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Some Educational Superstitions of our Time:
Shakespeare, Math and Handwriting
By Roland Meighan

We don't need to learn Shakespeare, math or handwritingProfessor S. Bengu, former Minister of Education for South Africa, gave a keynote speech at a conference on democratic education in1997. In it, he explained his country’s intention to move away from a bureaucrat-driven imposed curriculum and towards a learner-driven curriculum by 2005.

The enthusiasts for imposing a curriculum on the learners are often horrified at such heresy. “What if the learners do not choose to learn Shakespeare?” I always thought that Bertrand Russell gave the cool answer here, when he said: “Shakespeare did not write with a view to boring school children; he wrote with a view to delighting his audiences. If he does not give you delight, you had better ignore him.”

I have found comfort in this view, since I admit that, despite many visits to performances at Stratford-on-Avon, I can take or leave the Bard. This does not mean I want to stand in the way of those who want to encounter Shakespeare, and for this reason, I find that the work of John and Leela Hort in making the language of his plays intelligible, is well worth both parents and children investigating. With their love of the bard, Leela and John have spent their time and money producing the Inessential Shakespeare series, “shortened and simplified versions in modern English”. Six plays have been translated so far, and the seventh, Julius Caesar, is in preparation. (See Resources at the end of this article.)

The enthusiasts for imposing a curriculum on the learners are also worried by Math. “What if the learners do not choose to learn Mathematics?” Bertrand Russell, who should have a valid opinion since he was one of the world’s most renowned mathematicians himself, had this to say on the matter:

“In universities, mathematics is taught mainly to men who are going to teach mathematics to men who are going to teach mathematics to ... Sometimes, it is true, there is an escape from this treadmill. Archimedes used mathematics to kill Romans, Galileo to improve the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s artillery, modern physicists (grown more ambitious) to exterminate the human race. It is usually on this account that the study of mathematics is commended to the general public as worthy of State support.”

“Shakespeare did not write with a view to boring school children; he wrote with a view to delighting his audiences. If he does not give you delight, you had better ignore him.”

Math is useful, however, if you are doing something like designing bridges, but the idea that we must all go through the Math experience to identify those who are good at it and need it later for specific tasks, is about as sound as saying we must all study dentistry to enable some expert dentists to emerge. When I was learning Math at school, then teaching it in school myself, and then watching my son learn it, the same heretical thought kept occurring, that surely there are better things we could all be doing than this stuff.

It is a common error to confuse mathematics with arithmetic, and so perhaps it is the latter that should be imposed? Again, Russell is a dissenter: “Arithmetic...is overvalued; in British elementary schools and it takes up far more of the time than it should.” He goes on to propose that there are much more useful things to learn. Russell admitted that although he was a leading mathematician and philosopher, he was never much good at arithmetic himself.

It is another common error to think industry has “needs” that can be “covered”. A colleague who was a Math tutor, conducted a survey of the “needs” of hundreds of firms around Birmingham, England. When I asked him what he had found, he said, “Total confusion.” He could not find any common requirements in mathematics, and the common ground as regards arithmetic amounted to knowledge and confidence in the four basic rules. This squares with my own experience because when I left school at 16 and went work in a bank, the Math I had learned proved to be pretty useless and I had to learn the number games of the bank on the spot.

One home-educating family, where the father was an engineer, asked me at a conference what to do about Math. I ran through the arguments. They decided it was a superstition, and to have the courage to ignore it unless it cropped-up in the course of other investigations. Later they said how pleased they were with this policy and how well it had worked out in practice. But then, with CD-ROM interactive discs (not to mention the Internet) now available that will help you learn Math in half or less of the time of a taught course, you can take the subject on board whenever you wish.

If I believed in compelling people to learn things, which I no longer do, since I advocate the learner-driven/catalog curriculum/natural curriculum approach instead, I could make out a much better case for teaching Logic, which is usually missing from the curriculum altogether. But it was Paul Goodman, in a book that shocked people in 1962 entitled, Compulsory Mis-education (Harmondsworth: Penguin), who described mass schooling, including its imposed mathematics, as a mass superstition.

"The enthusiasts for imposing learning on children in school do not have a good track record."

The enthusiasts for imposing a curriculum on learners are also worried by joined-up handwriting. “What if the learners do not choose to learn joined-up handwriting?” I must admit to being much more worried if they do not develop the skills of joined-up thinking that learning logic encourages, but that is another issue. Perhaps more pain is inflicted on children in the joined-up handwriting pursuit than any other. Yet printers print in script, because it is clearer. Life Learning Magazine would be hard work to read if it were presented in handwriting.

Nobody shows much enthusiasm for joined-up figures in sums either, and would see anyone as a bit odd for suggesting it. John Holt in his investigations could find no reasons on offer except a claim that joined-up handwriting was speedier. He showed that this usually was a fallacy by conducting a number of classroom experiments and by experimenting on himself. Usually, script was as quick or often quicker, more legible and looked better. Those who chose to learn Italic script produced very attractive results.

In discussion recently, one handwriting enthusiast told me that the body movements used in the teaching of it were essential for the composed development of children. This was her justification for teaching handwriting. If this is so, why not teach the body movements on their own without the clutter?

The enthusiasts for imposing learning on children in school do not have a good track record. There were earlier superstitions. For a time they tried to make all left-handed children become right-handed, with a heavy punishment regime. Drill was imposed as a subject on all children for many years. Children in Welsh-speaking areas of Wales were punished if they did not speak in English in school. Later, compulsory Welsh appeared in English-speaking parts of Wales and I have met adults who resented this being enforced on them as children. And so on.

Part of the task of “parents as researchers” that I have advocated, is to be on the look-out for learning systems based on possible superstitions and get equipped to answer them and deal with them.

The late Roland Meighan, D.Soc.Sc., Ph.D., B.Sc.(Soc)., L.C.P., Cert Ed. was a writer, publisher, broadcaster and consultant. He researched home-based education in the UK since 1977 and was founder and owner of Educational Heretics Press, Nottingham, UK. He taught at University of Nottingham and University of Birmingham. He was a prolific writer, with over 100 articles, books, papers, etc. published to date. He was also an acknowledged “educational heretic”. His article “Restructuring Education” appeared in the November/December 2004 edition of Life Learning. This article appeared in an earlier form in “Natural Learning and the Natural Curriculum” by Roland Meighan (2001, Educational Heretics Press, Nottingham, UK).

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