I was growing up during the 1940s, a local independent service club
brought a speaker to town every year. His name was Sam
Campbell. He gave a lecture on nature while his wife showed
movies of animals and birds and natural habitats. Being a farm boy
full of curiosity and little true knowledge about wildlife, I paid
close attention to the pictures and the explanations.
Campbell wrote a new book for children nearly every year and I always
bought a copy. Then one year he had a new book (Natureís Messages,
Rand McNally, NY, 1952) that he refused to sell to me. "This
oneís for adults," he said, "you are too young."
Naturally I had to have that book right away. I badgered my mom
for a loan until she bought it. Within, I found an intriguing reference
to Henry David Thoreauís
lady at the shop in town treated me like I was demented or pulling
her leg when I tried to order the book, because I couldnít pronounce
Thoreau correctly. I returned the next day with a piece of paper
and I handed it to her. She had never heard of him either, but she
agreed to order the book if I paid in advance. So I got my first
copy of Walden
at the age of eleven and my education began.
Modern Library edition was an anthology of Thoreauís writing without
annotation and it included such essays as Walking, Life
Without Principle, and Civil Disobedience. I read Walden
first. I wasnít so surprised about a grown man going off to live
alone in the woods for two years, in fact I thought that might be
a good idea, but I was surprised that a grown man would go through
so much trouble to explain why. Grownups didnít explain why they
did things, they just did them.
should say that I did not understand at first that Thoreau had been
writing this a century before I was reading it. I thought of him
as an older cousin or an uncle whom I hadnít met as yet. I read
him literally and in real time, as it were.
was always asking difficult questions, something children like myself
were not allowed to do. After a while I gathered that he did this
deliberately both to think about an issue himself and to provoke
the reader into thinking about the same issue. I did not experience
this kind of attitude in school or at home and I kept this new approach
to knowledge to myself. Some of his questions were so hard that
I am still thinking about them fifty-years later.
Thoreau I soon acquired the knack for asking questions myself. I
discovered that if I was quiet about it, I could go upstairs into
the adult library, a gift to the town from Andrew Carnegie, and
I could look up answers in books I could not afford. If I found
something important, I would save my money and buy the book. Thatís
how I wound up reading Voyage
of the Beagle before I was old enough to get a grownup library
attitude toward knowledge was neither anticipated nor approved in
provincial America during the fifties and it caused me a lot of
grief in high school and later in college. Of course, itís all different
these days! When I started having children of my own in the sixties,
I worried for them. I didnít want them to grow up ignorant or restrained
by ignorance, but I also didnít want them to pay a price for being
curious and open-minded. It was a puzzle.
wife and I discussed this problem at length and we made two decisions.
One, get rid of the television set; two, read to the kids every
day. That was the easy part. The hard part came when they grew up
had a law against home-schooling in the seventies or we would have
done that. Our trial with a private "school" after kindergarten
was disastrous financially and educationally; our oldest son nearly
stopped reading. We were poor financially and we enrolled the boys
in public "school" with great foreboding.
were justified. Public "school" was an uphill battle each
and every day for the next thirteen years, until each boy went to
college on his own. Each and every day we had to undo the damage
done that day by some "teacher" and then address the subject
at hand. That took hours every day, after "school"; it
became a full-time job. Some "teachers" we had to battle
face to face, usually young ones who didnít know what they were
doing, although sometimes older ones who knew exactly what they
were doing. They called our boys "gifted" because they
were always neat, clean, polite, punctual, and way ahead of their
class. "Teachers" donít like "gifted" children or their parents, especially the parents who come to talk to them.
outcome was worth the effort. These young men went to college with
faith in their own ability to think, to reason, to discover the
truth, and with no faith in "teachers." If some assertion
didnít make sense to them, they challenged it. Naturally they had
trouble in required "liberal arts" classes, they knew
they would in advance, but they did just fine in mathematics, physics,
chemistry, and engineering classes, where "teachers" could
not lie. Both graduated with honors and today both are busy recreating
our world and getting rich in the process, which is the way things
ought to be for everyone.
education began by accident and I donít envy any kid who learns
to think by accident. Our children must learn to think for themselves.
The world of mankind is too intertwined and too precarious these
days to have confidence in the intentions of successive generations
of children who cannot think for themselves. "Schools"
cannot be trusted to teach children how to think. Public "schools"
have every incentive to teach children not to think, but to be obedient
servants to their masters. Many private "schools" have
the same mandated agenda. Home-schooling has the potential of teaching
children how to think for themselves as long as the parents treat
the official curricula with careful skepticism; not everything in
the textbooks is true.
own best hope for education is the Internet, where knowledge is
quickly passed on to the curious. On the Internet, teachers can
forgo their cradle of tenure and obedience and take their chances
on real teaching; I mean, charge for their services with a money-back-guarantee
idea is catching on. You can almost hear the halls of ivy groan
and crumble while the "teachers" cry out to the state
for protection. The state is a protection racket. In part, in fact,
this idea answers one of Thoreauís hard questions; when mankind
grows up, we wonít need the state at all. I think that education
on the Internet can lead the way.
Klassen [send him mail] is
a medical technician and writer. Here's
his web site.
© 2001 Robert Klassen