Glenn Reynolds writes about the growing popularity of alternatives to traditional public education. He makes an important sociological observation:
This Industrial Era approach (public schools were organized in the 19th century on a Prussian model, explicitly to produce obedient, orderly workers) had advantages. But it also had disadvantages. Like interchangeable parts in an industrial machine, students were treated alike, regardless of their individual characteristics and needs. Square peg, meet round hole.
Putting kids together and sorting by age also created that dysfunctional creature, the “teenager.” Once, teen-agers weren’t so much a demographic as adults-in-training. They worked, did farm chores, watched children and generally functioned in the real world. They got status and recognition for doing these things well, and they got shame and disapproval for doing them badly.
But once they were segregated by age in public schools, teens looked to their peers for status and recognition instead of to society at large. As Thomas Hine writes in The American Heritage, “Young people became teenagers because we had nothing better for them to do. We began seeing them not as productive but as gullible consumers.”
When one thinks about the effects of the teenager on our culture at large, the point becomes even more significant. As recently as the 1950s, the dominant culture—as expressed in movies, TV shows, music, theater, and news media—was by and for adults. By the 1960s, that had changed, and our culture became a youth culture, one in which the dominant trends are determined by what appeals to teenagers. The youth culture takes its direction from the preferences of young people who are isolated from the responsibilities of the adult world, get status and recognition from one another, and thus are highly manipulable. The Gramscian march has succeeded as well as it has not only because the Left has concentrated on institutions of cultural transmission but because we have constructed a stage of life during which the influence of such institutions is disproportionately large. We have allowed schools, films, the music industry, and other means of cultural transmission to shape our children, consigning parents, grandparents, and the world of work to the back seat.
This was my primary concern in deciding to homeschool my own children. I wanted to spend more time with them than the standard pattern allows. I didn’t want teachers and peers to get six-to-eight hours a day with my children, while I got a few hours in the evening when everyone was tired. I didn’t want my kids raised to become obedient line workers; I didn’t want them to be indoctrinated with Leftist claptrap. And I didn’t want them steeped in a secular view of the world that turns religion into a matter of personal taste. So, I kept them at home, where we were able to keep up with what they needed to do to be on pace with their public-school peers in two or three hours a day. The other hours? They were able to investigate things they cared about. For one, that was mostly math, science, and computers. For the other, it was baroque music. And they were able to spend a lot more time than their peers just being kids.
Alternatives are coming to higher education in the form of massively open online courses. Indeed, I’ve been blogging so little over the past few months because I’ve been working on turning a course I teach on the 20th century into a massively open online course. I’ve been filming classes, editing the results, and posting them on YouTube as a way of getting ready for a more official and concentrated effort. Thinking about an online course opens up a realm of possibilities. A traditional university course is structured around 50-minute or 75-minute segments, into which the content has to be poured. In an online version, things don’t have to be structured that way. They can be segmented however the subject matter demands. That might involve 2-5 minute definitions of key terms, 5-10 minute discussions of a particular issue, 10-20 minute explorations of a topic, etc. The point is that packaging courses online can lead to innovations with real educational advantages. Will online courses be as good as on-campus courses? They might turn out to be better.
The public schools have by and large decided to follow the music industry in fighting technological innovation, clinging bitterly to an outmoded business model. Ecxpect the same for most of higher education. But a few far-sighted institutions (including, fortunately, my own) are seeing the possibilities and deciding to adapt. Meanwhile, those seeking educations at all levels are voting with the their feet—or, more accurately, with their computers, which put a world of information at their fingertips.