When 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.
Sam Campbell wrote a new book for children nearly every year and I always bought a copy. Then one year he had a new book (Nature's Messages, Rand McNally, NY, 1952) that he refused to sell to me. "This one's 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 Thoreau's Walden.
The 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 couldn't 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.
That Modern Library edition was an anthology of Thoreau's writing without annotation and it included such essays as Walking, Life Without Principle, and Civil Disobedience. I read Walden first. I wasn't 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 didn't explain why they did things, they just did them.
I 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 hadn't met as yet. I read him literally and in real time, as it were.
Thoreau 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.
From 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. That's how I wound up reading Voyage of the Beagle before I was old enough to get a grownup library card.
My 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, it's all different these days! When I started having children of my own in the sixties, I worried for them. I didn't want them to grow up ignorant or restrained by ignorance, but I also didn't want them to pay a price for being curious and open-minded. It was a puzzle.
My 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 to school-age.
California 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.
We 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 didn't 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" don't like "gifted" children or their parents, especially the parents who come to talk to them.
The 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 didn't 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.
My education began by accident and I don't 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.
My 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 of satisfaction.
This 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 Thoreau's hard questions; when mankind grows up, we won't need the state at all. I think that education on the Internet can lead the way.
June 2, 2001