Boyhood

        Almost  no memories remain to me of the Texas schoolrooms and teachers--oddly, I do remember the melancholy walks to school,
an occasional encounter with bullies.  Sometimes I can recall a playground, but so soon as I came inside, my mind must have drifted.  My grades were acceptable, and I surely must have learned a little something.  Alone much of the time, I may have had an active imagination.  I certainly was willing to tell pretty tall tales about myself.  I discovered that what I might induce others to believe could condition my own reality.  I think this may not be an uncommon frailty.  As an individual, one can hope to outgrow it.  But the proclivity is so characteristic of our species that it shapes entire societies.  Social deception may be recognized only by outsiders, or in retrospect, because even the most horrid liars have to be firm believers in what they represent.  In my own case I think few people believed me, and my lies did not go very far.  Nonetheless, the phenomenon loomed large for me in later years, as an admirer of the great German heritage.

        The war brought aircraft manufacture to Texas, and my father joined others in opening a trade school in Houston.  My mother kept books for him, and the family's financial situation improved.  Still, I did insist on taking a paper route when I was eleven.  I remember the horror of awakening to the alarm clock at 3:00 A.M., and I have grateful recollection of an older boy, Billy Gupton, with whom I folded papers in the dark pre-dawns.  He would hold down the front of my bike on Sundays, when the papers on the back had too much leverage for me to mount it alone.  I could bike very fast and throw the papers with joyful accuracy--I can still behold the graceful forward arc of their trajectory.  At last I spent two years in one grade school, and another two at the junior high there, but still my recollection remains empty.  My sister also began school in Houston. She became an accomplished dancer. She had a lot of friends and one of them, a pretty little girl from her dance or piano class, did take a shine to me.

        The end of the war brought good times even for the farmers.  My father bought into the Ford Tractor dealership in Texarkana, and the family moved into my mother's home place, a few miles south in Arkansas.  I attended high school in Texarkana, Texas, conveniently located just across the street from the tractor dealership.  My only memory of that institution are incidents in ROTC (the military program), where I performed very poorly.  I respected the obese English teacher, Mrs. Crane, but was a little shocked one time when she corrected my language.  High-school students are said to be characteristically gregarious, enjoying group experiences like pep rallies, even cliques, team boostership, and so on.  I experienced none of that.  I must have acquired a certain centrifugal character, I lent a willing ear to contrarian views.  I may have given the impression of being, to use the language of that place and time, "stuck up" and "conceited," because of my shyness.  I claimed not to care what other people thought.

    Since I have spent my life teaching and thinking about teaching, I have sometimes wondered about my own schooling, or lack of it.  But I was  viewing the schools in the narrow context of my own development.  Now that I have grandchildren, and appreciate their schooling, I become apprehensive of how schools may harm young minds.  As we know from many examples, one can become learned without going to school at all.  But might children actually learn better if shielded from the schools?  

          It is probably a mistake to identify learning with the schools.  The American historian Bernard Bailyn deplores equating the "history of education" with the history of schools.  I come back to this topic.
It does seem fair to say that learning comes natural with boys and girls, as with all creatures.  Why not help them along?
*when discussing
indentured servants
frontier school
Sam Houston

       But where do we learn?  As to what might be "natural," the biological strategy is instinct.   All baby lemurs know to suckle.  This important mammalian ability has been passed down to them genetically.  It is an instinct perfected by whole species.  Instinct is a near perfect strategy for transmitting hard won mastery of new challenge--perfect, but costly.  Instinct functions only through the suffering and dying out of countless individuals, over many generations.  Natural selection is a tedious and costly process of trial and error.  Still, that is nature's way of transmitting knowledge.


        Some more recently evolved mammals teach their young.  Teaching may engage the individual mind, among humans anyhow.  Even though "mind" may defy definition, it clearly lends a quality that goes beyond conditioned reflex.  Mind may itself be a product of slow, cruel genetic evolution, but in our species it becomes a new organ for adaptation, lodged in the individual and not across species.  But like a new species, this organ develops and thrives on unfamiliar territory, by working out ways to deal with new situations.  Within each individual life, a mind creates new abilities in a way reminiscent of what natural selection does for the phylum.

        If
in the natural world learning is adaptation and development, then how can a schoolroom replicate such a process?  How might an individual mind acquire the capability to originate new behaviors?  Schools are established for the opposite purpose:  to inculcate the proven methods. In order to educate a large number of children for the benefit of the whole society, schools revert to generic replicating.

        Who among us has not found red marks on an arithmetic paper where we came up with a solution, often intuitive, but  neglected to "show your work"?  How else can a teacher check to see that the correct method has been accepted?  Yet what more effective way could be found to arrest mental development?  Spontaneity is the mind's characteristic quality.  Learning relishes random conjecture.   Educators, on the other hand, are notorious for devising their essential, nefarious
schoolroom element:  motivation.  Instead of allowing the young mind to cast about for its own peculiar answers, indeed for its own useful questions, schools inhibit that normal drive by imposing their obligatory method, sometimes even imposing their own beliefs, the "facts."

        "Science" then, in the schoolroom and lecture hall, no longer denotes a way of dealing with the unknown, but reverts to  the authority of received opinion.   "A scientific fact" is no less than an article of dogma.  Acceptance is obligatory and is "correct," whether the fact be right or wrong. 

        Nor dare we forget that it was the most advanced school system in the world which fomented not merely German patriotism toward the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the twentieth, but then also prepared the intellectual ground for the popular mass devotion toward National Socialism.  Excellent Japanese schools produced an even more dedicated generation. After that catastrophe, worldwide revulsion then raised new waves of sentiment, again fostered and mythologized by the schools, but with as yet imponderable consequences.  Not caught up in these swells, I remained sometimes embarrassingly uninformed or worse, skeptical.

        My good fortune was hunting and fishing with Russell Jones, the husband of my mother's slightly deranged sister.  He was a livestock trader well-loved throughout Miller County.  In a day when few Arkansas farmers had the means to transport their own cattle and hogs to market, Russell dreamily wandered the back roads in a clattering pickup truck which he was willing to take most anywhere, even right out through the woods and down through swampy bayou and river bottoms.  He was a devoted fisherman (mostly crappie and cat), a raucous story teller, a most sensitive lover of the outdoors.  It may have been from him I learned my love of the woods, and of solitude.  There is no point, you know, in telling lies to the trees and the birds.  I think Augustine addresses his Confessions to the dear Lord for this reason.  Intellectuals dismiss this extended prayer of his as devotional reading, but I think it Augustine's way of reminding his reader of his sincerity.  Anything we address to mankind will be judged in the light of our motive for saying it, but what could be the point of lying to the good Lord?

        When Russell's own son had been just a little older than I was now, a falling limb had injured the boy's kidney, and he suffered a lingering death.  Russell's love for me was a mysterious amalgam of paternal vicariousness with an eros which Russell would have been the last to comprehend.  He taught me to dress a squirrel or a catfish, took me to the Nashville, Ark. peach harvest when he bought a truckload to sell in Texarkana, let me accompany him and the Fouke men on their annual deer hunts in the Ozarks.  I naturally emulated Russell's intimacy with nature and the country people.  I was especially susceptible to his sharply accurate, somewhat archaic English, as for example, "I reckon that boy just can't pass a stump without sittin' for a spell."  It was for using "reckon" in this sense that Mrs. Crane chastened me.

        I suspect I was sensitive to language.  I tried to write poetry, that is, tried to imitate Lord Byron, but I cannot recall reading very much.  I believe my mind was slow, and I was probably more pensive than others my age.  I was quite without direction or goals, partly because of ignorance, but also because of my solitude.  This remains an accurate description of the boy right on through high school and indeed through college, too.  By the time I was about nineteen or twenty, circumstance would determine my further path.

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