Redoing Middle School
I'm about to become the world's oldest sixth-grader
I have a recurring nightmare where I'm back in college, on the cusp of graduation, when I discover that I forgot to attend some class all semester and am doomed to fail the final exam. I inevitably attempt to cram four months' worth of studying into two days, but my tormentor always turns out to be advanced Chinese, or linear algebra, or some other discipline based on a mighty plinth of foundational knowledge that I have no hope of scaling. For some reason, I consider forgoing my degree entirely rather than telling my soon-to-be employer that I need another semester to graduate.
When I wake up, invariably in a cold sweat, it takes me a moment to realize that it was just a dream. It wasn't real. I graduated. I have a piece of paper to prove it. And, even if I were to find that I somehow didn't technically graduate (this always occurs to me), it wouldn't matter because I've built a track record and skill set and network in the real world. No one can take those from me.
This episode occurs less frequently now that I've been out of school for a decade, but, being a new parent, I'm also spending more of my conscious hours reflecting on my education and the one I want for my child.
Since at least the time that I matriculated, it's been virtually unheard of for anyone to attend an elite American university to learn - not for its own sake. Learning might be a nice byproduct, something incidental to the experience, but certainly not the main aim. The opportunity cost is just too great. When one's academic record determines entry to a high-status field (and life), any foray into unfamiliar intellectual territory poses an existential risk. Plus, no one cares if you learn. The labor market demands skills. While some have taken to decrying elite universities as nurseries of "woke ideology," the banal reality is that they are more or less vocational schools for a dispassionate managerial class. Deep learning shares space with minor diversions like model train collecting or polyamory. You can do it, but just don't let it impact your productivity.
If finding a job after college is nerve-racking, trying to get into college is practically debilitating. Competition for places at top schools is fiercer than ever. So the rat race starts in high school. For a while now, any serious applicant has needed to excel not just academically but "holistically," by curating a broad portfolio of interests and extracurricular activities. Any unmeasurable effort, like acquiring more knowledge than is immediately useful, gets no credit. It's no wonder that few choose to allocate precious time to such frivolities as self-motivated learning.
Maybe I'm being too harsh. I'm not even sure whether things could be different. These incentives might be a natural consequence of the democratization of elite education, which... seems like a fair trade-off? Certainly, I as one parent can't hope to overhaul the system, nor expect my child to opt out and go live in the woods like a modern-day Thoreau, or worse, find contentment in some merely decent career with good work-life balance.
So, when does one get to learn things that matter, deeply, without these arbitrary pressures? Middle school seems to be the only option. By then, a child's mind is sufficiently developed to entertain a wide course of study, including much of what is taught in high school and even introductory undergraduate courses. The curriculum instead tends to be structured for outcome measurability and classroom management, and the content anchored to the lowest common denominator.
This hasn't gone unnoticed; for instance, some have explored so-called aristocratic tutoring, homeschooling, and idiosyncratic practices. The idea of an alternative education isn't new to me, either; when I was about 11 years old, I too tried to redefine the curriculum as I thought it should be taught. (It wasn't just recess and ice cream but, with a couple decades' more perspective, I can safely write off anarcho-syndicalism as a suboptimal model for middle school education.)
So, I'm reimagining the middle school curriculum again, this time as a parent. I'm not sure that I will be crazy enough to actually take my child out of school, but I can't imagine that I won't try to impart the spirit of this approach whichever way I can.
Since I can hardly ask of my child something that I wouldn't expect of myself, I am also enrolling as the first student of the program. I'm giving myself about three years to get my middle school diploma, though I have ten before the next student arrives.
What do I hope to accomplish? The front of the brochure might read, "Rigorous humanism." I want to produce a graduate who can engage coherently with the world, excel in any number of self-governed endeavors, and find fulfillment in knowledge and in life.
Background and circumstances play a role. My child can reasonably be said to be a product of two civilizations, being an American and Australian with roots extending back to imperial China via Taiwan and Hong Kong. On top of that, my partner and I are long-time expatriates and thus our child will likely grow up as a “third culture kid.”
My idea of a comprehensive education reconciles these various and competing factors, especially between:
Being and doing (values and skills)
Past and present (canonical and contemporary perspectives)
East and West (distinct intellectual and cultural traditions)
It's not that the existing system rejects these aims. But it certainly doesn't achieve them. Twentieth-century educators broadened the curricular scope endlessly in an attempt to produce the kind of informed, global citizen that I hope my child will become. As they did so, however, the imparted worldview became increasingly disjointed until it lost all coherence. In the US, traditionalists tend to pin this on postmodernist theorists - especially the deconstructionists - if not Dewey for the introduction of progressive education itself. Sometimes, the finger-pointing extends all the way back to Kant. Yet the sensible explanation is simply that reform was inevitable and that the present scale of incoherence emerged only as the system matured.
But! I think I can reverse the entropy by reverting to a previous state of education, hopefully while adapting it to meet the needs of the present day. The idea is simple: to re-apply the educational frameworks that long served the great leaders, thinkers, innovators, and reformers of our enduring civilizations.
Just three streams form the core of study, supplemented by (largely) applied disciplines:
My conceptions of Western and Chinese civilization each rest on a base of history, philosophy, literature, and language. (I presume a strong command of grammar, critical reading, and logic from the elementary years.)
Since so much of my approach revolves around history in some form, it's worth asking why one should study history at all. It certainly doesn't receive much attention in schools today, except in a vaguely unintellectual civics context. A recent survey posed this question to college students, who largely pointed to history's usefulness as a source of lessons for informing behavior. This seems reasonable, as even Thucydides offered his work as "an aid to the understanding of the future, which... must resemble if it does not reflect the past." Still, I find the utilitarian perspective a bit myopic. History tells us more than what to do; along with our intellectual tradition and cultural heritage, it reveals who we are. All of our beliefs, our values, our practices, the state of the world and the very structure of our society are bound to the long progression of history. Negotiating the present is useful, but understanding how we got here seems worth it in itself.
This is not your father's Western Civ course, though it doesn't look totally different under the hood, either. The emphasis remains on the individuals and movements that shaped the Western tradition. I want to turbocharge the experience through what I call a "total historical approach," engaging simultaneously with sociopolitical, economic, and cultural factors in each period of study. This entails learning political and social and art history, while studying contemporaneous philosophy, while reading the extant literature, while critically listening to music, and so on.
The idea here is not to construct some totalizing, Hegelian narrative, but rather to enrich the history learning experience that so often feels detached and scattershot. The implementation still needs work. I feel like it would be profitable to read Dante and Aquinas together, but does this mean I have to listen to Gregorian chant the whole time I'm doing it? The viability of this enterprise probably depends on not feeling like I'm trapped in some dusty corner of a medieval fair.
It might seem like a strange time to resuscitate the Western canon, some 20 years after it was left for dead. As I see it, the main problem was always that champions of the canon refused to recognize recent voices as producing anything culturally significant, simply because they didn't conform to old notions of high culture. Meanwhile, critics of the canon who might not otherwise reject the intellectual and aesthetic merit of those works couldn't accept that the "great conversation" of these dead white men was, by its inter-referential nature, resistant to later re-centering of peripheral voices. The only option left was to burn it all down.
This is an admittedly facile take on the matter, and plenty of people fell outside these extremes; still, the canon undeniably fell to sorry depths of irrelevance. Despite this, I think that any serious scholar can recognize the canon's indelible influence on the Western cultural consciousness, which should persist for some time to come.
Diving into the curriculum: For history, I plan to reference a popular history like Durant's Story of Civilization and add readings from narrative histories (e.g., Herodotus, Livy, Gibbon), contemporary accounts (Trotsky), historiography (Ranke), and recent scholarship. I'll also cover Gombrich's classic art history survey, The Story of Art, and Grout's History of Western Music with accompanying scores and recordings.
My philosophy reading list spans roughly 30 thinkers, which I split into General Philosophy (an essential canon from Plato to Wittgenstein), Political Philosophy (Hobbes to Rawls), and Economics (Smith to Friedman). Here my studies will likely extend well beyond a middle school level given my existing familiarity with the material. (My child will have a hard time supplanting me as student of the decade.)
As to literature, I'm struggling to compile any sort of representative curriculum that can realistically be completed in three years. I've created broad groupings of Classics, the Anglo-American Tradition, and 20th Century Literature. Classics starts with Homer and quickly progresses to Attic drama, Classical and Hellenistic prose, and Roman poetry, political writings, and law. I also include the New Testament and early church writing. Now, my own Latin education ended at the fifth grade and I never learned any Greek. I will attempt some remedial study and read the rest in translation; my child gets the real deal. The Anglo-American Tradition reflects the typical English canon, say from Chaucer to Conrad, and select continental literature (Molière, Goethe, Tolstoy). With 20th Century Literature I might focus on works typically receiving only cursory treatment in schools. For now, I've earmarked Joyce, Woolf, and Morrison.
I intend to break down silos wherever possible. Western political history is intertwined with the history of philosophy (e.g., Aristotle, Locke), while historiographical aims should be subjected to the lens of philosophy of history (e.g., Ibn Khaldun, Marx). Histories (e.g., Carlyle) can be appreciated as much for their literary values as for their informational content. And many art milieus (e.g., pre-war modernists) are as significant philosophically and politically as aesthetically.
I'm hesitant to apply my total historical approach to the study of Chinese civilization, as I'm not sure that societal factors can really be said to have evolved together over time. For one, a generally consistent philosophy permeated learned society for millennia, surviving intact even through great political turmoil. It's not that the culture was stagnant, but some traditions found a longevity unmatched in Western history.
Some interesting parallels do exist between the development of the Chinese and Western canons. They begin in roughly the same time period, with classical texts forming the foundation of thought and style for the next thousand years. Philosophy, history, and poetry take precedence over most other literatures. The literati considers prose fiction lowbrow and unworthy of study until late in the timeline. And each canon is purged from the curriculum, or becomes an academic afterthought, for at least some portion of the 20th century. This isn't to say that Chinese and Western intellectual cultures influenced each other, though, or had any meaningful interaction at all before the modern period. The two traditions are clearly distinct.
For my curriculum, I use a somewhat archaic but useful categorization of works: (Confucian) Classics, History, Philosophy, and Literature. By the way, given that so much of the material has been edited and anthologized over the centuries, I refer to authors and works inconsistently but as seems appropriate.
Classics comprises the Thirteen Classics, canonical collections of Confucian-tradition texts on history, politics, philosophy, divination, and poetry. As these are probably the most closely studied texts in the Chinese language, I plan to spend much of my efforts here, starting with the Four Books and then focusing on the Five Classics.
For history, I'll use as guiderails Keay's China: A History and the Cambridge Illustrated History of China. My study of historical writing begins with Sima Qian and includes selections from subsequent dynastic records (Twenty-Four Histories), other major histories (Zizhi Tongjian 資治通鑑), historiography (Shitong 史通), and newer works in English (e.g., Huang's 1587).
I organize non-Confucian philosophy by school of thought, focusing particularly on Taoism (Tao Te Ching 道德經, Zhuangzi 莊子), Legalism (Han Feizi 韓非子, Book of Lord Shang 商君書), and Mohism (Mozi 墨子). I'll also dip into texts from other major schools including the School of Names, School of the Military, and Chinese Buddhism.
My literature syllabus begins with the Songs of Chu, continues with Han poetry (the three Caos) and lyric and verse of the Wei, Jin, and Northern and Southern dynasties (Ballad of Mulan, Tao Yuanming 陶淵明), then delves into the considerable body of Tang poetry (Du Fu 杜甫, Li Bai 李白) followed by Song (Su Dongpo 蘇東坡, Xin Qiji 辛棄疾). I also want to explore opera, beginning in the Yuan dynasty. Finally, my prose curriculum after Sima Qian comprises literary criticism, diverse writings of the Tang and Song dynasties (Han Yu 韓愈, Liu Zongyuan 柳宗元), and Ming and Qing fiction (Four Great Classical Novels).
I expect this Chinese Civilization stream to be highly challenging given my own, past struggles with the material. My child could very well end up with the same difficulties. To that, I can only quote the second stanza of the Three Character Classic: "If foolishly there is no teaching, children's nature will deteriorate. The right way in teaching is to attach the utmost importance to thoroughness (苟不教, 性乃遷。教之道, 貴以專。)."
Mathematics and Supplementary Streams
Math gets a special place in the curriculum because it undergirds so many other academic disciplines. While some question the prevailing pedagogy in the US, I'm mainly concerned that middle and high school teaching comically underprepares students for the rigors of undergraduate math. This is perhaps unfairly colored by my own experience; I nearly failed multivariable calculus after having easily achieved the maximum scores on the college admissions and advanced placement math exams. I shouldn't put that on my child. But it did convince me of the importance of building good study habits and staying challenged during the "easy" (secondary) years. I hope to encourage that throughout my child's schooling. As for myself, I really will pick up calculus again and try to master it at last.
I'd expect my exclusion of the sciences from the core curriculum to raise eyebrows, if not prompt a report to social services for child neglect. I like science! But, my thesis is that the elementary and middle school years are critical for building foundational skills and knowledge, which are worth studying both for their own sake and to apply elsewhere. I have a crazy-uncle theory that this reasoning got reversed during the 20th century as decision-makers recognized total-factor productivity growth to be driven by quantitative fields, especially the applied sciences, and as further advancements were seen to depend on incremental group efforts rather than individual genius. It must have seemed so clear: Why waste time drilling on the low-level knowledge that everyone knows, when we could send our young straight to the frontiers of science to strike gold?
Anyway, natural and social sciences do make it into my curriculum at a survey level. Even here I aim to widen the scope to include disciplines that don't often receive early attention. Within the natural sciences, I'll be dusting off the first volume of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Within the social sciences, I plan to revisit some of the areas that most expanded my thinking, reading Chang's Economics: The User's Guide, Lijphart's Patterns of Democracy (political science), Geertz's Interpretation of Cultures (anthropology), and Pinker's Language Instinct (linguistics).
Despite having self-radicalized and taken steps towards real action - I've got piles of books all around my home and am presently knee-deep in exegeses of Plato's Republic - I do wonder whether it isn't foolish to think that I can build a better educational approach and implement it too. Trying this on myself is easy. I've finished school; I can do all the learning I want now. Asking it of a preteen could be much harder. If it works, though, my child will find a nourishment in learning that eludes so many - or at least avoid flunking final exams.