Being clever, or smart, or sophisticated, or educated, is not the same thing as being wise. Being wise includes, fundamentally, submission to a standard outside your own opinions. It means a willingness to take the test, and to abide the results.
“For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3).
“For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise” (2 Cor. 10:12).
And this explains — does it not? — why wisdom is so hard for us. Tucked away in the sanctuary of our own ego, kept out of the buffeting winds, our opinions seem so self-evident. Majestic, almost.
Apply this for a moment to the gnarled question of the cultural need for full-day classrooms. I say cultural need, and not a case-by-case need. There are plenty of cases where it is not needed at all. That is, it is not needed at all in this or that particular instance. And if education were a matter of every man for himself and devil take the hindmost, the discussion would be over. But it isn’t and it isn’t.
This is a place where clever and gifted people have a real tendency to mess other people up. This happens because it is often the case that clever and gifted people have clever and gifted children, and these children can often make do with less structure and pedagogical discipline, from which it is concluded that everybody can get along with less. But this is not true at all. It is not even remotely true.
I have noted before that the top ten percent of American children are competitive with students anywhere in the world. This is not a vindication of the American way of education — because the top ten percent have a robust constitution and it takes way more bad educators than we have available to take them out of commission. These are the kids who can teach themselves phonics off milk cartons. Now parents who watch this happening in their own families could easily conclude that “school is not really all that necessary.” They render general by induction. Because they like to think about what they are doing, they render general by induction about the processes of education. They also — giftedness being what it is — have the least representative sample size staring across the breakfast table at them.
But the bottom ninety percent need structure, discipline, predictability, prerequisites, and an environment that is dedicated to teaching them. They need it, and if they don’t get it, the whole thing collapses. Schools are a cultural necessity.
This phenomenon is why, when homeschooling succeeds, as it frequently does, it does so in spectacular ways. Kids in this category run around the country winning spelling bees, and getting into Yale on a physics scholarship so that they might have a shot at playing first violin in the symphony there. We have all seen this kind of thing. You see it in schools as well. Logos School is one of the best, and yet we have seen kids who were not adequately challenged by our curriculum. Welcome to earth.
So some kids, left to themselves with a basic direction and minimum structure, take the opportunity to shoot right to the top. Their parents, being clever also, are more likely to have pedagogical opinions about what is happening, and are therefore prime candidates to make a profound cultural mistake. Most of the kids aren’t like this. Most of the kids need a teacher and the accountability of set cultural expectations.
Now you can begin to see the difficulty. A minority of parents, who have seen education happening all by its own magical self right before their eyes, are hard to persuade. You are an orthodontist talking to parents of five children with perfectly straight teeth. You, however, spend your days looking into the mouths of one snaggletooth after another, and yet you feel sheepish as you make your case for metal in the mouth. “It really is necessary in most . . . in lots of . . . instances . . .” You trail off, because your interlocutor’s kids are standing behind him, grinning at you.
But who wants to tell the parents in the lower ninety that this is where they are? This is tricky primarily when they have been persuaded by the parents of the naturals that school is largely a “waste of time,” and that schoolkids there actually spend most of their time fooling around in their lockers. This is where the price is actually paid — and it is a very great price indeed. Unfortunately, it is usually paid by those who did not make the initial mistake.