We Need More Truants

Today I took a group of students to the mall. Since we’re a boarding school, we have to provide a range of weekend services and amenities, and this includes shopping trips to these engines of economic strength (and/or weakness, depending on which mall we’re talking about).

During the course of this visit, I saw many teens in what television, radio, the Web and common knowledge says is the natural habitat of teens, and I have to say I wasn’t particularly enthused about what I saw. Because if the natural habitat of teenagers is the shopping centers of America, and not its centers of learning, something has gone seriously wrong.

We need more truants.

Truancy derives linguistically from “truan” in Old Welsh and Old Scots by way of medieval French. There were far more links between medieval Scotland and Wales, and France, than with England, owing to the Celtic tradition of picking your friends among your neighbors’ neighbors, but not your own immediate neighbors — those were for picking your enemies from. A truant was a beggar who sought alms because of a choice, rather than from necessity. It’s not hard to imagine all sorts of medieval con artists dressing in rags and sitting on street corners begging. But somewhere along the way, the word got applied to students skipping school.

And we need more of that.

Now, you’re probably thinking I’ve gone off the deep end. Maybe I have. But I saw precious few kids, either my own or anyone else’s, showing an interest in books today. Games, sure. One kid in my charge for the day actually snapped photos with his cellphone of the one image from a book he liked, and didn’t bother buying the book, or noting down the title. He wasn’t interested in the whole book — just the one picture — and he was going to send the photo to his sister, so she could make him something for Christmas.

Yet a lot of schools, my own included, still revolve around print and text as our principal teaching medium. We may show films from time to time, but really we’re about reading and writing — in most middle schools, the science curriculum is stil largely literature-based, in that you’re expected primarily to be reading about science, rather than performing experiments yourself.

There’s been a disconnect somewhere, between what we actually expect adults to know these days, and what we’re teaching in schools. As much as I hate to admit it, it’s probably not the Iliad or the Odyssey that we’re expecting kids to know. The Epic of Gilgamesh? Ok, maybe, but not likely. The Bible? There’s allegedly a whole day in America devoted to the study of it for those that want to (there’s also a reason we don’t include it in the school curriculum; it’s called the First Amendment).

On a lot of blogs I read, from Iowa to Maine to California to Seattle to Florida to Washington DC, it’s clear that there needs to be a major educational overhaul, probably from fifth grade all the way up to the lower reaches of graduate school. For one thing, it can’t be the overpriced boondoggle it is now. For another, it needs to teach things of relevance. For a third, it needs to be geared toward understanding the momentous changes underway in our geophysical world, and in our sociocultural world.

But it can’t.

There’s no way that the educational system, a monoculture if there ever was one, is going to manifest the kind of reform needed at every level. We’ve designed our schooling system to clamp down on unorthodoxy in a big way. Even if we allow the unorthodox to thrive in our monolithic system, it becomes a cult of personality. One school I know has allowed its middle school director to remain in the job long past his appropriate tenure — where are you going to find a biology and literature teacher who can coach soccer and direct the school’s jazz band while also managing a team of a dozen faculty and running a programming club simultaneously? These kind of polymathic geniuses can really make a school hum, but once they go, a program often dies with them.

Maybe what we need in order to reinvigorate American school systems is a broad-based buy-0ut, a sort of inverse-voucher program, where parents say, “this school has failed my kid for the last time. I’m going to plop him down in front of Sesame Street reruns and YouTube videos, and give him a library card, and see if those stopgap measures can do better.”

To judge by the homeschooled kids I know, it’s not a bad education, really.

Now, I’m not actually suggesting that we ‘let’ kids stage a mass rally where they leave schools in droves, and go play hooky from school for weeks or months. Though maybe it would do us some good.

Because if we showed up in school with our lesson plans and our chalk and our erasers, ready to teach our usual lessons… and the desks and hallways were empty… well.

We’d really have to get serious about reform, wouldn’t we? Or there wouldn’t be much reason to keep heating the building through February, would there?

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  1. The thing about most homeschooled kids is they usually have parents that are involved in and care about their education (and this is true even when they bring additional baggage like the need to teach Creationism. That isn’t helpful, but they still care about their kids learning reading, writing and math) And that’s why homeschooling often produces great results.

    This really can’t be said about the kids in many public schools. Their parents often couldn’t care less. If there were more truants among those kids (who have gone to public schools for many years) the truants would mostly spend their extra time hanging out at the mall or playing video games etc.

    • I fear you’re right. The parents of homeschooled kids are deeply involved in their children’s lives, and they care about what educational results their children get. Everyone else? Well, it’s catch as catch-can.

      But maybe this is part of the serious challenge of the next decade. Just as Hurricane Katrina taught us (or should have taught us) that the government will not step in and save us in an emergency, maybe it’s time for us to start contingency planning around our children’s future.

      And It’s still the case, of course, that if an entire school played hooky, for several days running or several months, the teachers there would have to wonder, “was it something we said or did?” What is it that malls and video games have that schools don’t? Why is there an imbalance of attention, and is it a matter of curriculum, structure of work, or just plain perversity on the part of our students?

      I think we’d like to argue ‘perversity’, but really it’s not so easy as that.

    • And also, of course, it’s facile to say, “parents of public school kids don’t care about their children’s future.” But really, does anyone know ALL THAT MANY PEOPLE who don’t care about their children’s future? The actual number of uncaring parents has got to be ridiculously small. But if mom and dad are too busy putting food on the table and roof over their head, they’re only too happy to turn over the education to the state.

      Maybe we have to reverse that. Maybe we should ask more parents to home school their children. Puts a lot of us teachers out of jobs, or possibly into starting smaller start up schools in neighborhoods, and shutting down a few state departments of education, but it would definitely be a change.

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