Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Permission to be serious": Carol Bly on education

I just finished reading the late Carol Bly's Beyond the Writer's Workshop. This wasn't much like any other how-to-write book I've ever read...most of them are set up more like "classes," with "lessons", or are at least fairly sequential. This was more like having a very smart but very intense person come for a visit and talk your ear off for a week about everything that's on her mind and then some...and then try to connect it all back to writing.

I found myself getting more and more frustrated with her obvious biases, her meanderings into psychology, her anecdotes that were intended to prove a point about writing or thinking but that just made me wonder more about why she was telling them or why she had reacted to certain events as she did. Then I got to the chapter on teaching writing to elementary students, and this:
"Throughout the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth, schoolteachers were likely to be joy killers--they were people who disciplined us for not practicing penmanship just so or for misspelling or for laughing aloud in class or for not folding our hands on our desks. In reaction, first the "progressive" schools, then other private schools, and finally the public schools, began in the 1930's to encourage individual personality and especially fun in elementary classrooms. Quite right too.

"The irony is that American children have been watching kidding and practical jokes on television for fifty years. They are a long way past the days when children learned somber hand skills and violin playing in the cultivated living rooms of their elders. These days they are tossed into fun day-care groupings at less than age one. They are bused to fun, interactive museum demonstrations. At home they master fun computer games at an early age. They are choking with fun. Schools of education....need to pull up rein and consider whether or not a better task for education might be saving the children's own serious nature, not barreling them into still more and more superficial fun.

"We had better do the oddly psychological work of giving children "permission" to be serious."--Carol Bly, Beyond the Writers' Workshop, published in 2000.
In that regard, I think Carol Bly and Charlotte Mason had a common philosophy. The business of education is a serious one, and though it can also be enjoyable, we need to take learning seriously and make sure our children understand that as well.

I had a short conversation this week with my nine-year-old about that. We were reading The Insect Man, Eleanor Doorly's quirky but interesting little biography of Jean-Henri Fabre. Did you know that, at least according to this book, Fabre lost his teaching position and was essentially drummed out of town for promoting higher education for girls? I pointed out to my daughter that we women enjoy a huge privilege that wasn't available to many girls even in the 1800's. I did not go into the fact that it is not available to girls in many parts of the world even today, but it was on my mind as well. If our right to an education was so important that someone like Jean-Henri Fabre was willing to put his job on the line for it, what right do we have to trivialize it?

1 comment:

Jamie {See Jamie blog} said...

That's a great point that we too often forget. I hope to get this across to my own girls without sounding like I'm lecturing them. But it really is a gift to be able to learn!