True Confessions

I have 1,965 things I need to get done right now, but I’ve decided to take a break and write about something that’s been troubling me. Consider this post my “true confessions,” if you like.

I like school.

There, I said it.

Now, tell me, why does writing those words feel like I’ve said something entirely unforgivable? These days, in the circles I travel in, I fear admitting that I like school may be enough to get me kicked out of said circles. I hope not. I’ve grown kind of fond of the people I’ve met here.

The thing is, since as far back as I can remember, I’ve liked school. I’ve gotten a kick out of not just learning, but learning in school — with great teachers, to boot. I’ll even go so far as to say I’ve been blessed with a number of amazing teachers in my life from grade school through grad school. I’m entirely aware that these individuals helped to shape me, helped me to grow up, and helped me to realize my own potential. Those may seem like trite, idealistic, simplistic concepts. But, for me, they’ve mattered.

It would probably be easy to surmise that I like school because I’m “good” at it. And, honestly, for much of my life I have been good at school. But that hasn’t always been the case. I spent four years at a high school that, basically, kicked my butt. It was a fairly new school, with fairly new, untested approaches, but it was also just plain hard. I wasn’t the smartest kid at the school, not even close. I wasn’t studying subjects that came to me naturally. Looking back on my experience there, I often felt like I was being asked to use a sense that I didn’t have in order to succeed. That was often frustrating and even disheartening. But it was also incredibly instructive. As hard as those four years of my life were, I’ve never been able to really write off that experience or shake a sense of gratitude for the time I had there. It’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve begun to think that the point of that passage in my life wasn’t to like school because it was easy or because I was successful but because it WASN’T easy and I WASN’T entirely successful.

All that said, I do think that there is much about our educational system that is broken: standardized testing, mindless drilling, limiting access to new avenues of information, endless infantilization of students (particularly college students), unwillingness to try new kinds of pedagogies, over-emphasis on grades and outcomes as opposed to process, etc., etc. etc.

All THAT said, I balk when I hear people suggest that everything about our schools is broken. Because many of the most tradition-steeped aspects of education were big factors in my own successful relationship with school: (great) lectures, the dreaded term paper, the “sage” teacher. (Also, I loved diagramming sentences.)

All THAT said, I certainly believe that we learn in lots of venues other than school. I certainly have. (Many of the most valuable learning experiences I had in college came during my one-year tenure on the debate team. I can’t imagine more learning crammed into a single activity over the course of one year. )

I’ve had vital, life-altering learning experiences in all kinds of venues: staff meetings (!), conferences, airplanes, bars. I’ve had those experiences with and without the presence of great teachers. I’ve been alone; I’ve been in small and large groups. I’ve been eating. I’ve been drinking — sometimes too much.  And I suspect that this is nothing profound. I’m sure all of us can identify a myriad number of places and circumstances– some predictable and some unexpected — where learning caught us and wouldn’t let us go. Where we had one of those quintessential “learning moments” when suddenly it felt like a hole had opened up in the cloudiness of our brains and we could, just for a moment, see something entirely clearly.

And I deeply respect the people I know who have decided to forge out into new territories, leaving schools and traditional institutions behind. Because I do believe that these other learning venues are vital and need strong voices and vision. And I deeply respect the people I know who have decided to stay at these institutions and fight for rigorous reflection on our practices and innovation and adaptation (and even revolution). And I trust that both groups of people are fighting for the same goals and ideals and that they will do what they can to preserve the best of us and grow in the directions where we have atrophied. And I hope that we can all find a way to talk across these two groups because I don’t believe there is a great divide, only two passages to be built.

And I REFUSE to apologize for liking school. I don’t care if it’s not cool.

I suppose some people could just write me off as a victim of the very schools that I claim to like. I’ve been brain-washed by the system and what I really like is just the thing I’ve been told I should like. Whatever. I know that’s not true. Not for me, anyway.

I like school.