Over at the Atlantic, and guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan's website, Conor Friedersdorf has an intriguing and thoughtful post reacting to a parent's experiment in homeschooling curriculum development for his young highschooler son, named Wes. I have to say, my own contrarian view of homeschooling aside, that I, like Conor, was somewhat envious of the creative, interdisciplinary learning experience that is awaiting this fortunate young highschooler.
In his post, Conor, who admits to being jealous of young Wes, writes:
What strikes me, all these years later, about my lousy but better-than-average high school education is how useful it proved in preparing me for college and the job market. Absent exceptional teachers, an academically competitive high school basically teaches the young how to game the system lots of people call the American meritocracy. It is difficult to describe this skill set precisely, though it certainly includes things like earning good grades in classes you know little if anything about, learning to game standardized tests and exams, employing writerly tricks to obscure the fact that you know nothing of substance about the topic of your five page paper, and understanding which teachers aren't desirous of substance insomuch as they want an ability to fake it on pages where the margins and font are diligently set to their specifications.A fascinating reaction. And I imagine Conor's jealousy of young Wes is shared by many, myself included, whose thirst for "knowledge as something more than a metric to be measured by standardized tests, a means of admission to a selective college or a prerequisite for strategic advancement in the American job market" is burning and insatiable.
Oh to have those youthful years back. As an adult, I understand the preciousness of time, and I sorely regret having wasted any of it simulating rather than gaining knowledge. The experience does inform a suspicion that if we stopped making the overlap between academic skills and life skills a self-fulfilling prophecy, they might overlap less than we imagine. Were that the case, perhaps high schools would rejigger their curriculum to more closely resemble what Alan is attempting: knowledge as something more than a metric to be measured by standardized tests, a means of admission to a selective college or a prerequisite for strategic advancement in the American job market.
And then I had another epiphany ...
At one level, one would think this disconnect between knowledge and the structural mechanisms that lead to success in Western society are precisely what the Palinite wing of the conservative movement in the U.S. would embrace. But I can't help but think, re-reading exactly what young Wes's curriculum is shaping up to be, that Palinites would recoil violently from such a course of study, considering it to be alien and un-American, and rejecting it as elitist -- simply and only because it develops the critical and integrative capacity of the mind. I am convinced that young Wes would have no place in Sarah Palin's brand of "conservatism." And this realization confirms even more for me that the Palinites are not really anti-establishment and anti-elitist. I'm sure they would be very much at home with a particular kind of "establishment" and a particular type of "elite." Rather, I am reduced to thinking that they are, sadly, anti-intellectual. And that is not a comforting thought.