Summer in the Classroom against a Year Long School Schedule

There’s an old joke about two newcomers to the world of business who acquired a truck and drove to the neighboring state to buy hay. They paid a dollar a bale, and when they got home, they sold the whole load while it was still on the truck for a dollar a bale.

This continued for a couple of weeks, and finally one yokel said to the other, “You know, Bill, we’re not makin’ any money.”

“I know,” Bill replied. “We need to get a bigger truck.”

The legislature in my state, New Mexico, had a bill introduced last session to add another 30 school days per year. (It didn’t pass, but I’m sure it will be back.) It reminded me of Bill and his truck.

There are lots of things we should do to improve education, but providing more of what we now offer is not one of them.

There are many ways to learn, and not all of them can occur within a school setting. One of those ways is simply to interact with the world. Children explore their environment, whether it’s a busy city or endless plains. They experience the extremes of the weather. They encounter other people of all types and ages and learn to get along with them or protect themselves from them. They practice using the tools of civilization, from lawn mowers to crosswalks. They find out how far they can run, jump, swim, and climb. They begin to learn the frightfully complex rules of the stately minuet of the sexes.

We adults call all of that “play,” and do our best to limit its scope and duration. If you’d told any one of us at the age of nine that he would grow up to be such an ogre, it would have elicited a strenuous argument. I just don’t understand how people can grow up and forget what it was like being a kid.

We already commit our children to at least 12, often 13 or 14, years of mandatory schooling. But many graduates can’t give you change for a dollar. They don’t know where China is, or anything else about it. They don’t know who any of their elected officials are, or what they do. An astonishing percentage can’t read a newspaper article.

And they don’t care.

We don’t need 30 days a year more of that.

We expect these graduates, whom we have failed utterly, to care about their own children’s educations. They don’t. They found no value in their own.

It is not surprising that these graduates make less money than their peers and tend to congregate in poor areas, where rents are cheap. Nonetheless we punish the schools their children attend for failing to raise their achievement test scores.

When we fail a child, we often doom his offspring as well. We perpetuate a vicious circle of contempt for learning.

The crisis in education starts at home and in a rapidly growing number of homes across our country the parents are failing to encourage their children to learn. Some of them are too busy dealing with their own problems, but many simply do not care. The children of these people the failed students of the past walk in the school door wearing their parents’ dunce caps.

The sad thing is that almost every single healthy child is eager to learn. Human beings are built that way: we’re naturally inquisitive and love to be astonished. It’s as if we’re “hard-wired” to be educated.

Given that advantage, it’s heartbreaking to see how poorly we do the job. The educational system we have is the same one that tried to break my spirit, and my father’s, and my son’s. We keep doing it the same way, expecting different results.

Our educational system, with its regimented curriculum and precise schedule, was devised about the same time as the assembly line, and we expect similar results. We want uniform graduates to roll off the line, each with all its nuts and bolts tight.

More and more, we’re not getting that, but it’s not because we don’t devote enough time to it.

If we want to fix education, we need to look critically at what we’re doing, not how long we’re doing it. We need to give up some of our cherished assumptions and start trying to capture the interest of our children. If insipid sitcoms and mind-numbing video games can thoroughly enthrall them, it shouldn’t be that hard.

But, hey! When summer comes around, leave them alone!