James Bach Responds
Two days ago, I reviewed James Bach’s book, Secrets of a Buccaneer Scholar. Yesterday, he wrote me a very thoughtful response. There was so much germ for discussion in his response to my review, that (I hope he doesn’t mind), I am deciding to use this post to discuss his response.
Bach and I take very different approaches toward schooling. He is a bit more libertarian than I in his belief that education should be self-directed. His book uses phrases like “follow your energy” to mean that students’ learning should be entirely motivated by what they want to learn when they want to learn it. While I am sympathetic to this approach, I also believe that children and young adults are…children and young adults, and that there is a difference sometimes between what students may want to learn and what they should know.
Bach touched on the heart of our disagreement when he wrote the following:
It seems to me that a lot of folks who fret about “success” have a definite idea about what that means for them, and then expect everyone else to have the same goals. But, who are you and I to say what some student “needs” for “success”? Each of us is the only possible arbiter of that for ourselves. (Yes, this goes even for children. My son hasn’t gone to school in years.)
Who are we to tell children what their needs are? We are parents, teachers, and mentors. It is quite an uncontroversial fact that more experienced folk have foresight that young people do not necessarily have. I would not let my children choose all of the meals that they eat, because they do not know as much about nutrition as I do. I would not let my children drive a car without forcing them through some type of drivers training (even if they think the week they spent studying the booklet is enough). For similar reasons, I would not trust a five year old to judge what she will and will not study in order to prepare for a future that she is unaware the consistency of.
It is certainly true that children should be let free quite a bit of time to explore the things that interest them. It is quite true that parents and teachers should always be mindful of not imposing their values of what success is on their kids. But to say this is not to say that children should be let free all of the time to pursue only what they want, or to say that parents should never step in to help guide their children. (After all, parents often can foresee mistakes that kids lack the experience to foresee. That is why there is a legal requirement that children have parents.)
Bach goes on to illustrate what he means when he says that we should leave children free to decide how to pursuse their own success.
I don’t accept that reading, for instance, is a necessary skill. It’s a skill that is very important to me, in the way that I live, yes. But I can’t honestly say that a life without reading is a life wasted. There are many dimensions to life and many ways of valuing it. I don’t believe it’s right for an educational self-proclaimed elite to dictate that all other people must strive for the same kind of education they seek for themselves. That is not the way of a free society– that’s a colonial mentality. That’s 19th century imperialist thinking.
I believe that it is a wanton exaggeration to suggest that because I teach children to read (even when they don’t want to learn) is the equivalent of “19th century imperialism” and ” a colonial mentality.” If I had children, I would also set rules down that would attach punishment to the using of heroin and other hard drugs. I am hard pressed to see that this is a colonialistic mindset or an outdated and draconian stance.
It is simply the recognition that as an experienced adult, I can very likely foresee what type of preparation a child will need for her future better than she can. Are there exceptions? Yes. Either I might be mistaken in allowing a certain student not to be illiterate, or the student may really stumble onto a job that makes the ability to read written words irrelevant. But the chances are that my 32 years provide better foresight than her 13.
I believe that in a lot of Bach’s response, he is inadvertently extremizing the issue: either let a child do exactly what she wants when she wants all the time or march with the “self-proclaimed elite” who pompously dictate their own view of success onto everyone. I believe that there is quite a bit of middle ground and that the biggest problem with his book is that he does not recognize that this is so. Oen can teach students things that they will quite probably need to know (even if they don’t realize it) to a minimal amount, while leaving them time and freedom to explore the things they want to learn about. (My idea is that by high school, we have 50% required courses and 50% electives..)
I’d love to see an educational system based on abundance and free access, not based on compulsion, fear, and artificial hoops set up by people who have been “educated” to see kids as weak, stupid, helpless, and dangerous.
On this, Mr. Bach and I are in some agreement. I am a political libertarian that would also like to see an end to “one size fits all” education borne out of stringent compulsion. But, again, Mr. Bach comes out more extreme than I in his insistence that the child, rather than the parent, may be the one best situated to make these educational choices. (Even when sent to Montessori schools, it is the parent that enrolls the child!). Yes, there is danger that in some cases, compulsory education may produce children unequipped to deal with the world. But I fear that there would be more danger that leaving education solely up to the student poses a much higher risk of leading to unpreparedness. This, based on the conventional, and to me unassailable, thought that parents and teachers know more about the world than students.