The DeHavilland Blog

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The frontier spirit

NPR ran a story last week about a new exhibit at The Smithsonian - "ABC America" - which focuses on education-themed artwork from the turn of the 19th century. (Thanks to MKP for the tip!)

From the recap at the NPR site:

This painting (Edmonds' The New Scholar, from 1845) is part of an ongoing debate in 19th-century America over whether children should go to school. The whole idea of universal, free education was an invention of the 1820s and 30s. Before then, children were taught at home or in church.

Some Americans worried that the frontier spirit would be taken from their children -- that they'd be made to conform.

And some children weren't crazy about being cooped up in classrooms -- like the subject in The Truant, a painting from the 1860s by Thomas LeClear. It shows a little boy, with his books and lunch pail hiding from his teacher.

It's interesting to me that the same fear of conformity that haunts us today has existed since the birth of the public education system. Americans value individuality and independence, something plainly seen in the archetypes with which we identify: pioneers, cowboys, jazz musicians, entrepreneurs. Individuals fighting the status quo, standing alone against the powers that be.

I can understand why we built the education system we did back in the 19th century: we needed a consistent level of capable and disciplined workers to man our factories, so we engineered a system to produce them.

But our needs as a society have changed. We no longer need masses of factory workers, all prepared to work within a system designed by someone else. To compete in the world today, we need to get back to our frontier roots, building a nation of individuals who take responsibility for their lives and have the skills, and the spirit, to lead and to innovate. As John Taylor Gatto says, we need to get back to our jazz roots, becoming the creators, not the manufacturers.

Gatto compares our schools to "the little mill that ground salt when salt wasn't needed;" it's an accurate observation. Our needs have changed, and the way we educate our kids must change as well.


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