I’ve been spending most of my time lately hanging out with a baby – my daughter, Leila. She’ll be two at the end of next month. I’m often with her from dawn to dusk, five or six days a week, while her mother attends medical school. Spending all this time with her, naturally she starts to rub off on me in a big way, like a contact high. In her presence I’m generally in a state of mild euphoria, accompanied by emotional fragility. Like I know I’m very small and new here, but as long as nothing bad happens too often, the world is basically a fascinating and exciting place, there to be constantly rediscovered.
She went through a brief phase of gasping in wonderment at occasions that impressed her. These days she’s more into clapping vigorously and yelling, “yay!” repeatedly, or yelling the word relevant to the impressive event, such as “smoothie!”, “food!”, “doggie!”, etc. When something impresses her quite a bit but maybe not quite enough to make her start clapping and yelling, such as last week when she witnessed a dog run a hundred feet and then jump in the air to catch a ball in mid-flight, she’ll often say, “that’s crazy!” She got that from her wonderful punk rock babysitter, Hannae. She learned other phrases from Hannae, and she uses them all in context. When a friend and I were each holding one of Leila’s hands and “flying” her through the air, she said recently, “I’m so happy!”
With many other phrases, she knows what she’s talking about, but she poses them as questions rather than statements, because these are phrases she’s often heard that seem to be associated with certain activities. For example, if I walk out the back door of my apartment she’ll climb out to join me, saying, “are you coming?” This means, “I’m coming.” One by one, these “questions” start turning into statements, as she starts figuring out which is which. Just as “shoomie” became “smoothie,” and “Eya” became “Leila.”
At no point did anyone try to “teach” her how to properly pronounce her name. No one ever tried to explain to her the difference between a statement and a question. She figures these things out “on her own,” by living, by interacting with people, by watching, listening, trying things out and seeing what happens. She rarely becomes frustrated by her mistakes.
Lately I’ve noticed sometimes when she’s developed expectations about the way something works, and then when it doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to, this can be a source of frustration. For example, she’s come to believe that when her pants are on, they’ll stay on unless she takes them off. Recently I had a pair of pants on her that were too big, and they kept inching their way down around her legs and she had to keep pulling them up, and after a while growled with frustration at this situation. (And I vowed to try harder to consistently dress her with clothes that fit properly.)
But generally, the world is new and undiscovered, and with an unfettered, creative approach to everything, fascinated by much of what she encounters in the world, applying the scientific method to every new situation, Leila goes forth. The more time I spend with little kids, the more I become convinced that they all start out like Leila – brilliant, graceful, full of enthusiasm for life, full of a desire to discover and enjoy the world, to understand everything there is to understand, to learn every new language they encounter.
Leila speaks two languages, mostly – her mother’s native French and my English. She mixes French and English with whoever she’s talking to, but mostly she tunes in to the language that people speak and uses that one. After a while she learns all the same words and phrases in both languages, but for the first while a new word or phrase will only be in one of the languages. “Cheese” is usually still “mage” (short for “fromage”), “pants” are usually “pantalon.” For some things that especially excite her, though, she learns to say it in both languages, and more immediately, in the hope that one of these words will work and someone will give her some – such as “ice cream” (“glas,” “helado”).
Recently my friend Reiko visited from Japan. I was encouraging her to speak Japanese with Leila. With Reiko’s enthusiastic warmth, I was sure it wouldn’t matter to Leila what language she was speaking anyway. Leila seemed to light up even brighter when she heard Reiko speaking Japanese. It was as if she was thinking, I’ve never heard people talk like this before! This is new and exciting! Let’s see, I’ll repeat what she just said and see what happens, see how people react, see what this means, cool... Within hours she had learned “oishi” (“yummy”), and “moshi-moshi” (“hello” when answering a telephone).
The thing is, nice new people, good food, and telephones are all very interesting, so naturally those are some good first words to learn in any new language. What grownups do – and even more, what older kids do – is automatically interesting. Walking up and down stairs, putting on and taking off clothes, talking (and especially talking on the phone), reading, writing. Other things are just innately fun, like swimming or taking a bath, playing in the park, or drinking smoothies. From Leila’s perspective, it seems, all of these sorts of things should be done often and well, if they are things that require mastery, and to one degree or another everything does.
When Leila encounters something she wants to master, such as, for example, climbing and descending staircases, she sets about the activity like a scientist playing a game. She enjoys the effort, the successes, and never seems to mind the “failures,” which she clearly views as learning experiences. Unless they cause physical pain or the fear of it, like if she falls down a stair or almost falls and needs to be rescued (on the very rare occasions she really loses it, I’ve generally been nearby enough to catch her before she falls down more than one stair). But in the case of physical pain from falling or crashing into something, she usually cries for a second or two, wants a brief hug, and then wants to get down and get right back into whatever she was doing that caused the damage, to figure out what went wrong and do it better.
Emotional pain is far worse than getting the wind knocked out of you for Leila. When she understood recently that I was getting on an airplane to go away for several weeks (for a tour), she was very upset and cried hard and heartbreakingly for quite a while. On a couple of occasions her mom’s housemate’s cat, Oliver, swatted at her when he was tired of being bothered. He’s a bit moody as cats often are, and not the most baby-friendly of them. Usually he’ll walk off in a huff after she tries to pat him for a few seconds, but sometimes he’ll tolerate a bit more of it, while other times he’ll swat at her instead of walking away. Leila doesn’t like it when he walks away, but when he swats at her she feels devastated and betrayed, it seems. When she’s crying about something like that, she seems to want to let me know what it is that’s upsetting her, so the last time this happened, in the midst of her sobs, she was saying “Meow! Meow!”
I felt like crying with her and laughing at her at the same time, but I did neither. What I feel compelled to do when she’s crying is hold her, which she generally likes. But the last time the cat swatted at her it wasn’t what she wanted. While still crying and obviously feeling hurt by Oliver, she wanted to work it out with him. He hadn’t walked away yet, and she wanted to try to work things out with him somehow, figure out what was going on. The truth is, if she figures it out, she’ll be the first, ‘cause he swats at everybody now and then. The rest of us just aren’t particularly bothered by it, because we know he’s a cat and cats can be like that (and anyway, he never draws blood from humans, unlike some other cats I’ve known).
Whether things are hard or easy, potentially painful or not, Leila dives into it. Nobody has ever needed to “teach” her how to do these things. Nor has anyone ever had to encourage her to learn new things, she just does new things all the time out of a love of life and an obvious, unhidden fascination with the world. No one has told her about the scientific method of figuring things out – her little brain did that all by itself, from the very beginning.
During her first year or so she lived in a house with no stairs. Around the time she was figuring out how to walk, we were staying at a place with a staircase for a few months. The stairs became a central fascination. At first, someone would always watch her like a hawk, but that rarely proved necessary, and after a short while it was clear that Leila just wouldn’t do things that she felt might result in falling down the stairs. She desperately wanted to be able to walk up and down the stairs with no hands like big people do, but she knew she couldn’t do this on her own, so she’d want to hold someone’s hand and go up and down the stairs that way. At least her hands weren’t touching the stairs, she seemed to be thinking. But she wanted to be able to do the stairs without help, so she improvised and taught herself how to crawl up them and crawl down them going backwards. She tried going down forwards on her butt, too, but that didn’t work as well so she ultimately settled on going backwards. When she was ready to start doing stairs by holding onto the railing, she did, and did so successfully. After a while she started doing stairs without holding onto anything. Each step of the way she’d challenge herself as much as seemed safe, never more, without ever needing anyone to say “don’t do this” or “don’t do that” or “that’s dangerous,” “be careful,” etc.
Leila is also learning to play the ukelele in the same manner. I have never “taught” her how to hold it, how to pick or strum the strings, etc. I just play it regularly for our enjoyment in my (our) apartment. I have several of them around, and of course they’re small enough for any baby to play. Sometimes she’ll pick one up while I’m playing another, but most often she’ll pick up the one I had been playing after I put it down. She hasn’t started fingering chords yet, but she holds it in the usual position (like I do), one hand holding the neck and the other hand playing the strings. She picks individual strings and strums as well, and sometimes sings while she’s doing these things. She sings beautifully, matches pitches, and may have perfect pitch (I haven’t tried to figure that out for sure and I don’t think it matters either way whether she has it or not). She likes music, and frequently requests this as an activity. I always have a guitar sitting on a guitar stand in the living room. She’ll walk up to it and gently strum the strings (only once accidentally knocking it over, which is easy to do with those little three-legged guitar stands), and she’ll say, “play music?”
Ours is a symbiotic relationship. We’re always doing something that we both enjoy doing, pretty much. If she’s doing something obsessively for a half hour, like climbing up and down a new staircase a hundred times or so (demonstrating brilliantly that babies do not have short attention spans if they’re into what they’re doing), I’ll tend to read the AP wire on my fancy new cell phone. When she’s done and wants to do something more interactive, I just put the phone back in my pocket and we go do something else. It seems to me there’s no particular reason for us to do stuff that one of us doesn’t enjoy, since there are so many things we both enjoy. Often, finding activities of mutual interest leads to me learning new things.
For example, I play music for a living, and it’s good to practice playing, writing songs, etc. (It’s also good for me to get to answer my email on a regular basis so I can book gigs and such, but that’s boring for Leila so I only do it when she’s napping.) I usually play guitar with a pick. But anytime I pick up the guitar and start picking, Leila hones in on the pick, which fascinates her for some reason. (The innate fascination of humans with tools of all kinds, perhaps?) Once she has the pick, she may strum the strings with it a bit, but usually she’s more interested in dropping it in the soundhole and then saying something like, “Oh no! I don’t know where the pick go! Where did the pick go?” (She hasn’t figured out that “went” is the past tense of “go.” I imagine by next week or so she’ll have that one down.) Then I shake the guitar upside-down until the pick falls out, and Leila shouts, “there it is!” Then she immediately drops it back in the soundhole.
I get bored with this game. Her mother is concerned she might eat the pick and choke on it (seems very unlikely, but who knows, babies are reputed to do that sort of thing on occasion), so I don’t want to give her her own pick to play with. When I do, however (watching carefully to make sure she doesn’t actually decide to eat it), she just drops it in the soundhole and demands that I get it out so she can drop it in again. I could stand up so my hands and pick are out of her reach, but that seems like a mean thing for me to do, and when I try that she sometimes just reaches up towards my right hand, saying “Pick? Pick? Pick?” So I stopped using the pick at home, and have been getting much better at finger-picking, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for many years, but somehow never get around to (along with learning Spanish, and many other things).
In our meanderings around town, friends and acquaintances often comment that Leila seems to be exceptionally intelligent, dextrous, engaged with life, and good-natured. I think they’re mostly being authentic when they say these things, not just trying to impress the proud daddy. Perhaps there’s a genetic factor, and certainly there are physical factors – the finest organic breast milk is freely on tap every night (“boobie!” – which of course is just as nurturing emotionally as it is physically), most everything she eats is organic, etc. But more than anything, I’d say her being “exceptional” is more about many other children being “unexceptional.” That is, they are held back by their parents and other grownups in their lives, and especially by the schools. I’d suggest that most parents and the vast majority of schools – public, private, or “alternative” – are failing, often miserably, to allow children to be brilliant. I’m sure that many parents, teachers and school administrators care deeply about their children, but they’re just going about most everything all wrong and they have no idea, to be perfectly blunt.
They’re like mad biologists trying to raise parrots in the Arctic. The parrots are consistently freezing to death, but the biologists keep trying to teach them how to fly faster, do tricks, learn to say new phrases, etc., always hoping something they do is going to help the birds to flourish, but they just keep freezing to death no matter what they do. They start giving the birds drugs to increase their heart rate and keep them warmer, but that doesn’t work either. It never occurs to them that there are fundamental aspects of the environment they’ve brought the birds into which is consistently killing them.
I always knew our society (by which I mean the US, and to a large degree the “civilized” world in general) was messed up, but this awareness has never been greater for me than it’s been since I had a child. There has been plenty of good, widely-ignored and misunderstood research about how children and adults learn, how we maintain, improve or lose our physical, mental and emotional well-being. I’ve been reading about a lot of them lately, but I’m not going to get all academic here, I’ll just use my life in this world as a guide, I think that’s an easier way of describing things anyway. I’ve personally had extensive experience with self-directed learning, as well as many years in a reputedly excellent public school, and many years in a wonderful alternative school. I’ve also known (and know) many children and adults of all ages who have been raised in a wide variety of environments.
It starts at birth. From right at the beginning, although the practice has been widely discredited, including by the doctors who originally recommended it half a century ago, parents are confining their babies in a crib and letting them cry themselves to sleep. Whether consciously or not, this is the beginning of the process of teaching children that they don’t control their lives. The basic, primal notion for a baby, that their calls of distress should be answered by a nurturing older person of some kind, throws things out of whack and sets the stage for everything else. I used to think I was in a bit of a weird leftwing bubble, living on the fringes of society somehow, but I have been surprised to find, now that I have a kid and I’m around other kids a bit more often, that the practice of letting babies cry themselves to sleep is not uncommon within my own circle.
After “learning this lesson” that they don’t control their environment and their distress is not particularly important, within a few months they’re in the playground, where I often find myself with my daughter. Many of the kids are like Leila; self-confident, challenging themselves on the climbing thing but not doing anything that they can’t pull off. Occasionally Leila will fall a couple feet. In all the parks in Portland that I’ve been to, though, the ground is covered with soft wood chips, so it’s all good. But there are always parents who are trying to dictate their child’s every move in the playground. The playground – a place designed for kids have fun in -- somehow is turned into a source of exasperation for both parent and child. The parents create unnecessary boundaries, the children, of course, feel constricted by them, feel like they’re being prevented from growing and learning new things (and they’re right), and they push against them.
If Leila is doing something that a child a year older than her is not allowed to do, and then the other child’s parent decides to let their kid do whatever it is, say, climb a tall staircase (with a railing!), often the child, upon reaching the top, will say, “I’m scared.” Why are they scared? Because their parents have taught them at this early age that they cannot trust themselves. They have effectively stunted their physical and emotional development, already.
And then of course the next step in the process for the overwhelming majority of children: school. Now that many of them have already learned not to trust themselves, they are generally thrown into an environment where everybody else is within a year or so of their age except for the teacher. Regardless of the type of school, the implicit message here is these kids are in this box for a reason – they’re there to “learn,” and the teacher is there to “teach.”
Alternative schools can successfully alter this equation to the point where the overall experience is positive for the children, I’m sure. But the best of the alternative schools are trying (successfully or not) to create a “child-driven, experiential” environment. That’s good, because what that means is they’re trying to recreate the “real world” in a school setting. Because of our widespread societal preconceptions of what school traditionally is – a sort of rigid, “us” (students) and “them” (teachers and administrators) environment – it’s an inherent challenge to try to change the model and create an authentically alternative school. But even if an alternative school can create a situation where learning is actually experiential rather than all “taught” from on high, it’s still no replacement for the rich, infinitely more diverse environment that exists outside of the school building.
Of course, for most parents and others who care about children, keeping the kids out of school may not be a realistic option. Perhaps sending them to an alternative school isn’t realistic either, because of the expense usually involved. I’m not going to suggest that keeping your kids out of school is necessarily possible or even right for everybody. But for those people out there who think school is necessary or important for children, I would like to be one more voice in the chorus that vehemently rejects this notion. No, school is neither necessary nor important. In fact, the vast majority of time it will do far more harm than good. I’m talking about the schools that they usually call “good” schools (with the exception, perhaps, of some of the best of the alternative schools), not just the “bad” schools.
I know something about this subject. I have no degree, and I’m sure I don’t need one. I’ve known many parents and children, adults and young people, all over this world. I’m intimately familiar with the products of a wide range of private, public and alternative educational institutions, and I myself have spent many years as a student in a “good” public school system, an excellent alternative elementary school, as well as a more conventional private college.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve known (and read books about) many young people who have been kept out schools for much or all of their lives. They are consistently brilliant. Not just in terms of their capability for critical thought, but also for creative thought, and in terms of emotional intelligence. They’re fully alive. Oftentimes their parents don’t necessarily impress me as exceptional people, in terms of their academic or life achievements. You wouldn’t be able to pick them out if you were waiting in line at the post office in the Boston exurbs. But to spend time with young people who have not been to school is a profoundly convincing experience in itself. The ease with which they tend to interact with other kids their age, or younger, or older, or adults. The self-confidence, self-assuredness, the bright intellectual spark that shines in their faces, their ease with “adult conversation.”
Many of them are taking courses at a local community college by the time their in their early teens, so they often end up having experiences with conventional educational institutions, but it’s a self-directed contact – usually they’re just taking courses in things that interest them, usually things that are either not taught in most secondary schools, or not taught at a sufficiently advanced level.
Since I had a kid and took a stronger interest in the subject, I’ve been asking the many university professors I know to tell me about their contact with students who have been kept out of the school system up to that point. Consistently, they tell me how impressive these kids are, how far above their peers they are socially, intellectually, emotionally.
From my own experience with school, and with seeing the effects of school on others, this makes perfect sense. What I remember about first grade was that I learned that my needs, feelings and desires didn’t matter. I learned that doing what the teacher wanted was all that mattered, and I learned that this was impossible to do. I felt helpless, confused, and afraid most of the time. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in the class feeling that way. It was my first experience with a classroom setting with desks and all that, and it was a potentially spirit-killing experience.
Luckily for me, my parents recognized that school wasn’t working out for me, and they looked for and found a wonderful alternative school that happened to be right in our little suburb in Connecticut, called the Learning Community. After spending quite some time being reclusive and essentially recovering from public school-induced PTSD, I did well in that environment, and was basically allowed to remain more or less emotionally intact. I can only try to imagine how things might have gone if I had had to attend the public schools or some other conventional school during that fragile period of young childhood. What I know for sure is I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
By the time I went to public school again, from grades 7-12, I was feeling enthusiastic about the experience. I wanted to see what it would be like. I was interested in science and math, and I was under the impression I’d get to learn about these things. To this day, I like to hear a good story, or a good lecture. But being talked at all day long by people who were clearly disinterested in what they were talking about, while sitting in a class with people who were equally disinterested in the subject material, was overwhelming. Day after day, week after week, year after year, I was going out of my mind with boredom. It was like being in purgatory. I never dropped out, but I never accepted this reality either, and I somehow survived the experience more or less intact, though in large part missing six potentially very formative years of my life. For my sister and many of my friends, the public school experience was far worse.
I remember how at the beginning of each school year the students were given the opportunity to choose their class schedule. Each year, many or most of the courses were required, but at least you could choose between “Intro to Physics” or “Intro to Chemistry” (forget about astronomy, anthropology, or other subjects of potential interest to kids). You could choose between western European history or US history (all of course taught from the perspective of the rich white slave-owning Indian-killers, and you can forget about studying history of eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa or Asia). You could choose between French and Spanish, taught by non-native speakers. I’m sure there were not more than a tiny handful of students who were anywhere close to conversational at either language by the time they graduated, and I’m sure most of them were exchange students. But still, we were being offered a choice, and this was exciting. As I realized later, this was the only time during the year that we were effectively being offered a choice, and the choice we were being given was essentially between Tweedledum and Tweedledumber.
This was in the early 1980’s, in one of the most well-funded school systems in one of the wealthiest towns in one of the wealthiest counties in the US, a “good” school by most accounts. In fact, my parents moved to Wilton from New York City largely because of the school system there.
But even if the teachers had (at least at some point in their careers) been interested in what they were doing and talking about, I’m still convinced that it’s the basic, hierarchical, teacher-oriented structure of school that is the essential problem. School teaches you that you need teachers in order to learn. It is fundamentally disempowering and dispiriting. The false idea is rife that you need to study “Algebra I” before you can study “Algebra II” before you can study computer programming or astronomy – rather than learning algebra through the study of something potentially interesting and practical, such as computer programming or astronomy. We learn that in order to learn anything really interesting, you first have to bore yourself to death for years by studying other stuff. Gratification is always delayed.
In language classes, for example, the teachers don’t even start trying to get the kids to speak until they’ve given them a year’s worth of grammar and vocabulary tests. With this kind of regimentation it’s a wonder anybody learns anything at all.
People often hold up European public school systems as being far superior to US public schools. I’ve spent a lot of time all over Europe, known many young and old Europeans, and for various reasons, I agree that, for example, the German public school system is much better than ours. But having spent a lot of time in Germany’s second city, the great cosmopolitan city of Hamburg, I couldn’t help but notice that most Germans do not speak fluent English. Many do, usually because they’ve traveled a lot, lived in England, Ireland, the US, or had an Irish boyfriend or whatever. But for those who haven’t had those kinds of experiences, although the vast majority of them graduated from the German public schools and studied English for ten years, they still never became fluent.
In Japan it’s incomparably worse. Japan is widely acknowledged to have an extremely hard public school system, and many students are studying various subjects with tutors on a daily basis, even after their long hours in the schools themselves. As in Germany, Japanese students have all studied English for ten years or more. Yet, from my experience traveling in Japan last summer, it would be very generous to say that 10% of Japanese people can speak English with any degree of fluency.
What explains this failure of the school systems in two of the world’s richest countries? And why the huge difference between English fluency in Germany compared to, say, the Netherlands or Scandinavia, where (by my estimation) about 90% of the under-60 population are highly fluent in English? One difference is in Scandinavia and Holland, many of the movies and sitcoms on TV are from the US. Many of the documentaries are from the BBC. And the most common language spoken by international visitors is English. English is all around them on a daily basis. Experiential learning. In Germany, a much bigger TV and film market than Scandinavia, most foreign programming is overdubbed rather than subtitled, and because it’s a bigger market, much more of the programming is produced in German by Germans. (Same goes in Japan, France, Italy, etc.)
But then, perhaps the Germans and the Japanese just don’t want to learn English, so they don’t learn it, despite the fact that it’s being taught in the schools daily for most of their formative years. Or is it because of that fact? Which is the point. Scandinavians want to learn English because it’s around them in their nonschool environment, in the real world. In Germany, English is largely something forced down your throat in school, so naturally, many people basically reject it, do what they need to do to pass, and little more. They are offered no choice, subjected to a fundamentally disempowering situation, and they reject it because they are human. (Perhaps they also reject it to some degree because it is the language of the countries that carpet-bombed their cities and killed millions of their fellow citizens.)
By contrast, I spent a summer eight years ago traveling around the US with a German woman and her eight-year-old daughter. Her daughter spoke not much more than a few words of English at the beginning of the summer. By the end of the summer she spoke English better than her mother. Her mother may have known some big vocabulary words that she didn’t know, but her mastery of pronunciation and grammar far surpassed her mother’s. For example, by the end of the summer, upon meeting my father, this girl recognized the fact that my dad has a very mild Brooklyn accent, something which many native English speakers wouldn’t even pick up on.
So, you can spend one summer traveling around the Rockies and hanging out in the Navajo Reservation with your mom and become fluent in English, or you can go to school for your whole childhood and probably learn English less well by the end of it.
And this is not just about the much-vaunted (but still widely ignored by most schools) child’s receptivity for learning languages. I’m convinced that to a large extent, we don’t ever need to lose that penchant for learning that children have. In fact, we lose that penchant for learning because of school. Those who stay out of school, from my observations, tend to hold on to that magic spark that all children start out with. (And they probably hold onto it much longer if they can avoid having to get some mind-numbingly boring office job as adults.)
In the Learning Community as well as in the Wilton public school system, music education was negligible. There was no opportunity within the schools to play music, unless it was to learn how to play a brass instrument for the marching band (so you could perform during football games) or the “jazz” band in high school. The overwhelming diversity of music in this world was completely absent from school, aside from castrated versions of jazz standards. (In fairness, I believe both of the music teachers in the public schools I went to were good players who genuinely liked jazz music, but they were no match for the lifeless institutions in which they were trying to work.)
My parents, being both very accomplished, professional classical musicians, expected me and my sister to get a classical musical education, too. When each of us were around nine, I remember having conversations with my parents about whether I’d like to take music lessons, and if so, what instrument I’d like to play. I was being given a choice of instrument, but not a choice of musical style. As with the school system that says you have to study algebra before you can study astronomy, my parents felt that you had to have a classical musical education if you wanted to go anywhere good with music. My dear mother also used to say (though it’s been a long time) that if I wanted to really disappoint her when I grew up, I could either join the military or become a rock musician. (She doesn’t recall ever saying this, and in fairness, I may be making it up.) My folks always said that I wasn’t named after anybody in particular, but I always had the impression that I was named after a virtuoso cellist and friend of the family named David Wells. I also loved his playing, he was so passionate and so damn good. I don’t remember my exact thought processes at the time, but the cello was the instrument I chose. (My sister, who was named after a great flutist, chose to play the flute when it was her turn to choose an instrument.)
Although two out of three of my cello teachers were outrageously good players, really nice people, and very sympathetic teachers, I never really took to it, and I basically withered under the pressure. I don’t remember how fully I understood this at the time, but it was the basic lack of choice in the whole situation that I found oppressive. Practicing the cello became a source of conflict at home.
After five years of this I quit. I needed several years of playing no music before I felt moved to explore music on my own. I’m sure that growing up around music and musicians was a positive thing, in terms of having great live music around me all the time, and in terms of the example my parents and their friends set as accomplished players. In fact, one of my most postive musical recollections as a kid was when my dad and I would play the piano together, and he’d make up stories about dinosaurs, using the piano for background music and sound effects. And there were many, many other very positive aspects to my environment at home as a child in terms of providing a rich cultural experience, among other things, but having formal music lessons was not one of them.
I took a couple dozen formal lessons on bass guitar and guitar, but mostly I “taught myself.” By this time I was beginning to more clearly understand that “formal education” was not all it was cracked up to be. From master songwriters and musicians that I met personally, like Jim Page, and from listening to the words of other masters like Utah Phillips, I learned that the way so many of the songwriters and musicians that I had come to revere had learned their craft was by steeping themselves in the musical traditions they were interested in, and then by writing songs, while continuing to listen to other music and be part of the (evolving) tradition that they were in. My “music teacher,” essentially, was the music itself, which, I’d venture, is the best teacher of all, along with your own ears, mind, and hands.
“Teaching myself” in this way, I’ve become a fairly accomplished professional. If this were unusual, it wouldn’t be worth noting. But actually I’m pretty sure it’s the norm. I haven’t taken a poll, but I’d be surprised if more than a small percentage of people making a living in the music world are graduates of Berklee College of Music, Julliard, etc.
I learned to read and write by doing it with my parents, like most people. (As has been well-documented by authors like Jonathan Kozol, very few children of illiterate parents actually learn to read in school, demonstrating once again the failure of many schools to do anything that could be defined as “teaching” – because if no one’s learning, no one’s teaching!) Other skills I learned as a child that I use regularly today, such as typing, organizing mailing lists, and using computers, I learned at home from helping my dad with the workshops he and my mom were running. The rest of what I needed to know about how to do things like book gigs, I learned from watching other people do it. Just about everything I know about current events, history, and pretty much every other subject, I learned outside of school, by reading books of my own choosing, or books recommended by people who knew about stuff I wanted to know about. In all my years in school I barely learned anything of value, at least up until college, where I had a couple of good Marxist professors.
I’m currently in the process of writing a DIY Guide to Writing Songs, Playing Music and Booking Your Own Gigs, for PM Press. I could make it much longer by including lots of autobiographical tales of how a certain song was written or how I got a certain gig or first toured in a certain country, etc., but as it is, as a guide, with tricks of the trade and such, it’s not very long. I hope it will prove useful to people, but the basic message in the book for doing any of these things is to work with and follow the examples of other people who do it well, and then try it yourself, and keep learning from other people and learning from your own experiences.
My childhood memories can be somewhat vague, and I certainly had a generally positive experience with the Learning Community as a kid, but I find it interesting that one of the most vivid memories of my time at that school was when one of the parents got a flat tire. With the teacher’s encouragement, my whole class emptied out into the parking lot, where the car was with the flat tire. One of the older kids in my class had mechanical skills, and many other skills, which he had learned at home. He changed the tire while the rest of us helped out a little or watched. Even though I was only one of the ones watching, it was still a memorable event, I think because it was something that happened in the real world, outside school (even if it was only just outside school).
I’m quite certain that I’m one of many, many people who don’t learn well in forced, artificial environments, but flourish in real-world learning environments. One reason why this makes sense is that humans have been doing experiential learning very successfully for far longer than we’ve had schools. And still today, in the Kalahari Desert or the Amazon jungle you will find teenagers with enough botanical knowledge to fill several encyclopedias. In small towns in the Scottish highlands you will find teenagers who have a thousand tunes memorized which they can play beautifully on five different musical instruments, none of them learned in school.
I think about these things, think about the soul-crushing things most schools do to most students, see how brilliantly Leila has learned so many things and isn’t even yet two years old, and I don’t know what to say to the many people I’ve met who are aghast at the idea of raising a child with no “formal education.” If my kid really wanted to go to a school of some kind, I’d look around for a good one and let her try it. And if she didn’t? I’d no sooner send her to school than send her to prison.
As a professional musician who is happy enough living below the poverty line, I’m very privileged, and I know it’s not an easy thing to figure out for anyone, how to not do school. Schools work well in many, many ways with modern, (post-) industrial society, and of course it’s not just schools that suck, but most jobs people end up having to do. But for those of us who think society has some serious flaws that need serious attention, I’d say that figuring out what to do about the whole concept of school would be a good place to start. And in the meantime, those of us who can may opt to keep our children out of school and give them encouragement and opportunities to live and learn and pursue their interests in the real world.
It seems to me that children need teachers about as much as they need bullies. It seems to me that what they need is fun, respectful, knowledgeable and talented friends of all ages. And trees, grass, and libraries.