Posts filed under ‘Education/Homeschooling’
In 2009, I watched this Open Yale course on the psychology, biology, and politics of food. As a result, I posted a cartoon (not my own) together with some disturbing statistics, mentioned in the course, on how much exposure the average American child gets to junk-food ads on TV.
Now, I grew up without TV entirely, and even now we don’t have a TV in our house. My wife and I are currently renting the house we live in, and the two TV sets that were provided by the landlord are stowed away in the shed. This means I’m hardly qualified to say much about television apart from citing statistics.
But the creator of the following graphic, Allison Morris, came across the above mentioned blog post and contacted me. So, for those of you who do have children and a TV set in the same house, this might be something to consider (taken from educationnews.org):
Two days ago, I quoted Plato’s “Ring of Gyges,” one the most famous passages from his book The Republic. An even more famous passage is the Allegory of the Cave, probably the most discussed picture in the history of philosophy. The allegory is meant to show that it is only through education that we can come to know reality as it really is; without education, Plato thinks, we are caught in a world of unreality.
Here is this influential text. The speakers in the dialogue are Socrates (in the role of teacher) and Glaucon, the same one who had told the story of the Ring of Gyges.
And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: — Behold! human beings living in a underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets.
And do you see, I said, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures of animals made of wood and stone and various materials, which appear over the wall? Some of them are talking, others silent.
You have shown me a strange image, and they are strange prisoners.
Like ourselves, I replied; and they see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave?
True, he said; how could they see anything but the shadows if they were never allowed to move their heads?
And of the objects which are being carried in like manner they would only see the shadows?
Yes, he said.
And if they were able to converse with one another, would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them?
And suppose further that the prison had an echo which came from the other side, would they not be sure to fancy when one of the passers-by spoke that the voice which they heard came from the passing shadow?
No question, he replied.
To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.
That is certain.
And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; and then conceive some one saying to him, that what he saw before was an illusion, but that now, when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision, — what will be his reply? And you may further imagine that his instructor is pointing to the objects as they pass and requiring him to name them, — will he not be perplexed? Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him?
And if he is compelled to look straight at the light, will he not have a pain in his eyes which will make him turn away to take refuge in the objects of vision which he can see, and which he will conceive to be in reality clearer than the things which are now being shown to him?
True, he said.
And suppose once more, that he is reluctantly dragged up a steep and rugged ascent, and held fast until he is forced into the presence of the sun himself, is he not likely to be pained and irritated? When he approaches the light his eyes will be dazzled, and he will not be able to see anything at all of what are now called realities.
Not all in a moment, he said.
He will require to grow accustomed to the sight of the upper world. And first he will see the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water, and then the objects themselves; then he will gaze upon the light of the moon and the stars and the spangled heaven; and he will see the sky and the stars by night better than the sun or the light of the sun by day?
Last of all he will be able to see the sun, and not mere reflections of him in the water, but he will see him in his own proper place, and not in another; and he will contemplate him as he is.
He will then proceed to argue that this is he who gives the season and the years, and is the guardian of all that is in the visible world, and in a certain way the cause of all things which he and his fellows have been accustomed to behold?
Clearly, he said, he would first see the sun and then reason about him.
And when he remembered his old habitation, and the wisdom of the den and his fellow-prisoners, do you not suppose that he would felicitate himself on the change, and pity them?
Certainly, he would.
And if they were in the habit of conferring honours among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honours and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, ‘Better to be the poor servant of a poor master,’ and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?
Yes, he said, I think that he would rather suffer anything than entertain these false notions and live in this miserable manner.
Imagine once more, I said, such an one coming suddenly out of the sun to be replaced in his old situation; would he not be certain to have his eyes full of darkness?
To be sure, he said.
And if there were a contest, and he had to compete in measuring the shadows with the prisoners who had never moved out of the den, while his sight was still weak, and before his eyes had become steady (and the time which would be needed to acquire this new habit of sight might be very considerable), would he not be ridiculous? Men would say of him that up he went and down he came without his eyes; and that it was better not even to think of ascending; and if any one tried to loose another and lead him up to the light, let them only catch the offender, and they would put him to death.
No question, he said.
This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed — whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.
Disclaimer: By quoting a text, I do not necessarily signal agreement with everything it says. Part of the purpose of this blog is to explore a great variety of viewpoints, without always immediately condemning or approving them.
A number of years ago, I read a few works by the influential English thinker John Stuart Mill (1806-73), such as On Liberty, Utilitarianism, and The Subjection of Women. At the time, I also heard about the ambitious educational goals of John Stuart Mill’s father, starting little John on Greek at the age of three and emphasizing familiarity with the Great Books. At the age of twenty, then, Mill had a nervous breakdown, and I got the impression from what I read that this was due to the over-zealous education he “suffered.”
More recently, I actually bothered to read Mill’s autobiography, and I now find my previous view of Mill’s depression inadequate, as it was based merely on hearsay. Well, by the hearing of the ear I had heard of it, but now mine eye has seen the Mill.
Mill’s own account of what got him into and out of his depression is much more interesting than simply to say: He read too many books, didn’t go out play enough, and so all his learning eventually became too much and caused a nervous breakdown. There was an inner journey involved that such a summary fails to capture.
He says that from the moment he first read Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the pioneer of utilitarian ethics, he had an object in life, namely to be a reformer of the world. His conception of his own happiness was entirely identified with this object. “I was accustomed to felicitate myself on the certainty of a happy life which I enjoyed,” he writes, “through placing my happiness in something durable and distant, in which some progress might be always making, while it could never be exhausted by complete attainment.”
This worked quite well for him for several years, until he “awakened from this as from a dream.” He asked himself: “Suppose that all your objects in life were realized; that all the changes in institutions and opinions which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?” And an irrepressible self-consciousness distinctly answered: “No!”
At this, Mill felt that the whole foundation on which his life was constructed fell apart. He seemed to have nothing left to live for. At first he hoped that this cloud of depression would pass, but it did not. He read without feeling, he did his work mechanically, and he had no one to confide in. He says that his father, to whom it would have been natural for him to turn to in any practical difficulties, was the last person he looked for help in such a case as this. “My education,” he explains, “which was wholly his work, had been conducted without any regard to the possibility of its ending in this result; and I saw no use in giving him the pain of thinking that his plans had failed, when the failure was probably irremediable, and, at all events, beyond the power of his remedies.”
Now what did get Mill finally out of his depression? What helped this rational mind raised on a steady diet of utilitarianism to again find meaning in life? What made him regain his spirit? The surprising answer: a subjective appreciation of the Romantics—the Romantics, who were such strong critics of what they saw as the tyranny of that overly scientific thinking which, they maintained, failed to see the beauty of a forest because it kept counting its leaves.
Not that Mill condoned the Romantics in every respect. He says that Goethe’s writings, for example, are penetrated throughout by views of morals and of conduct that are not defensible. And yet, he derived much from Goethe and other Romantic authors that helped him cultivate his feelings.
Particularly Wordsworth helped him out of his depression, because his poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of his pleasurable susceptibilities, “the love of rural objects and natural scenery.” But, he says, “Wordsworth would never have had any great effect on me, if he had merely placed before me beautiful pictures of natural scenery. … What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not of mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of.”
I find Mill’s experience with depression highly illuminating. While I want to be cautious in drawing unmerited comparisons or making too quick generalizations, Mill’s story reminded me of Darwin’s famous comment in his later life that, though he had appreciated poetry and literature as a young man, he now found Shakespeare nauseating. Perhaps Darwin’s loss of appreciation for the poetic, more subjective productions of human creativity was not directly caused by his life-long scientific, objective study of nature—I cannot really say—but it might have been.
In my personal experience, I have found that when I spend extended periods of time studying science, after a while philosophy begins to look too speculative and poetic viewpoints too subjective. On the other hand, when I spend extended periods of time with philosophy and poetic viewpoints, after a while science begins to feel too cold and meaningless. I therefore can easily imagine someone who spends his whole life in scientific pursuits completely losing their taste for the subjective.
Maybe a more pertinent example than Darwin is James Joyce, who purportedly said that he lost his subjective appreciation of music when he meticulously researched musical themes because he wanted to mimic their structure in his chapter on the Sirens in Ulysses.
This might not apply to every person, but people like Joyce seemed to notice that it was no easy task to be scientifically minded and at the same time stay in touch with a subjective appreciation of music, art, and poetry. You can count the leaves of a forest one hour and appreciate its beauty the next, but it is hard to do both at the same time. And if you spend most of your days counting leaves, you might eventually find yourself unable to still look at the whole forest and be overwhelmed by its beauty.
In Mill’s case, this dichotomy between the objective and the subjective was maybe not the whole story; I’ll look at some other interpretations of the cause of Mill’s depression in my next post. But like Mill, I, too, am a person who consciously needs to nourish his subjective side in order not to cool off in respect to that aspect of human existence. If others experience this differently, I have to take their word for it.
I see reading and discussing the Great Books primarily as an end in itself, not something that I justify as a means for achieving some other end. I do not spend time reading the Great Books to be able to make money, for instance. Rather, I make money to be able to spend time reading the Great Books.
Having said this, what do you think about Plato’s notion of education having a soul-shaping influence on us? I recently read Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, and he takes this Platonic stance on the soul-shaping importance of a liberal education in the vein of the Great Books.
Bloom sees popular culture like Plato’s cave, imprisoning the human soul in a world of non-reality. (And by "soul," I think Bloom means the whole human person as a person, with thoughts, desires, and decisions, as opposed to our being a mere collection of bodily functions.) For Bloom, the way out of this cave is a serious contemplation of the Great Books, as well as not letting yourself be pulled back into the cave by constantly consuming popular culture.
Like Plato, Bloom includes music in the influences he believes shape our souls, and he sees much of the popular music since the 1960′s to be harmful to the shaping of the soul. If I understand Bloom correctly, I am quite damaged as a human being because I have listened to many thousands of hours of popular music in my life, and still do. But perhaps my faculties are so damaged that I do not understand Bloom correctly .
In any case, Bloom makes quite an eloquent case for his position. The book is certainly worthwhile reading, irrespective of whether one agrees with all of his points.
What do you think? Is there something to the notion of the liberal arts shaping our souls, and could popular culture be compared to Plato’s cave from which the Great Books can deliver us? Do they have this—to use a theological term—soteriological quality? Do they, in a sense, save our souls? Or did both Plato and Bloom exaggerate the importance of education?
One of the books I’m reading right now is An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (no, “Essay” does not mean that it’s a short book; quite the contrary) by English thinker John Locke, published in 1690.
One of the questions I had while reading was whether the metaphor of the tabula rasa (the “blank slate”) is being taken more literally than Locke himself intended. No metaphor walks on four feet; if you try to make it so, it will stumble. That is to say, no metaphor and no analogy perfectly picture reality in all its details.
The basic thought of Locke’s metaphor of the blank slate (which he did not invent) is clear enough, namely that the human “Soul” does not think “before the Senses have furnished it with Ideas to think on” (Book II, Ch. 1, §20). Humans are not born with full-fledged ideas in their heads but slowly form them through the sensory input of the material world. Lock does seem to believe in the existence of immaterial souls, but certainly not of the Platonic kind that existed before birth in the world of pure ideas, in which case education would primarily consist of “rediscovering” what was already inside of us. (That, by the way, is what “education” means: to “bring forth” what is already “within” us; one of Plato’s many bequeathments to the modern world.)
So, it is clear what the metaphor of the blank slate is meant to combat. What is not so clear to me is whether Locke would deny that we are “wired” a certain way, or, since Locke was a Christian, created a certain way that strongly influences the way we take in and process the sensory data. Understandably, since he tries to combat the concept of full-fledged innate ideas, that is not where Locke puts his emphasis. But does he deny it?
Locke says that rather than implanting innate ideas in humans, God gave us the necessary tools to build those ideas, just like God has not build bridges or houses for people, but has given us hands and the necessary resources to build them (Book I, Ch. 12, §12). That, however, implies that we are preconditioned to take in reality and “build” it according to the mental tools we are furnished with. That’s where the blank-slate metaphor breaks down.
Locke wants to refute innate ideas. But does he also want to refute our human limitations—our inner structure through which we filter the world? From my incomplete reading, it seems to me rather that he prepares the way for those thoughts that we later have in Kant and others.
Or am I trying to make Locke less extreme than he was?
For the last two weeks, I’ve started listening to courses by The Teaching Company and have mostly been pleasantly surprised. Very worth listening to (or watching, if you get them in video format).
Right now, I’m going through “Great Ideas of Psychology,” and I’ve done the following courses so far:
- America’s Religious History
- Books that Have Made History – Books that Can Change Your Life (in part)
- Lost Christianities
- Machiavelli in Context
- Origin of the Modern Mind
- Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations
- Science and Religion
- Theory of Evolution – History of a Controversy
There seems to be plenty of good material at The Teaching Company. Here are some examples (just looking at this list makes me feel like a little boy having stumbled upon a treasure chest):
1. A Brief History of the World
2. A Modern Look at Ancient Greek Civilization
3. Abolitionism, Anti-Slavery and the Origins of the American Civil War
4. Abraham Lincoln – In His Own Words
5. Aeneid of Virgil
6. After the New Testament – The Writings of the Apostolic Fathers
7. African Experience from Lucy to Mandela
8. Age of Henry VIII
9. Age of Pericles
10. Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age
11. American Civil War
12. American Identity
13. American Military Experience
14. American Mind
15. Americas in the Revolutionary Era
16. America’s Religious History
17. Ancient Greek Civilization
18. Ancient Near Eastern Mythology
19. Apocalypse Now, Apocalypse Then – Prophecy, The Creation of the Modern World
20. Apostle Paul
21. Argumentation – The Study of Effective Reasoning
22. Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Poetics, and Logic
23. Augustine – Philosopher and Saint
24. Bach and the High Baroque
25. Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas
26. Between Crescent and Cross – Jewish Civilization from Mohammed to Spinoza
27. Bible and Western Culture
28. Biological Anthropology – An Evolutionary Perspective
29. Biology and Human Behavior – The Neurological Origins of Individuality
30. Biology – The Science of Life
31. Birth of the Modern Mind
32. Book of Genesis
33. Books that Have Made History – Books that Can Change Your Life
35. Business Law
36. Business Statistics
37. Can the Modern World Believe in God?
38. Chamber Music of Mozart
39. Change and Motion – Calculus Made Clear
40. Christmas Traditions in Victorian Britain and America
41. Christian Religions and Religious Fundamentalism
43. Civil Liberties and the Bill of Rights
44. Classical Archaeology of Ancient Greece and Rome
45. Classical Mythology
46. Classics of American Literature
47. Classics of Russian Literature
48. Comedy Through the Ages
49. Concert Masterworks
51. Conquest of the Americas
52. Contemporary Economic Issues
53. Detective Fiction
54. Discovering the Middle Ages (Video)
55. Discovery of Ancient Civilizations
56. Doctors – The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography
57. Early Christianity – Experience of the Divine
58. Early History of National Soc
59. Early Middle Ages
60. Earth’s Changing Climate
62. Einstein’s 100th Anniversary – Two Complimentary Lectures
63. Einstein’s Relativity and the Quantum Revolution
64. Elements of Jazz – From Cakewalk to Fusion
65. Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalist Movement
66. Energy and Climate – Science for Citizens in the Age of Global Warming
67. Era of the Crusades
68. Ethics of Aristotle
69. Europe and the Wars of Religion (1500-1700)
70. Europe and Western Civilization in the Modern Age
71. European History and European Lives
72. European Thought and Culture in the 19th Century
73. European Thought and Culture in the 20th Century
74. Explaining Social Deviance
75. Famous Greeks
76. Famous Romans
77. Finance and Accounting
78. Foundations of Western Civilization
79. Foundations of Western Civilization II
80. Francis of Assisi
81. Freedom – The Philosophy of Liberation
82. From Jesus to Constantine – A History of Early Christianity
83. From Monet to Van Gogh – A History of Impressionism
84. From Yao to Mao – 5000 Years of Chinese History
85. God and Mankind
86. Great American Music – Broadway Musicals
87. Great Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor
88. Great Artists of the Italian Renaissance
89. Great Authors of the Western Literary Tradition
90. Great Figures of the New Testament
91. Great Figures of the Old Testament
92. Great Ideas of Classical Physics
93. Great Ideas of Philosophy
94. Great Ideas of Psychology
95. Great Masters
96. Great Minds of the Western Intellectual Tradition
97. Great Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt
98. Great World Religions
vi. The Religions of India
99. Greece and Rome – An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean
100. Greek and Person Wars
101. Heroes, Heroines, and the Wisdom of Myth
102. History of the Construction of St. Peter’s Basillica
103. History of the English Language
104. History of World Literature
105. How to Listen to and Understand Great Music
106. Ideas in Western Culture – The Medieval and Renaissance World
107. Introduction to the Study of Religion
108. Italian Renaissance
109. Italians Before Italy – Conflict and Competition in the Mediterranean
110. Jesus and the Gospels
111. Jewish Intellectual History
112. Jewish Mysticism
113. Joy of Thinking – The Beauty and Power of Classical Mathematical Ideas
114. Joy of Mathematics
115. Joy of Science
116. Joyce’s Ulysses
117. King Arthur and Chivalry
118. Late Middle Ages
119. Legacies of Great Economists
120. Lewis and Clark – The Explorers
121. Life of the Mind – An Introduction to Psychology
122. Life and Legacy of the Roman Empire
123. Life and Operas of Verdi
124. Life and Work of Mark Twain
125. Life and Writings of C. S. Lewis
126. Life and Writings of Geoffrey Chaucer
127. Life and Writings of John Milton
128. Literary Modernism
129. Lives and Works of English Romantic Poets
130. Lives of Great Christians
131. Long 19th Century (1789-1914)
132. Lost Christianities
133. Love and Vengeance – A Course on Human Emotion
134. Luther – Gospel, Law and Reformation
135. Machiavelli in Context
136. Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature
137. Masterpieces of the Imaginative Mind – Literature’s Most Imaginative Works
138. Masterpieces of the Early 20th Century Literature
139. Meaning from Data
140. Medieval Europe – Crisis and Renewal
141. Medieval Heroines in History and Legend
142. Mind of the Enlightenment
143. Modern British Drama
144. Modern Economic Issues
145. Mr. Lincoln – The Life of Abraham Lincoln
146. Museum Masterpieces
147. Must History Repeat the Great Conflict of This Century?
148. My Favorite Universe
149. Natural Law and Human Nature
150. Neolithic Europe
151. New Testament
152. Nietzsche and the Postmodern Condition
153. No Excuses – Existentialism and the Meaning of Life
154. Odyssey of Homer
155. Old Testament
156. Operas of Mozart
157. Origin of the Modern Mind
158. Origins and Ideologies of the American Revolution
159. Origins of Great Ancient Civilizations
160. Origins of Life
161. 1492 – Ferdinand, Isabella, and the Making of an Empire
162. Palestine, Zionism, and the Arab-Israeli Conflict
163. Papal Elections
164. Particle Physics for Non-Physicists
165. Peoples and Cultures of the World
166. Philosophy and Human Values
167. Philosophy and the Religion in the West
168. Philosophy as a Guide to Living
169. Philosophy of Mind
170. Philosophy of Science
171. Plato, Socrates and the Dialogues
172. Plato’s Republic
173. Poetry – A Basic Course
174. Popes and the Papacy
175. Power Over People
176. Practical Philosophy – Greco-Roman Moralists
177. Psychology of Human Behavior
178. Quest for Meaning
179. Questions of Value
180. Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World
181. Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations
182. Representing Justice – Stories of Law and Literature
183. Rise and Fall of Soviet Communism
184. Robert E. Lee and His High Command
185. Rome and the Barbarians
186. Roots of Human Behavior
187. Science and Religion
188. Science Fiction – The Literature of Technological Imagination
189. Science in the Twentieth Century – A Social-Intellectual History
190. Science Wars – What Scientists Know and How They Know It
191. Search for a Meaningful Past – Philosophies, Theories and Interpretations of Human History
192. Search for Intelligent Life in Space
193. Self Under Siege – Philosophy in the 20th Century
194. Sensation, Perception, and the Aging Process
195. Shakespeare – Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies
196. Shakespeare – Word and Action
197. Sociology of Sexuality
198. Soul and the City – Art, Literature and Urban Living
199. St. Augustine’s Confessions
200. St. Patrick – The Patron Saint of Ireland
201. Story of Human Language
202. Story of the Bible
203. Superstring Theory – The DNA of Reality (Video)
204. Swift – Gulliver’s Travels
205. Terror of History – Mystics, Heretics, and Witches in the Western Tradition
206. The American Dream
207. The Developing Adult
208. The English Novel
209. The Enlightenment – Invention of the Modern Self
210. The Human Body
211. The Olympics from Ancient Greece to Athens 2004
212. The Passions – Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions
213. Theories of Human Development
214. Theory of Evolution – A History of Controversy
215. Thomas Aquinas – The Angelic Doctor
216. Thomas Jefferson – Visionary American
217. Tocqueville and the American Experiment
218. Tools of Thinking
219. Truth or Fiction in The DaVinci Code
220. Twentieth Century American Fiction
221. Understanding Genetics
222. Understanding Literature and Life – Drama, Poetry and Narrative
223. Understanding the Human Body (Video)
224. Understanding the Universe – What’s New in Astronomy
225. Understanding the Universe – Introduction to Astronomy
226. Using Literature to Understand the Human Side of Medicine
227. Utopia and Terror in the Twentieth Century
228. Victorian Britain
230. Voltaire and the Triumph of Enlightenment
231. World of Byzantium
232. World Philosophy
233. World War I – The “Great War”
234. World War II – A Military and Social History
“Potions lessons were turning into a sort of weekly torture.”
—J.K. Rowling; about Professor Snape
At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry was the most famous boy, perhaps the richest (because he did not have any parents who could control how much money he spent), and the best player at the wizard sport Quidditch.
However, in a way the bubble burst very quickly. Yes, Harry was famous, rich, and athletic, but he soon discovered that this was not a guarantee for happiness. Indeed, in many ways the wizard school was exactly the same as a public Muggle school (“Muggles” are non-magical people). Because of his fame, money, and athletic ability, Harry managed better at the wizard school than at the public school, but that was not because it was a wizard school. The wizard school had just as many “uncool kids” as Harry himself used to be at public school.
It is worth taking a closer look at this wizard school, Hogwarts, to see how much like a public school it is.
First of all, some students experience great pressure of expectation. While Harry was on his way to his first year at Hogwarts, another boy, Ron Weasley (who was to become his best friend), told him, “I’m the sixth in our family to go to Hogwarts. You could say I’ve got a lot to live up to. Bill and Charlie have already left – Bill was Head Boy and Charlie was captain of Quidditch. Now Percy’s a Prefect. Fred and George mess around a lot, but they still get really good marks and everyone thinks they’re really funny. Everyone expects me to do as well as the others, but if I do, it’s no big deal, because they did it first. You never get anything new, either, with five brothers. I’ve got Bill’s old robes, Charlie’s old wand and Percy’s old rat.”
As regards to peers’ relationships, it is the same old story every time. Hogwarts is no different to Muggle schools: the same clambering for status and acceptance, the same hierarchy and survival of the fittest, the same cliquism, the same trampling on each other’s feelings, the same boasting and gloating. This is especially shown in Harry’s enmity with Draco Malfoy:
Harry hadn’t had a single letter since Hagrid’s note, something that Malfoy had been quick to notice, of course. Malfoy’s eagle owl was always bringing him packages of sweets from home, which he opened gloatingly at the Slytherin table.
Draco Malfoy, who was Snape’s favourite student, kept flicking puffer-fish eyes at Ron and Harry, who knew that if they retaliated they would get detention faster than you could say ‘unfair’.
Or take this passage about Ron, when he joined the Quidditch team in his fifth year:
The only thing really worrying Harry was how much Ron was allowing the tactics of the Sytherin team to upset him before they even got on to the pitch. Harry, of course, had endured their snide comments for over four years, so whispers of, ‘Hey, Potty, I heard Warrnington’s sworn to knock you off your broom on Saturday’, far from chilling his blood, made him laugh. ‘Warrington’s aim’s so pathetic I’d be more worried if he was aiming for the person next to me,’ he retorted, which made Ron and Hermione laugh and wiped the smirk off Pansy Parkinson’s face.
But Ron had never endured a relentless campaign of insults, jeers and intimidation. When Slytherins, some of them seventh-years and considerably larger than he was, muttered as they passed in the corridors, ‘Got your bed booked in the hospital wing, Weasley?’ he didn’t laugh, but turned a delicate shade of green. When Draco Malfoy imitated Ron dropping the Quaffle (which he did whenever they came within sight of each other), Ron’s ears glowed red and his hands shook so badly that he was likely to drop whatever he was holding at the time, too.
“A relentless campaign of insults, jeers, and intimidation”—this is the reality of the peers’ relationships at Hogwarts. Certainly not better than non-magical schools.
Indeed, the school system makes the development of competition, rivalry, and factions all too easy:
‘Welcome to Hogwarts’ said Professor McGonagall. ‘The start-of-term banquet will begin shortly, but before you take your seats in the Great Hall, you will be sorted into your houses. The Sorting is a very important ceremony because, while you are here, your house will be something like your family within Hogwarts. You will have classes with the rest of your house, sleep in your house dormitory and spend free time in your house common room.
‘The four houses are called Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin. Each house has its own noble history and each has produced outstanding witches and wizards. While you are at Hogwarts, your triumphs will earn your house points. At the end of the year, the house with the most points is awarded the House Cup, a great honour. I hope each of you will be a credit to whichever house becomes yours.’
To say nothing of the teachers. Most of the wizard teachers at Hogwarts are just as “non-magical” as the non-magical teachers at our Muggle schools. Some of them are unfair and spiteful, like Professor Snape:
‘Double Potions with the Slytherins,’ said Ron. ‘Snape’ Head of Slytherin house. They say he always favours them – we’ll be able to see if it’s true.’
‘Wish McGonogall favoured us,’ said Harry. Professor McGonogall was head of Gryffindor house, but it hadn’t stopped her giving them a huge pile of homework the day before.
Harry soon discovers that Professor Snape’s reputation of being unfair is only a shadow of his real nastiness; he is actually worse than people say! “At the start-of-term banquet, Harry had got the idea that Professor Snape disliked him. By the end of the first Potions lesson, he knew he’d been wrong. Snape didn’t dislike Harry – he hated him.” During the first lesson, Professor Snape told the class, “I can teach you how to bottle fame, brew glory, even stopper death – if you aren’t as big a bunch of dunderheads as I usually have to teach.” How did that make the students feel, I wonder? And when the clumsy, “uncool kid” Neville Longbottom did something wrong at first try, Snape immediately snarled, “Idiot boy!” Not only did he put Neville down, he then irrationally blamed Harry for Neville’s mess-up. Said he, “You – Potter – why didn’t you tell him not to add the quills? Thought he’d make you look good if he go it wrong, did you? That’s another point you’ve lost for Gryffindor.”
This was so unfair that Harry opened his mouth to argue, but Ron kicked him behind their cauldron. ‘Don’t push it,’ he muttered. ‘I’ve heard Snape can turn very nasty.
And during another year, Professor Snape said to a new professor in front of the whole class, “Possibly no one’s warned you, Lupin, but this class contains Neville Longbottom. I would advise you not to entrust him with anything difficult. Not unless Miss Granger is hissing instructions in his ear.” Naturally, “Neville went scarlet. Harry glared at Snape; it was bad enough that he bullied Neville in his own classes, let alone doing it in front of other teachers.” Snape was so horrible a teacher that “potions lessons were turning into a sort of weekly torture.”
But not all teachers at Hogwarts are cruel, sarcastic, and unfair; some are simply boring: “History of Magic was by common consent the most boring subject ever devised by wizardkind. Professor Binns, their ghost teacher, had a wheezy, droning voice that was almost guaranteed to cause severe drowsiness within ten minutes, five in warm weather. He never varied the form of their lessons, but lecture them without pausing while they took note, or rather, gazed sleepily into space. Harry and Ron had so far managed to scrape passes in this subject only by copying Hermione’s notes before exams; she alone seemed able to resist the soporific power of Binns’s voice.”
“It was amazing how he could make even bloody and vicious goblin riots sound as boring as Percy’s cauldron-bottom report.”
One time, Harry “glanced round at Professer Binns who continued to read his notes, serenely unaware that the class’s attention was even less focused upon him than usual.”
Other classes are a total sham. Professor Trelawney, for example, teaches divination. But by the end of the fifth book she has only uttered two true prophecies in her life—and she does not even know about them because she spoke them in a trance. In other words, her classes are a waste of time and energy. The students learn a fake system of divination, which causes them to “play” with the teacher: to invent dreams and prophecies in order to see how much of them she would believe. Sad to say, they are rather successful. Professor Trelawney is a teacher who considers “her subject above such sordid matters as examinations.” Indeed, her subject is so much above real knowledge that the students do not learn anything of true value from her.
To top it all, during Harry’s fifth year the Ministry of Magic sent a commissioner to monitor the school. She taught some classes herself, which revealed her educational dictum only too plainly:
‘Using defensive spells?’ Professor Umbridge repeated with a little laugh. ‘Why, I can’t imagine any situation arising in my classroom that would require you to use a defensive spell, Miss Granger. You surely aren’t expecting to be attacked ruing class?’
‘We’re not going to use magic?’ Ron exclaimed loudly.
‘It is the view of the Ministry that a theoretical knowledge will be more than sufficient to get you through your examination, which, after all, is what school is all about. And your name is?’ she added, staring at Parvati, whose hand had just shot up.
‘Parvati Patil, and isn’t there a practical bit in our Defence Against the Dark Arts OWL? Aren’t we supposed to show that we can actually do the counter-curses and things?’
‘As long as you have studied the theory hard enough, there is no reason why you should not be able to perform the spells under carefully controlled examination conditions,’ said Professor Umbridge dismissively.
Not only did Mrs. Umbridge believe that proper education only consist of “studying the theory hard enough,” she also disallowed the students to question any of her teachings. When Hermione asked, “Surely the whole point of Defence Against the Dark Arts is to practice defensive spells?” Professor Umbridge did not give a real answer but asked in a falsely sweet voice, “Are you a Ministry-trained educational expert, Miss Granger?” Since Hermione had to admit that she was not, Mrs. Umbridge said, “Well then, I’m afraid you are not qualified to decide what the “whole point” of any class is. Wizards much older and cleverer than you have devised our new programme of study. You will be learning about defensive spells in a secure, risk-free way –”
On another occasion, Hermione said that she disagreed with a certain point that was made in a text book: “Mr Slinkhard doesn’t like jinxes, does he? But I think they can be very useful when they’re used defensively.”—“Oh, you do, do you?’ replied Professor Umbridge. “Well, I’m afraid it is Mr Slinkhard’s opinion, and not yours, that matters within this classroom, Miss Granger.”
Such are the teachers at Hogwarts. I have not yet mentioned Professor Quirrel, who actually turns out to be a servant of the evil Lord Voldemort and tries to kill Harry! Have you ever heard of a teacher who tries to kill a student? Quite a school, isn’t it! Or Professor Lockhart. He could be put in a similar category as the divination teacher Trelawney, because, like her, he is an unbelievably gigantic impostor. The only difference is that he is so much more self-conceited than Trelawney. Or Hagrid. Although a kind friend, he is insecure, clumsy and not quite “with it.” Not exactly a good teacher.
To be fair, I should say that Hogwarts also has a number of teachers that are actually “OK.” But my point is that the educational quality at Hogwarts is no better than in most public schools today; perhaps worse. For Harry, studying Magic was not particularly magical, but just as torturing, boring, or theoretical as the non-magical subjects Muggles study at school. In that way, Hogwarts is very much a parody of the problems in public schools today.
I just read this article on German homeschoolers being granted asylum in the US, and once again the right to homeschool is defended on religious grounds.
I find that frustrating – as if the only reason for homeschooling was to protect one’s children from the supposed evil influence of the world or to indoctrinate them with pseudo-science.
Why can’t we simply say that school is not the be-all and end-all of education, and that for some children alternatives should be considered, one of them being homeschooling?
John Stuart Mill, one of the greatest pioneers of political freedom, would certainly agree, and he was an early skeptic of religion.
P.S.: I published a book last year that relates to this issue: The Gobblestone School: A Tale Inspired by the German Criminalization of Homeschooling – a children’s story somewhat in the vein of Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory etc.).
First of all, I’d like to say that I feel slightly guilty posting on anything other than Haiti right now. My thoughts continue to be with the people there, and I encourage everyone to donate some money to the relief efforts.
But, unfortunately, tragedy is always with us. We have to continue our lives in the face of it, and part of my life is the world of books, among them Gore Vidal’s novel Julian. I recently found a passage on education in it that I thought worthwhile sharing.
This is Caesar Julian speaking (fictionally, of course):
“Priscus thinks that there should be widespread literacy. Sallust thinks not, on the grounds that a knowledge of literature would only make the humble dissatisfied with their condition. I am of two minds. A superficial education would be worse than none: envy and idleness would be encouraged. But a full education would open every man’s eyes to to the nature of human existence, and we are all of us brothers, as Epictetus reminds us.”