What on Earth is a Good Education?

What makes a good ed


I came across a Buddhist educational blog this week. One thread on the blog was about education so I had a look around. What jumped out straight away was the proposition that children should be given a “good” education.

It’s a phrase I have heard much in my life and what is clear to me is that a “good” education means many different things to many different people. Michael Gove, when UK Education Secretary said when he was mucking around with UK education that it involved all sorts of things many people consider out of date and anachronistic. Like Latin and rote learning of Kings and Queens. Whether he had a good education is a moot point depending on what you consider one to be. In his case he may have a had a good education and know his royals but it may have failed to produce a person we would consider a person of ethics due to recent political antics. Which raises another question. Can you have a good education and be a politician? Yes my tongue is in my cheek.

But is a “good” education, any education even, judged then by the character and post education behaviour of those who receive it? Can we understand a good education by its results? Or is it the case that when people who have had a supposedly good education but behave badly we don’t hold the good education accountable? i.e it remains good but the person is not.

Perhaps there is just education and it is more useful to stop labelling it good or bad or indifferent.

Perhaps too there is no such thing as a good education but there are perhaps good educationalists, teachers etc.  It is a big topic but here I want to focus in on the impact of educational hierarchy.

I think that there are three things that are important about this and that are significant for our children.

First it is helpful if they understand the context of educational hierarchy.

The history of class warfare and economic development has led to a hierarchy of education. We have the better schools and the elite schools and then the bad and failing schools. Presumably you can only get a good education at the top of that tree and a bad one at the bottom. Poor children who quickly learn where they are in the hierarchy. Within the bands of the hierarchy there are subsets. So in private fee paying privileged education there is a hierarchy. For instance  I went to a ‘minor’ English public school. This means it was less privileged than say Eton or Harrow. Oh dear, poor old me with a shorter straw than the Etonians. But hey it’s a longer straw than those in the other schools that parents who can’t afford to pay for education send their kids too!  So in the system the kids get to know where they fit by looking up or down the scale. At the top you get only supreme privilege of the ruling classes. Witness Boris Johnston, David Cameron et al.  Other countries do not have such an entrenched class system as the UK. But it is based on economics, the best schools being progressively more expensive. A good education in these contexts mean buying entry into the levels of economic society that parents want for their children. It is worth reflecting then on whether we want to perpetuate and participate in such a system. And what is the impact on our alternative children? They have to contend with being for the foreseeable future a minority. Most children are in educational systems. To not be is the exception to the rule. This will have an impact on our children. What this impact is and how it is managed is influenced by us the parents. Whenever a person finds themselves in a grouping of some kind how they see themselves in relation to other groupings will determine how they experience not belonging to them. Once our children learn how some people and systems organise themselves it will give them insight into why people behave in certain ways.

Second. Learning how to skilfully manage social information gathering situations.

The “Where did you go to school” question became and still is a way to categorise people. Social interaction generally involves, in the initial stages, getting information that allows us to park people into sections of our minds according to our internal filing system. Attached to all those sections are beliefs, values, biases and emotions. Because this approach is a default system commonly used by people socially we run into fresh challenges with alternative education.  When I explain to people I meet my kids don’t go to school they usually try to file the information by default under home schooling. Until of course that gets corrected (which I don’t always bother to do ) and they have to open up a new file called Unschooling or “not home schooling”.  This causes some dissonance for people as they don’t have this category and don’t understand it. This is of course to describe my experience as a parent. For the kids it will be different when they are adults. They will be travelling around the world and meeting other people who inevitably will want to find out about them. So when asked where they went to school they may answer something like “nowhere”, or “We didn’t we are unschoolers” So then how do they get evaluated and classified by others? This is a topic worth integrating for both us as parents and for our children. We cannot disguise the fact from them  that their parents (us) have selected a lifestyle and pathway through childhood that is the road less travelled. They had no choice in this in large part. What is useful then is to give this subject enough airtime in conversations between us. Sometimes there are painful consequences for families. Adults can avoid us as they are scared of what we are doing. Children from strict schooling environments can resent and tease our kids for their freedoms. I know as this has happened to us. So managing these situations means knowing first what might crop up. Then making decision as to how you answer a question. This is a combination of skill and choice. The kids can learn to make a decision about how they interact so that they can manage the impact of the information. It is of course up to them to decide but what helps is awareness that they do have some choices about how to go about it.

Third. Making sure that the unschooling way of life is experienced as the default.

Whenever we go into a gathering of schooled children with or without their families our children are the odd ones out. There is always risk attached to it and they are always aware of it. What is lovely is when they are hanging out and spending time with other children who are also living in a similar lifestyle. I cannot overstate the importance of this. It is vital that they get to feel the feeling of being in a tribe that holds the same views and values as they do. When an unschooler is with another they don’t have to accept the gulf of unshared experience. They can relate from their shared experience. They know what it feels like. When there are a few of them gathered together they form a default consensus where they experience being the majority and not the odd minority. This is important not because one is better than the other but because the feeling and experience of belonging to a group where your life path is the core of that group is vital to provide experiential balance. It is probably inevitable that in some ways our children will feel like they are outside the main grouping of their society and this feeling needs to be balanced with a place where they do feel they belong.

It strikes me just how much these topics apply across so many aspects of society from race to culture. How awareness of the impact of our desire to belong can become hijacked by fear of the other. And how significant identity is.

As for the idea of a good education. If I wanted to describe one then it would be defined purely by how free a mind and awareness any such education supported and evoked in a human child. And that free mind would be able to instantly look past the fearful way people categorize and label each other and reach for a universal grouping that lies beyond in our common humanity.  Beyond where you went to school, what colour your skin, what language you speak and what culture you claim. It is not that these are not important and to be respected, quite the opposite. It is that they are not all of who we and our children are.

  • Good article Anthony, thanks!

    Where we live (Greece), saying that you’re not schooling is like saying “we come from Mars”, so I can totally relate…

    Not having done the school thing at all, I find that I’m enjoying this as much as my daughter is and learning so much more than I would otherwise. I also realize, through the years, that less is more and time becomes deeper, more meaningful.

    If I had to answer the question of your title (which is what caught my attention in the first place), I’d say that the first and most difficult to do is help build the child’s character and support her in being her Self. Easier said than done but soooo worth paying attention to the inside as well as her maturing personality!

    Information is something that comes naturally, when it is needed or desired. I KNOW my life would be easier if she was in school; we are usually tackling 5,6, sometimes more subjects all at once. But I wouldn’t trade for anything!

    People just don’t realize how smart kids really are, how responsible they can be and how much they can amaze you with their questions and inner knowledge.

    Keeping her mind free and open is not filling it up with yesterday’s information she can research on her own, beliefs that she can do without and dogma she’ll have to re-evaluate and probably will have to reject in future.

    Thanks once again!

  • Felicity says:

    Very helpful blog. It’s vital we keep these points up and out as stepping to the beats of a non-traditional educational drum makes us vulnerable to prejudice that is invisible but powerful and hurtful nonetheless – it’s a form of “racism” because we so belong to a different “tribe”, and close minded people react in xenophobic ways towards anyone or anything that appears different from the “accepted norm”, in overt and covert ways.

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