This morning my daughters sat on the couch looking intently into the pages of a 1st grade workbook. My older girl was helping my younger girl with a fill in the blank exercise. Phoenix, the younger six year old, grabbed her workbook voluntarily and began working hard on it before I’d gotten up this morning. We follow no curriculum, put no pressure on them to ever sit with a workbook in their laps, but our girls sometimes do it anyway, as a novelty or something. Phoenix found her workbook riveting today. The two were puzzled with a sentence that would be straight forward to most people.
The sentence read, “My Dad ______weeds.” The only two words given that might fit were “pulls” and “eats”. Phoenix said, “It’s ‘eats’ ” and confidently began to write the word. Sadie then said,”Wait- I think they want you to use ‘pulls’.” Phoenix replied, “Why would you pull a weed you weren’t going to eat?” I cracked up in the kitchen where I was cooking.
I remarked to Emily that Phoenix would have gotten that question “wrong” if she was in school and encountered it on some standardized test. But instead of it being a true assessment of her lack of comprehension, the problem would be that she comprehended further dimensions of life than were in the parameters of the test makers.
The push toward standardized knowledge and perception sometimes confuses “the right answer” with just the answer that suits convention. It’s an honest mistake- each of us can only describe as much of the world as we see. The mistake becomes less honest though when others are penalized for seeing the world differently. The statement “history is written by the conquerors” comes to mind- it happened how those in power say it happened, whether that’s some despot or just whoever is writing text books that will inform generations of school kids.
For better or worse we haven’t done a great deal to keep our children “caught up” with where school children are told they ought to be in learning. Our children’s knowledge is hap-hazard maybe, a shake of this and a dash of that. But, as Emily pointed out to me once, so is a standard education, in light of all there is to know about the world. Sadie and I have done some multiplication and division, and she mostly taught herself to read (we’re lucky if we can get her to do anything else some days). But her knowledge isn’t standardized at all- she might not know what a subject, predicate, or adverb are but she can recite Robert Frost, T. S. Elliot and Yates.. and she astounds me daily with the reams of music lyrics she knows of songs from early jazz, blues, motown and eighties pop. She might not know what criteria scientists have decided makes a little creature a true insect, but she knows when she should look to try to catch a glimpse of sphinx moths eating nectar, or how to spot lady bug larvae as they ominously approach an aphid infestation. She may not understand photosynthesis, but she could fill a bowl with wild weeds to feed herself if you dropped her in the wilderness somewhere. Phoenix doesn’t know how many inches are in a foot, but can design her own functional shoes, make elegant jewelry out of anything she finds and re-purpose mix matched clothes into fresh tattered fashions that would make Madonna jealous. They’ve learned what they’ve learned because it means something to them in their lives.
“But how will they learn the facts?” This soundbite from a contentious conversation I once had with someone who thought I was making a mistake with my children’s education echoes in my head in the middle of the night sometimes. Will they learn all the “facts” they’ll need to navigate within society? What is a “fact” exactly? Mathematics might be fact, or at least a language for expressing a method to the universe that seems to exist. Scientific knowledge might be fact, but only until new data topples it. Is it a “fact” that Columbus discovered America? Only if we choose not to see the several million native Americans who were here for millenia. Or is it a “fact” that there are “terrorists” plotting against America in other countries? Depends on where you’re standing. If your country had been occupied and bombed for a decade you might have a different opinion of who the terrorists are. As usual, I’m drifting off on a tangent, but I’m trying to clarify something Phoenix’s statement made me ponder. Who decides what the “right” way to see reality is? Or what is and isn’t worth learning? How many “facts” are there really?
For Phoenix, it’s a “fact” that weeds are living beings of beauty, who are pulled up “if they want to be eaten to become part of a person”, as she roughly put it.Can anyone prove or disprove that? Here’s to those who confidently give the “wrong” answers and thereby change the scope of the questions…. the players who change the game. I think the future belongs to them.