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The Factory School

To fix the schools, we need better teachers. We need a better curriculum. But there is one more thing we need, and it is also easy to get, if we have the will. We need better classrooms.

The schools we have now are basically modeled on factories. This is supposedly for efficiency. It does not work. Children are not identical, like car parts, and cannot be treated as such. Worse, treating them as though they are identical objects is an awful lesson in civics in a free democracy.

It is not possible to pitch a lesson properly to all the students in a large class. The dumbest will not get it, and will be left behind. The smartest will be bored out of their minds, and tune out. Most teachers worry only, if at all, about the dumb kids, and tend to slow it all down. Making it worse for the smartest ones.

There is no way around this, in a large class.

Ironically, it was probably better in the old one-room schoolhouse. With a mix of students at different levels, there could be no attempt to have them learn in lock-step.

We used to stream students, to reduce this problem: there were dumb classes and smart classes. This has become politically incorrect. By this system, kids were consigned when young to permanent failure. So we threw them all together into one class, making the problem worse.

The current “efficient” system is insanely wasteful. Properly, no student need fail. Everyone can learn anything; it is just a question of how long it will take them. We end up putting kids through twelve years of schooling, and they come out the other side, and perhaps have learned little or nothing. We have wasted their childhoods.

Fortunately, we now have a simple solution: we teach with computers. With computers, each lesson can be automatically paced to suit each student. If a student does not get the point of a lecture or explanation, he or she can watch the video again, or watch another video on the same topic.

Down with STEM. We Need ROOTS

Improving the quality of teachers is not the only thing we need to do to improve the schools. The curriculum is also a problem, and as much of a problem. We are endlessly perverse in what we choose to teach.

I know there will be howls of protest over this, but the truth is, we waste kids' time in teaching them so much science and math. Everyone but the kids loves STEM. But STEM is not the way to go.

Yes, these fields are important for a lot of good jobs; and important for the advancement of our physical comfort. But for the majority of students who will not go on to STEM careers, it is pretty much a waste of their time. As the old saw goes, how much of your high school algebra did you use today? When today did you need to work out the circumference of a circle? Yet the time lost studying these things kept you away from learning things that might have been important to you in your real life and real career.

If, on the other hand, you do need these bits of knowledge in your job or your life later on, you have almost certainly forgotten them by then. You must pick them up again on the fly anyway—which, fortunately, is easy enough, when and if they are important to you.

Teaching science is an even worse time sink; at least the way we teach it now. We teach it as a set of known facts and “laws.” This is really the antithesis of science, which relies on taking nothing on authority. Inevitably, a significant portion of the “facts” and “laws” the typical student learns in public school are disproven a few years later—sometimes before the text goes to press. The student then wastes his time not just filling his head with useless information, but with things he will later need to laboriously unlearn, or look a fool.

We ought to teach the history of science, to show what science really is: a method, not a set of conclusions. And, of course, we ought to teach the scientific method. We claim to do that sometimes now, but we really never do. We will assign the class an experiment with a known, pre-ordained conclusion. Then, if the experiment does not produce the intended results, we require the student to explain why it failed. This is still teaching the opposite of the scientific method. Moreover, it seems deliberately pointless and boring.

At the same time, there are a lot of essential things, things everyone needs, that we do not teach. Most important among them are ethics and religion. They are, and have always been understood to be, the essence of an education. Unless you understand your goal, nothing else makes any sense.

But these are things we cannot teach in public schools. We do not want government teaching ethics and religion: that way totalitarianism lies. The only solution seems to be either funding all denominational schools, or school vouchers.

Aside from this, we need to teach basic skills: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Which we do, but not very well. Unfortunately, the best way to teach such basic skills is through direct instruction, or as teachers currently call it disparagingly, “drill and kill.” Memorization is itself an invaluable skill, and we ought to teach it deliberately: the practice of memorizing things is of value over and above the value of the things memorized. Unfortunately, far from teaching it, we currently tend to prohibit it.

Beyond and after this, we need to teach rhetoric, parliamentary procedure, and logic, which we do not currently teach at all. For any position in life, it is important to be able to think, to persuade, and to avoid being conned or manipulated. And it is important to be able to work in groups. Yes, we currently make students work in groups, endlessly, but then we do not show them how—or more often, we set up the groups so that they will not work. They become no more than tools for conformity and bullying. Kids need to learn how to run a meeting.

We need to teach basic bookkeeping—vital to any business, but also vital to anyone else, for personal finance.

On top of this, as I think E.D. Hirsch has demonstrated, there is a good case that we need to teach a core of shared cultural knowledge. Without it, you are left outside the cultural dialogue. You cannot read a good newspaper or a college text. This is where history and literature, in particular, come in. And that does not mean some recent book by a “minority” author, for the sake of supposed diversity. And it does not mean the history of some “minority” group. By the logic of the need, that means looking at the most familiar and established authors, and the aspects of history everybody has been most familiar with over the past generations. All those dead white males. Otherwise the exercise is pointless, and another huge waste of students' time.

Teaching a second language might be a good idea, but certainly not the way we teach it now. Growing up in Quebec, we all studied French from grade 3 through high school. And I doubt anyone ever became fluent in French as a result.

The problem was with the goal. It is crazy to try for conversational fluency in a classroom. Conversational fluency comes with speaking practice. It is almost impossible to manage this in a classroom. At best, it is a wildly inefficient use of student time and resources. If you want fluency, you get it on the streets, in the playgrounds, watching TV, hanging out with friends, shopping in the stores. In a classroom, the only useful approach is the old, now always disparaged and condemned “grammar-translation method.” It is universally condemned because it will never make you fluent in the language. True enough, it that is what you want. But it will give you a reading knowledge. This gives you access to all the most important thoughts and all the most important conversations in that language. That is not such a small thing in itself. More importantly, in having to analyse grammar, it will teach you how language works. And to understand how language works is to understand how thought works.

For the same reason, even apart from its own utility, and perhaps even as a suitable replacement, it would be immensely valuable to teach all students how to program. Unlike geometry or algebra, programming skills have an immediate practical payoff. You can make things, right away.

These are the things that everyone can benefit from knowing. If a student then decides to go into some STEM field, that is the time to learn what is specific to that field.

Of course, we are all charging full steam ahead in the opposite direction.

The Light that Failed

One of the saddest things is the world is to see the light of learning go out. Especially in your own children. And I have seen it several times.

At age three or four, kids always seem to be looking forward with great excitement to at last going to school. Certainly my kids were.

By about grade three or four, they always hate school.

Something is wrong here. Love of learning is spontaneous. All of us naturally love to learn.

And that craving for knowledge does not disappear: it is redirected outside of school to learning how to skateboard, how to twerk, how to beat some video game, how to solve Rubik's cube, how to photoshop a picture, how to do almost anything. Learning something new is one of life's great joys.

Only in school is learning considered subversive. Children are actively discouraged from learning, and only “bad” kids fail to get the message. Time taken learning something is seen as time taken away from school.

How could we manage to screw things up so badly?

To begin with, without a free market, any enterprise soon comes to be run for the benefit of the employees, not the customers. Our schools are there for the teachers and the administrators.

Notably, the dumbest university students end up in education, excepting only those who major in public administration—and therefore the dumbest run the schools.

One test in Massachusetts showed that most aspiring public school teachers in that state--73%--could not achieve math standards required of their grade 5 students. The students are on average smarter, and know more, than their teachers. How's that likely to work?

There is a simple principle here: you cannot teach what you do not know.

And another: the best students will be the best teachers. These are the experts at how to learn.

Currently, we are recruiting the worst.

It may be, as many argue, that the best students do not want to be teachers. But it might be worth testing that hypothesis. It may be instead that the best students do not want to go to ed school.

By all reports, you learn nothing there. It is just a lot of busy work. This would be especially frustrating to anyone who is a good student and who loves learning. The educational theories they promote are usually pop psychology: right brain-left brain, “learning styles,” and other notions that never have any scientific basis, nor any basis in the humanities. They have all been pretty comprehensively disproven in the massive “Operation Follow Through” project in the 1970s: every technique sponsored by an ed school did worse than the control.

On the other hand, anyone who has survived classroom life as a student for 16 years or more, particularly at an academically rigorous college, necessarily has a thorough grounding in teaching techniques: in what works, and in what does not work. He or she is not likely to learn anything more of value in a few weeks of classroom observation at ed school. Nor is there any scientific basis for believing classroom observation tells us anything of importance.

In order to justify their existence, the ed schools must continually come up with new theories to teach their students something they do not already know, something that would not have occurred to them naturally, or that they would already have been exposed to in 16 years of classroom attendance. Almost inevitably, these tend to be extremely bad teaching ideas--things no competent teacher would have done. Which the ed school graduate then feels required to introduce to the classrooms of the wider world.

How would that work?

And there is another problem. Any self-governing profession is in essence a cartel, in which the members get to choose their competitors. They have a vested interest in not selecting someone much better at the job them themselves. Accordingly, once the teaching profession established itself as the special preserve of the academically inadequate, it began to work hard to keep good students, and good teachers, out; out of the ed schools, and, if they survive, out of the schools themselves. My daughter, who has been going to a private school, asks, “Why do the best teachers always get fired?”

It is true. And obvious enough to a ten-year-old.

The best prescription for improving the schools is 1) do not hire grads in education, 2) bust the teachers' unions, 3) do not put hiring decisions in the hands of teachers.

Hire the candidate with the best marks from the best school, measured by SAT score required to get in, with a major in the subject they will teach. A grad degree in the subject if available. This is not complicated.

How to Teach History

When I was a kid in Montreal, the city featured a great private history museum, “Le Musée de Cire Historique Canadien.” “The Wax Museum of Canadian History.”

It was a great idea for teaching history, and I feel it is a pity that it is gone. The problem with museums often is that it is just not that interesting to look at some artifact in a glass case. And it does not tell you much of anything. This was probably a less expensive way to go—the museum was run as a profitable private enterprise—and was more useful.

This museum, instead, was well designed to be memorable. No doubt this was done primarily to pull in paying customers, not to be pedagogical about things—but as it turns out, the customer is usually right. The wax figures brought history to life, left you with a vivid image in the mind’s eye of some event. This could then became a hook on which to hang your otherwise perhaps dry historical facts.

Most wax museums are mostly portraits in wax of famous people. This, to me, makes them boring and useless. If they are currently famous, you already have a good image in your mind of what these people look like. So you are learning nothing, seeing nothing new, by seeing their portrait in wax. All you get is a sense of how close the resemblance is. Big deal. A test of skill, I suppose. And usually the resemblance falls well short of being convincing, leaving only a sense of disappointment. An “uncanny valley” effect leaves many figures looking ghoulish, zombie-like. You feel as though you are looking at someone’s cadaver.

I went to the wax museum in Dublin a few years ago. Mostly wax figures of famous writers and politicians, sitting around in chairs, which is about all a famous writer or politician ever does, moderately well done. Nothing visually interesting there. There was no chance to suspend disbelief: what is the thrill in seeing James Joyce done as a wax dummy? And certainly the wax dummy left no clearer image in your mind than the photos in the history books or on the dustcovers. With one exception: an image of Grace O’Malley, the 16th century Irish pirate, standing and pointing a finger at the horizon, really looked shockingly alive, and has burned itself into my memory.

Statue of Grace O'Malley, Mayo, Ireland.

Here, the trick was in the choice of subject. The artist was not constrained to compete with the camera. Neither I nor the sculptor had any idea what the breathing Grace O’Malley looked like. So he was free to create something really lifelike and striking.

This was the approach taken throughout the Musée de Cire Historique. No attempts to reproduce famous people whose features were already familiar to anyone, except perhaps Saint Andre Bessette. Creating something far more interesting, compelling, and worthwhile.

The other thing the Musée de Cire Historique did right was to put in lots of blood and gore; lots of drama. Most scenes implied action. This is just the sort of thing that gets carefully cut out of our schoolbooks and our stories for children, ensuring that they are boring and the kids will remember nothing. Instead, we throw all the blood and gore into things we present to parents, who at least ought to have grown out of such stuff.

Here is a sample of some of the dioramas that fixed themselves in my memory. I recently found them shown on a web site ( These are the ones I instantly recalled. I was probably not older than 12 or 13 the last time I saw them.

A rather interesting experiment, then, in what is mnemonically, meaning educationally, sound:

The funeral of a dead child in the early Christian community. This is obviously going to be gripping to a child—seeing a child about their own age dead. The palm implies martyrdom: a story is evoked.

Christians waiting to be fed to the lions. Note the children included.

Roman gladiators. For what it is worth, this, with the previous diorama, are the two I seem to best recall.

Cartier lands at Gaspe: the discovery of Canada.

Note that the event is shown from the Indian perspective. This informs us, I think, of an important truth. Contrary to what you often hear, Canadians have never considered Indians some despised foreign “other.” In our hearts, we have always thought of ourselves as the Indians.

Americans are the same.

Saint Marguerite d’Youville conceals an English officer and misdirects an Indian warrior looking for him.

You might see this as a negative portrayal of Indians. The Indian certainly looks scary and threatening. But that is historically accurate. The whole point of Indian war paint was to look scary and threatening. And the women are plainly not afraid. There is no visible concern here that the Indian might massacre unarmed women. Rather bad form, if he is indeed a bloodthirsty savage.

The women are showing mercy by protecting their sworn enemy, the Englishman, against their ally, the Indian.

Ever wax museum I have been to ever since has been, by comparison, a disappointment.

These pictures are taken from and I hope count as fair dealing for review purposes. Please do go to the link to see more. The original page is in French, but remember, if your French is rusty or nonexistent, there is always Google translate.

The Holocaust of the Mind and Heart

A good friend told me recently that a blog post I wrote was over his head. He has now, perhaps, told me why.

He asked me what my evidence was for the case I was making.

Which seemed odd, since I thought I had laid it all out pretty systematically.

So I repeated the list of literary references I had used:


His response was that he had only ever heard of one person on that list, Moses, “but never read his work.”

This, I think, says something important.

This is not a man off the street. This is a guy with two degrees, a college instructor. A college English instructor, an instructor in the Humanities. How much worse the case must be for the average Canadian or American.

Moses, of course, wrote the Bible. Or at least the first five books of it.

Moses rescued from the rushes--Dura-Europos

I think this shows we have stopped educating our rising generations in any meaningful sense. We stopped some time ago. These stories and texts used to be the entirety of our education, in terms of its content.

For good reason. These stories told us what we most needed to know.

There is no way to talk about non-physical experiences of any sort without using either metaphor or narrative or both—an “objective correlative,” as TS Eliot calls it. Like these stories.

Yet ALL of our experiences are non-physical. All of them. As Berkeley rightly pointed out.

Without this common language of symbol and myth, we can no longer communicate with each another, on anything other than a caveman level.

“Gimme meat.” “Sex now.” We can talk only about physical wants.

No wonder modern life feels increasingly empty and meaningless. No wonder there is a “spiritual catastrophe” going on, as Leonard Cohen called it. No wonder the statistics for depression and for mental illness generally are scraping the stratosphere en apparent route to infinity and beyond. No wonder America, Europe, “Western civilization,” and civilization generally (it is a mirage to suppose there is any intact civilization outside the West that might take over. They all fell earlier.) seem to be coming apart. No wonder we can no longer talk to one another, but only swing our fists. Even in the bedroom, between men and women.

This is where it began.

People have solid grounds, of course, for thinking studying literature, myth, religion, philosophy, and history is a waste of time. There are no jobs to be had there.

But this is tautological: there are no jobs there, any more, because nobody any longer values myth, literature, religion, philosophy, and history. There is not even any puzzle here involving chickens and eggs: the devaluation had to come first, and then there were no jobs.

Granted, these stories may not give you much practical help currently in finding or even performing a job.

But a job is not much good when everything else is falling apart; especially if you are psychotic, drug addicted, and hopelessly alone. You may not be making it in for work anyway.

And those jobs that need have nothing to do with the Humanities are exactly those jobs that are easily replaced by a machine. And that is already happening, rapidly.

I am not talking here of the “Western canon.” “Western” is a red herring. We would do as well to study the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Confucian classics and those two vast literatures, of India and China. (I do not speak here of the Quran and Muslim literature, because it is already a part of the larger West). In fact, we really should study them all. But the same myth motifs and plots tend to be found all over the world. So do the same philosophical issues, and the same philosophical positions.

Dragons are in folk tales everywhere.

Besides giving us a common language of narrative, allusion, and metaphor, so that we can communicate our own thoughts and feelings to one another, necessarily, most of the best thinking of the past ten thousand years or more have been expressed in this language of myth and story.

If we do not know or understand it, all of that is lost.

This is, taken together, the myths, the stories, the fairy tales, the philosophy, the recorded history, the literature, the rock upon which all civilization is built. It is what our passage through the cosmos on this strange round rock has been about, as sentient beings.

You don’t think anyone figured out anything important or useful in those thousands of years?

You think it is better to smash all the statues, forget it all and start again from scratch?

Clearly, many people do.

These are what is properly known as bad people.

And this impulse seems to be deep within the culture now. My friend’s protest that he could not understand in the end still seems odd. He did not really need to know any of these characters or their stories. I had not been relying on allusion: I think I had given the relevant details when I referred to them.

It was as if he saw a myth or a word from literature or history, and a lamp in his mind at once went off.

There is worse. When I noted that the typical fairy tale involved a wicked parent or step-parent, my friend queried this. He said he could think of only one example, Cinderella.

I would have thought that Disney had preserved at least a decent selection of the traditional fairy stories. Perhaps, however, they pass over us in flickers of light and are forgotten, as the typical movie seems to be. It is only a few hours entertainment, and in most cases we cannot remember much about them a few days later. Eye candy, but leaving nothing to ponder about.

Fairy tales do not belong in that medium. They were orally transmitted for unknown generations. This means they were composed to be memorized, contemplated, thought about in our solitude and leisure.

Here is the list I offered him, more or less off the top of my head, of familiar fairy tales that seem to include some version of the theme of a wicked parent.

Briar Rose

How many of them do you know well enough that you could retell the basic story to your child? This, after all, is the medium, memory and oral transmission and retelling, for which they were intended.

Snow White
Hansel and Gretel
Little Red Riding Hood
Cupid and Psyche
Puss in Boots
The Ugly Duckling
Dick Whittington and his Cat
The Gingerbread Man
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
The Little Match Girl
The Musicians of Bremen
Sleeping Beauty (Disney version of Briar Rose)
Briar Rose (Grimm version)
Beauty and the Beast

Perhaps it was here, in the nursery, where the holocaust began. This is when and how we began seeing ourselves and other people as objects.

Steve Jobs on School Choice

He gives a good argument for ending the government schools monopoly:


Here's a great web site to work on your reading skills:

And their new site,…

You can read a graded passage on a subject of interest, review new vocabulary, then take a comprehension quiz online.