Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mythology and School

For the past week or so, I've been reading through Daniel Quinn's essays over at the Ishmael Community. Mainly because a friend of mine asked me what essays he should pass on to a friend of his. What usually happens when I go back and read Quinn's work I learn something new. This time a paragraph about mythology from an interview he did in August of 2000 jumped out at me.

Mythology arises among people spontaneously--and only spontaneously. The UFO-invasion mythology of the last half century has sprung up in response to the "invasion" into our lives of sciences and technologies that seem increasingly "alien" to us. In the fifties, the growth of Soviet military power terrified us, and UFO mythology responded with endless stories of combat encounters with militarily superior UFOs. As the Soviet threat faded and health care became increasingly depersonalized and incomprehensible, UFO mythology began to concentrate on abduction stories about people being taken into spaceship hospitals for mysterious and painful tests they didn’t want or understand, administered by medical scientists who were oblivious or indifferent to the suffering of their "patients." As incomprehensible genetic manipulation by human scientists began to loom as a threat, UFO mythology began to assign convoluted genetic motives to UFO abductors. (You ask if we should "do away" with mythology, but you can no more do away with mythology than you can do away with anxiety or hope.)

And you can’t create "new" mythology by fiat. You can, however, expose mythology AS mythology, which is the task I’ve undertaken in my books.

The above paragraph has got me thinking about the mythologies that we use to justify sending our kids to school. Quinn mentions those myths HERE.

The need for schooling is bolstered by two well-entrenched pieces of cultural mythology. The first and most pernicious of these is that children will not learn unless they're compelled to--in school. It is part of the mythology of childhood itself that children hate learning and will avoid it at all costs. Of course, anyone who has had a child knows what an absurd lie this is. From infancy onward, children are the most fantastic learners in the world. If they grow up in a family in which four languages are spoken, they will be speaking four languages by the time they're three or four years old--without a day of schooling, just by hanging around the members of their family, because they desperately want to be able to do the things they do.

That's the first myth. After reading that paragraph I can't help but think about the fact that I spent the majority of my time as a child sitting in a classroom bored out of my skull. And the crazy thing is that almost all of the adults around me said that I needed school, and if didn't go I would be dumb. But notice that I said almost all of the adults.

My Grandpa didn't believe this, he said most of the teachers were educated idiots. I don't know if I necessarily agreed with him than or now, but his opinions about the idea of schooling and the people that ran it was a lifeline for me. There weren't many adults out there that I knew talking like this, so naturally I had to think about it. And now that I think of it, he threw me a couple of lifelines throughout my life that I would like to write about sometime.

Back to the second myth:

One final argument people advance to support the idea that children need all the schooling we give them is that there is vastly more material to be learned today than there was in prehistoric times or even a century ago. Well, there is of course vastly more material that can be learned, but we all know perfectly well that it isn't being taught in grades K to twelve. Whole vast new fields of knowledge exist today--things no one even heard of a century ago: astrophysics, biochemistry, paleobiology, aeronautics, particle physics, ethology, cytopathology, neurophysiology--I could list them for hours. But are these the things that we have jammed into the K-12 curriculum because everyone needs to know them? Certainly not. The idea is absurd. The idea that children need to be schooled for a long time because there is so much that can be learned is absurd. If the citizen's education were to be extended to include everything that can be learned, it wouldn't run to grade twelve, it would run to grade twelve thousand, and no one would be able to graduate in a single lifetime.

There are the two myths that we use to justify sending our kids off to school for the majority of their childhood.

Right now I'm thinking those two schooling myths were spontaneously created because we live in an industrial society. In the world of work children are capable of doing a lot of the jobs, but the jobs just aren't there for them to do. So the role that school plays in this industrial society is that of a holding pen, for the most part. Those two myths are what we use to keep them there. And over time children actually start to believe those myths themselves, they actually believe they can't learn without school.

Friday, September 05, 2008

A Sense of Urgency

I wonder if the words below, that came from this interview, make people feel like that undermining the very foundations of our civilization is doable and rewarding?

Many people can get behind the idea of a cataclysmic revolution that will reduce civilization to a smoking ruin overnight, and many others can get behind the idea of a day-long festival of prayer and meditation that will make civilization melt away into nothing like the Wicked Witch of the West. But the idea of undermining civilization's foundations and sapping its titanic strength incrementally as a rewarding, lifelong process is a bit of a shocker.

My high school physics teacher, when talking about mass, said that if you should ever confront a locomotive creeping down the tracks at an inch a second, your intuition will tell you that you can stop it easily just by sticking our your hand. But, even though it's traveling only an inch a second, your intuition is wrong, because its enormous mass will keep on moving forward as if you weren't even there. This is the way it is with our civilization. It has the momentum of two hundred human generations behind it. Its crushing forward movement isn't going to be stopped in a moment, but every hand pressed against it reduces its momentum infinitesimally--and the more hands that are applied to the task, the sooner it will be stopped in its tracks.

Monday, September 01, 2008


Human beings will be happier, not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That's my utopia. Kurt Vonnegut