I don’t think we ever quite get over that “back to school” feeling. It is sixty-five years since I was first taken (or dragged) to school, and in spite of my stubborn resistance, I had to go many more times after that. Later I was a college teacher for twenty years, so September always had the same slightly vertiginous feeling, like being poised on the tip of a high diving board above a pool of unknown depth.
My uneasiness is not at all logical, because I do believe in school and in education, the more the better. It’s just that education is difficult, whether you are on the giving or the receiving end. There is this once-only window of opportunity when young minds can absorb almost anything with incredible efficiency. This is the time to learn things like languages, music and mathematics, which will be a hundred times harder to learn later in life. At this age they will absorb all sorts of knowledge no matter what we do, and if they are surrounded by cultural garbage they will absorb cultural garbage, which is what all too often happens. Education, as Marshal McLuhan once remarked, is civil defense against media fallout.
Of course it doesn’t seem so important when you’re young. For me school was just a distraction from everything really interesting, like going for bike rides in the country, and finding strange creatures at the bottom of ponds, and building surrealistic machines out of Meccano. But instead of doing interesting things like these we were, stuck inside a classroom on sunny days, lined up in rows on hard seats, and facing a blackboard full of incomprehensible things. They were especially incomprehensible to me because, until I was eleven, nobody discovered that I was very short sighted. When I got my first pair of glasses the blackboard sprang into focus with horrible clarity. What I had learned, in the years before I got the glasses, was the art of the creative response. The teacher would point to something on the board and ask a question, and I would always have a quick answer even though I had no idea what was being asked. It was and is a useful skill, although my answers may have been rather random.
”Bouchier, what do you call the point where these two converging lines meet?”
They probably thought I was retarded, but so many of us were that I just blended in with the crowd. We all made it through somehow, and emerged from the educational process with little bits of culture stuck to us like post-it notes. It wasn’t a thorough education, and it wasn’t agreeable. The teachers were fond of physical punishments, and there was no attempt to protect the self-esteem of students who happened to be lazy or dumb. Within each class we were arranged from front to back according to weekly test scores. So everyone could see that the smartest kid was in the front right seat of the A class, and the stupidest kid was in the back left seat of the D class. The teachers may have been trying to teach us about the real world and, if so, it was a good lesson. The real world is exactly like that. Of course the smartest kid got beaten up every day for being the smartest kid, which doesn’t always happen in the real world, although perhaps it should.
Things are different now, I’m sure. The air must be full of anticipation and rejoicing after Labor Day when more than seventy million scholars return to the intellectual life, the younger ones with their stylish new back to school outfits and iPhones, and the college students with whole SUVs full of electronic equipment. I wish them all the luck in the world, and their teachers too.
Copyright: David Bouchier