The Education Question, Part 3: Reflections on our Experiences in Public School


I’ve been talking about my and my husband’s experiences with education — mine, overwhelmingly positive, and his, overwhelmingly negative. Here, I’m offering a few reflections on them together, and how they have influenced our thoughts on how we want to educate our daughter. If you’re just tuning in now, the conversation began here.

I don’t regret my education one iota.

Without a doubt, I learned a lot of incredibly valuable stuff during my time in public school. I learned things I never would have been able to learn from my family, since my own parents, raised as nomadic Old Colony Mennonites, got almost no formal education themselves.

Because of public education, I can read and write and solve fairly complex math problems – things my own parents struggle to do.

I also learned many things in public school that were interesting, enriching, useful, and beneficial.

Because of my public education, I was able to attend university, which profoundly shaped the person I am today. I was exposed to more good literature than I could have imagined possible, as well as ideas and ways of thinking that have become an integral part of my identity.

At university, I got to know God. I read so much good theology via English literature, which drew me into a more intimate relationship with the living God – more than any church sermon ever did. For that I am eternally grateful.

That being said, I also learned and internalized many harmful things during my years in public education:

  • That people like me – methodical, critical, studious types who are good at using words — are superior to other people, especially those who have difficulty focusing or following instructions, and those who have trouble expressing themselves in words.
  • That things are only worth doing of they will be seen and evaluated by an authority figure.
  • That listening to and obeying instructions are more important than inventing and experimenting (especially if those experiments and inventions don’t end up being “productive”).
  • That math, reading, writing, and science are more important than art, dance, and housekeeping
  • That the purpose of education is to get a good-paying job, and that the point of learning is to make oneself marketable.

One of my many qualms with my education is the fact that it didn’t prepare me for the real world. Not really. It didn’t help me learn how to budget or preserve food or raise a family. All those things, which I use on a daily basis, I learned at home from my mom.

(But I did learn trigonometry, thank God. I have used it exactly once).

Not only that, but my education didn’t even equip me to earn a decent wage. At my last job I made $11 an hour – barely more than my friends working the drive-through at Tim Horton’s – and my boss wished I would drop dead, I was so lousy at my job. (Remember, I have six years of post-secondary education to my name.)

(Part of the problem is that in today’s quickly-changing world, we have no way of knowing what today’s children are going to need to know in twenty years. So standardized curriculum hardly seems like the right answer for equipping tomorrow’s workers.)

So here I am today, a wildly successful scholar, ten years after graduating high school: I’m a stay-at-home mom who struggles to manage the home with only one kid. I write a blog with just over a hundred fans on Facebook and make exactly zero dollars a year. I’m proud of my accomplishment – really, I am – and I adore my chosen vocation as a mother and homemaker. But it’s hardly the illustrious career my teachers would have predicted. I sometimes wonder if – on a practical level alone – some of those years writing essays wouldn’t have been better spent doing something a little more . . .useful.

All those accolades from my teachers growing up ended up meaning very little. I may be able to parse a poem, but in almost every important respect I’m remarkably useless.

And I sometimes worry that after all those years in school, my capacity for creativity and originality has been irreparably damaged.

And as for Ben: he doesn’t regret his education, either; but he still has to work hard to unlearn the things he learned about himself in the classroom – that he’s not very bright, that he’s a poor reader, that he’s too dull to hang out with “smart” people like professors and accountants. Those are hard things to wipe clean from your subconscious.

* * *

I’m already quite certain that Lydia would flourish in a public school setting, just like I did. She’ll likely be very much like me, and less like her dad. All my aunts say she looks and acts just like me as a baby. She seems to be hitting her milestones at exactly the same rate that I did. And I parent very much like my own mother – only I have about 18 years more formal education than she has, so Lydia’s got an edge on even me.

Plus, school tends to be a more welcoming environment for girls than boys.

But I’m not sure how much I want to send my daughter to a place that will (likely) tell her she’s better than everyone else, while failing to teach her important life skills, like how to budget, cook, or clean. (Not that only girls need to learn these skills. Boys need to learn them, too. These are human life skills, which are severely lacking in the younger generations).

There are a number of other quarrels I have with classroom-style education, and I’ll wrap up my thoughts in my next (and final! . . . probably) post on the subject.

image courtesy of evmaiden.
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  1. “I sometimes wonder if – on a practical level alone – some of those years writing essays wouldn’t have been better spent doing something a little more . . .useful.”

    “All those accolades from my teachers growing up ended up meaning very little. I may be able to parse a poem, but in almost every important respect I’m remarkably useless.”

    No you’re not! Don’t buy into the idea that art and beauty are useless!! All of life can be a drudge sometimes; laundry, bills, scraped knees and creaky old bones… but a song and the sunrise give joy that carries you through. There is Divine beauty in those things, just as there also is in the ‘necessary’ work that cleans floors, grows food and family.

    For better or worse, your ‘education’ both in school and at your Mother’s and Life’s knee grew you to the woman you are today. Besides, what if Lydia does follow in your shoes and ends up being a Poet Laureate? Will she not be useful?

    • Thanks for your kind words and encouragement, Pepper Reed! I completely agree that art and beauty aren’t useless. To clarify: part of the problem is that I DON’T have my art. I spent so many years of my life writing essays and taking tests, when I could have been writing novels or painting. I wonder if Lydia wouldn’t have MORE of a chance of being a poet laureate if she skipped all the schooling and went straight to creating.

      I was also trying to draw attention to the fact that even though my childhood education was ostensibly meant to make me a more productive human being, it doesn’t seem to have done a good job on that front, either.

  2. If I think back I’d probably have to agree that my public high school education didn’t prepare me for the real world in terms of budgeting, cooking, etc. (Though my college education in Tech. Theatre and Theatre for Youth provided me with a great amount of education about how to survive in the real world and with my kids! I might not be working in my past profession, but it’s been far from useless!*) However, I’m not sure if I believe it’s the point of public (or even private school, not homeschool) to provide these things. I’m more of the mind that public school is to learn math, science, reading, writing, etc. and that the “real world” education and experience should come from the home.

    And, while I hope my children’s teachers do whatever they can to inspire a love of learning – I think that the responsibility to foster that is more mine than theirs. Perhaps this is because I believe that a love of learning begins far before my child begins public school.

    I think I must have had a lot of liberal teachers too because I remember a lot of my teachers finding ways around the “test and grade” teaching system.

    *Ben and I both have theatre degrees in one subject or another and between us we have a basic (or more) understanding of electrics, woodworking, sewing and clothing construction, advanced budgeting, public relations, activities for children not to mention knowledge of literature, history, etc. and years of having to live with very little money. All of this we use on a regular basis.
    Molly Makes Do recently posted..A Little MakingMy Profile

    • I think that’s a valid way of thinking about it, Molly: that it’s not the point of public education to instill a love of learning or practical life skills, but rather to teach the basics of math, science, language, etc. The rest is left up to parents. If we do end up sending Lydia to public school, I plan on working hard to make sure these other areas of education get addressed. The trouble is, in my opinion, that teaching these school subjects take up such a disproportionate amount of a child’s time. So much of a school day gets eaten up by things like transportation and crowd control. After a full day of school, I find that there’s little time or space to venture beyond these few core subjects, unless you want to rush around like crazy people.

      • Ditto! I don’t really have a desire to homeschool the elementary years – but I struggle with the amount of time public school demands – I see little validity in a 6-7 year old spend 5-7 hours in a structured classroom setting. I’m really troubled by what I hear being demanded of K-6 graders in terms of homework as well. To be honest if the opporutunity arose that we could public school 50% of the time and have the rest of the time as a more free (dare I say even unschooling time environment) that could be more focused around the individual child (to work on things like love of learning and topics that truly interest them) I would snatch it up in a heart beat. I’m still a year or two away from researching this though – I want H. to develop a little more and see what kind of learner he turns into.
        Molly Makes Do recently posted..A Little MakingMy Profile

  3. Great series. After reading you for a long time, both literally and figuratively, I have come to a conclusion: you have far more valuable and marketable skills than you realize. But you lack one thing, and I can’t figure out which of these two it might be – either the skill or the will to monetize. I’m going to call it the Tesla-Trump Conundrum. (Hey, that sounds catchy, and I just thought of it). How could a brilliant, talented, gifted, amazing man die a pauper, and an imbicilic blow-hard with a bad comb-over rule over an empire valued higher than some entire countries? It’s either one small skill or one small will.

  4. (Warning, this comment has nothing to do with schooling…)
    I just wanted to drop a line and say Hi!
    You don’t know me, I don’t know you (other than what Ive read on this blog) but seriously, we are alike in so many ways. When I first started reading I was like “Hey cool, me too!” and “Weird, same here!” and then it turned into “Husband, some see this. Is this my blog? I swear, I could have written that!” (and he agreed!) Its pretty cool and I plan to keep reading!
    Anyways, thanks for writing and sharing, I have really enjoyed the posts Ive read (yeah, you know Ill be blog stalking you when I get a free moment!) Blessings!

  5. I’m like you in that I am stellar at academics, but I suffered socially in public school. It was pretty miserable. Since I couldn’t seem to successfully navigate peer relationships, those accolades from authority figures–the gold stars, straight A’s, and positive comments–became in many ways the only measure I had of my self-worth. Sad but true.

    In the real world, I’ve found that creativity, flexibility, critical thinking, and knowing how to learn are much more valuable skills than any one particular skill or knowledge set. In other words: problem solving. If you know how to analyze and attack a problem, you can figure out how to do anything. Convincing the people doing the hiring of this is another matter entirely, of course…anyway, there were a few extracurricular programs I had access to through my public school that helped me develop those skills, and I really think those experiences did more for me than anything else in or out of school.

    My family also emphasized the importance of art and encouraged us to pursue our non-academic interests. I did theater for a few years and spent almost every year from third grade through college singing in choirs of one kind or another. Both of my siblings are now professional musicians.

    So I guess, as with anything, public school is what you make of it. We took advantage of those extracurricular programs and music classes. And I got a lot of my core classes because I love languages and history and reading and writing. It certainly doesn’t mean there aren’t flaws in the system. My brother did very poorly and my sister mediocrely (or whatever the adverbial form of mediocre should be) in those same schools, and even though I flourished academically, I still encountered problems and struggle with those same praise/value mindsets you mention.

    Also, I’m curious as to how exactly you ever used trigonometry in the real world! I definitely should have taken a statistics and/or Real World Math Skills class or two rather than calculus and all the other honors-track stuff…ugh, math. ^_^

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