically has the same limited choice. Kind of like a Kurt Vonnegat novel like you said.

    Comment by Sue — January 6, 2010 @ 10:26 am | Reply

    • Sue, I agree that our world is really complex with lots of information coming at us. There is even MORE information that is just out there, NOT coming at us, waiting for US to find IT. The information that does come at us is generally thrown at us by entities who have a vested interest in persuading us to act or think in a way that is beneficial to them. When we tell people what to think about and “suggest” how they ought to think about it, we are training them to be mentally lazy.

      This is especially true when we demand that they spend seven hours a day and several more hours of the evening and weekend thinking about these things. If we never give people time to encounter information on their own terms, how are they supposed to learn how to filter it on their own?

      If we teach people to unquestioningly accept the information and actions assigned by those in false* authority positions, how can we be surprised when that training allows corporate, media, and political entities to take advantage of them? While doctors, on the whole, enter their profession because they wish to help their patients, Atul Gawande’s piece in the New Yorker demonstrated that doctors often recommend a course of diagnosis and treatment that will get them the highest amount of payment from an insurance company. Wouldn’t such a doctor be more inclined to recommend chemotherapy, with which he has a lot of experience and which happens to be pretty expensive, over Gerson therapy, which is pretty much just changing the patient’s diet?

      In the end, I think that trusting institutions to look out for your best interests is a pretty dangerous game. How do you think they got so big in the first place?

      Thanks for commenting, Sue. You provided some real food for thought for me.

      *= I use the word ‘false’ to denote that this type of authority derives from fear of punishment, rather than the true authority that comes from earning the respect and trust of others. The two often seem to be conflated.

      Comment by christinag503 — January 12, 2010 @ 3:37 am | Reply

      • You make some valid points…but still there are benefits to be had by division of labor. By the hiring of experts. But clearly one has to constantly review the goals of “experts” to determine risk and cost of trusting said expert. Reputation and future standing in the community is one such informal mechanism for compensating for non alignment of goals. With allopathic doctors and with Gerson diet therapy for example. How many patients survive versus how much do you get paid.

        Of course if there is an imbalance in power or credibility, this alignment of goals can be for naught. but that is what lawyers are for and there you go again getting involved with experts who will exploit your lack of knowledge and experience.

        The nature of a carbon based existance dooms us to constant squabbling for dominion over resources and, by extension, for information regarding getting those resources.

        Comment by Sue — January 12, 2010 @ 3:54 am

  3. Christina, what you’re doing is participating in democracy, 21st century style. Can we all be perfectly honest here? When we go to the voting booth every two or four years we have generally only two credible choices–TWO out of a country of over 300 million people! A lot of good people and brilliant ideas are buried in that process.

    The world wide web is the new place for the exchange of free ideas, for the average citizen to come forward with small ideas that may have no other way of becoming big ideas except that you put them in a public place for others to see. You’re as qualified as anyone else to set up a blog and write of your ideas. You could hatch ideas and concepts that will start on this website then crawl their way into national policy.

    Many people complain about the way things are, content that they’re doing their part by voting. You’re doing more than that, you’re developing a public forum.

    You’re opinion matters, and it’s an intelligent one that shouldn’t be lost in anonymity. You’re a certified contrarian, and from what we see in the world, we need a lot more of that. That’s why I linked your site on mine!

    (BTW, this post is your best. It gives the promise of more to come. Well done!)

    Take care,
    Kevin

    Comment by Kevin@OutOfYourRut — January 9, 2010 @ 9:37 pm | Reply

    • Aw, shucks, Kevin… ::blushes::

      I had never really thought about elections that way: it all comes down to a choice between two people. And by the time they get in front of the entire nation, they’ve been filtered and altered quite a bit, the better to appeal to the majority. That’s why the internet is so great: having a bunch of people who are all “internet experts” on different things creates a far more stimulating and enriching evnironment than having just one guy who knows a little someting about a lot of things. (Of course, they can be awesome, too: case in point, Malcolm Gladwell.)

      I think you have a great set-up on your site. You recognize that you can’t be all things to all people, so you talk about what you know best and what will be most helpful for your core audience, and then you point them to other resources. Love it! And thanks for the kind words. 🙂

      Christina

      Comment by christinag503 — January 12, 2010 @ 3:05 am | Reply

  4. I’m so happy I stumbled on this blog. I’m a former unschooler who’s passionate about learning, but conventional college was kind of numbing me out. I’d forgotten a lot of the points you bring up here and in other posts, about the tremendous effects of education. Your work here inspired me to start my own newborn education blog, which launched yesterday, so thank you!

    Would it be okay if I linked to you in my blogroll? I’d very much like to.

    -Heather, Free Minds Zine

    Comment by freemindszine — February 21, 2010 @ 8:38 pm | Reply

    • I’d be honored to be on your blogroll, Heather!

      It’s so encouraging to hear that I inspired you to launch your blog! You’ve inspired me to start posting more reglarly…between my day job and my weekend job and all the other daily tasks, sometimes I forget how much I like writing about this stuff. 🙂 And I LOVED your first post, BTW! Sounds like you are one busy lady as it is, but stay strong: I’ll be rooting for you!

      -Christina

      Comment by christinag503 — February 21, 2010 @ 10:10 pm | Reply


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