Equal Opportunity

The Corbett Charter School admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in the administration of its educational polices, admissions policies and athletic and other school-administered programs.

Monday, December 7, 2009

To See the World in a Grain of Sand

William Blake

"Soon we shall know everything the 18th Century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us."

Randall Jerrel

The single greatest threat to the life of the mind, the uniquely modern challenge to becoming educated, is that we are constantly exposed to information from sources both reliable and otherwise. In some ways, this exposure is a thing of wonder. But it is only wonderful for those who have cultivated the expertise and wisdom to know how to sort the real from the fantastic, what matters from what does not. To the unprepared consumer, the torrent of words and images that permeate our lives may create the illusion of understanding, but it can never truly inform us.

There is a simple, daunting mathematics that is the inevitable result of the 'information glut', and it is this: Any attempt at becoming 'educated' by learning some significant, fixed proportion of the world's accumulated knowledge is utterly futile, and grows more futile as the totality of human knowledge grows. It is impossible to keep up.

In the Natural Sciences, it has been 150 years since the passing of Alexander von Humbolt, the last man who was believed to have mastered the total knowledge in the field. Today, such a feat is beyond the realm of possibility. It is beyond the realm of reason for a hundred people, or a thousand, all working together. It is beyond the realm of possibility for a thousand people in the field of biology alone. In practical terms, there may not even be a 'field' of biology, as it has been parsed into ever-narrower sub-fields and specialties.

If education is a race to master some fixed percentage (even if it is called a 'core') of human knowledge, then the finish line is receding inevitably toward a horizon that we may never approach. We have lost that race already. Any attempt to measure educational achievement in these terms is utterly impractical.

While it is impossible to know 'everything', and futile to attempt to master some fixed percentage of everything that is known, we ought not lose track of the possibility and the value of knowing virtually everything about some very small aspect of the world.

What is the value of knowing 'everything' about some relatively modest topic?
Among other things, knowledge is fun. And I mean fun in a very serious sense. Human beings are wired to know. Knowing is a pleasurable experience. Knowledge is connectedness, to each other and to the world. Ignorance, even ignorance characterized by the accumulations of hundreds upon hundreds of unrelated facts, is a terrifying state, a state of isolation prompted by a loss of meaning. Meaning requires that we see the 'whole' of something. Meaning is necessary to our sense of well being.

Lack of meaningful knowledge manifests in negative side effects. One such side effect is confusion, which results from knowing enough to have a sense of a thing, but lacking the ability to put all of the pieces together.

Another side effect of lack of knowledge is boredom, which is, in the words of Kieran Egan, the product of ignorance.

While confusion, in the right circumstances and with proper coaching, is a valuable (sometimes crucial) learning experience, boredom is ignorance indulged. The only prescription for boredom, if we are not to give in to a crippling narcissism, is to insist upon deeper learning.

Boredom is the opposite of engagement, and this can lead to the false conclusion that the solution to boredom is to 'channel surf' until we hit upon something 'interesting'. This strategy, as its practitioners know too well, tends to have at least two negative results. First, it is always a temporary solution, resulting in the recurring need to change the subject as soon as its novelty wears off. Second, it fosters an egocentric worldview in which a child (or an immature adult) reserves the right to declare some aspect of the world to be unworthy of study based on knowing almost nothing... hardly the basis for future scholarly achievement.

Knowing some aspect of the world in depth is critical to further learning. Knowing just one thing, and knowing it intimately, is a road-map to the act of learning that transfers to all other endeavors. It is a template, a diagram, if you will, of what it means 'to know'. It foster a sense of what is reasonable, what is likely, what are more and less reliable sources of information or pathways to further knowledge, and how knowledge hangs together. Knowledge of one thing guides good thinking. The lessons learned in the process of becoming truly expert transfer to all of life's endeavors. More urgently, so do the lessons of never developing any particular expertise.

Accessing the lessons that are only available to those with expertise is what the Gorge Initiative is about. It is also what Learning in Depth is about. These are our strategies for talking back to an educational trend that promotes channel-surfing. We aspire to offer to our students the opportunities that they would miss in other schools. Other schools may skim flat rocks across the water and celebrate the bounces, while we want to teach patient, deep consideration of the pool. We want to dangle our toes in it, swim in it. Walk on it when it's frozen over. Be there to hear it thaw. We want to know the pool. We want to know the river, the salmon, and how the Gorge got its shape. We want to know who lived here before us and where they are today.

We don't propose to entertain our students with the channel-surfing curriculum. We don't intend to stave off boredom through amusement. Boredom is not a guidepost. It points to nowhere. Boredom is a symptom. It indicates a deeper problem.

The world is a place of endless surprises, worthy of contemplation. But in order to see it, we must discipline ourselves to be still. We need to pause over worthwhile ideas. It doesn't even matter so much that we stipulate ahead-of-time which worthwhile ideas as it does that we pause. The ability to think deeply and well cannot be developed in the run. We slow down.

We have no reservations that this is the best possible way to serve our children.

To educate in this manner is to make unparalleled demands on teachers, who must simply know more than those working in other schools. They too must overcome the urge to channel surf. They must resist the temptation to demand that the children are always busy. There must be time for contemplation, for puzzling, for wonder.

To educate deeply requires the patience of parents who are accustomed to other approaches to schooling. The vision of education as a production line, the school as a 'factory', the children as workers whose time on task and efficiency should be carefully monitored...these images are both pervasive and (ironically enough) counter-productive. They are the dominant image in virtually every failing school in America. They are among the childish things that we must put aside if we want to educate our children in the way that they deserve.

As a member school of Corbett School District, Corbett Charter School affords students a partnership with one of the most challenging high school programs in the country. We want them to be fully prepared to take advantage of this opportunity. Their preparation is always on our minds.

"To see the world in a grain of sand..." In a very real sense, there is no other way in which to see it. And there is no better approach to educating young children, no better way to prepare them for their futures.