On School

“You can’t deny that technology has made big changes in education,” I insisted.

“Every day,” Mr. Magundi said, “we see the children walking past us on their way to the elementary school on Breckenridge Avenue. And what are they doing? Carrying things. They’re carrying more things than ever before. They are pulling their backpacks around on wheels. Why? Because schools are utterly blind to the really useful aspects of technology.

“Brielle has every book Mark Twain ever wrote on her cell phone. Mr. Bates never carries a thing to work—it’s all in the cloud, so he can work on it at home or in the office. As for you, I still have no idea what you do, but it obviously doesn’t involve carrying things. In the real world, the single greatest thing technology has done for us is to relieve us of the responsibility of carrying piles of things when we want to get intellectual work done. We just go where we need to go, and the things we need are in computer-cloud land, waiting for us when we get there.

“So if our schools have embraced technology with such fervor, why are our children carrying anything at all? Why isn’t their homework already waiting for their teacher when she gets to the classroom? Why aren’t all their schoolbooks waiting on the iPad for them when they get home? Why are they breaking their backs carrying their own weight in textbooks and binders? I say that technology in school has put shiny new siding on a rickety old structure, and that it has made no really interesting changes in education at all. It has not done the one thing technology should be really good at doing, which is to free the body of useless and irrelevant burdens so that the mind may flourish.”

On Algebra

“So I had to have like three years of math in high school to get into college,” Brielle was telling us, “even though I’m getting an art degree. And I have to take more math in college, for, like, an art degree. But I was reading this guy in, like, the New York Times or something, and he was saying nobody should have to do algebra to get into college, cause it’s like keeping out people who would be really smart in other subjects, and most people will never have to do it in real life.”

“I don’t think algebra is the only problem,” Mr. Magundi said. “I think the problem is that, when you come right down to it, all the necessary subjects have been learned, or should have been learned, by sixth grade. By that time, every child who’s gone though school should know how to read, write, and leave a tip at a restaurant. But then what do we do with them? They have to stay in school, because they’re too young to work and too stupid to be trusted at home all day.

“So they end up in high school. But every high-school class is unnecessary for most of the students in it. No one I know who isn’t in a scientific or engineering field uses algebra, and no one I know who isn’t in an academic or literary field uses English Lit. And apparently no one at all uses World History, to judge by the way we keep repeating it. I suppose it may be true that you’re a better person for learning all that algebra. But I might also argue that you would be an even better person if you had spent all that time on developing your artistic skill, which is what you really love, rather than on math classes that you hated, and that taught you things you will never use again after your last math test.

“But I suppose I should keep my mouth shut. If we start questioning whether high-school kids have to learn algebra, pretty soon we’ll start asking whether they have to go to school at all.”

On Play

“I was almost like, ‘I shouldn’t even take your money,'” Brielle was saying, “cause the kids didn’t need me. They had this whole fantasy role-playing thing going on in the back yard, and they were so totally into it, and so serious about it, it was like the most important thing in the world. So I just like sat there and did school stuff.”

“I remember what it was like to be their age,” Mr. Magundi said. “Children’s play, whenever it’s most satisfying to the children, is always solemn and religious. The most devout and fanatical mystic is hoping, in fleeting moments of ecstasy, to recapture that divine thrill we all experienced on the most memorable days of our childhood.”

On Childhood Obesity

“So they said no more chocolate milk in the cafeteria,” Mrs. Bowman was saying, “because we have to do something about childhood obesity. But you know I think they’d do more about childhood obesity if they didn’t make kids sit in a chair seven hours a day.”

“Yes, it’s an interesting problem,” Mr. Magundi said. “I don’t have the answers. I’m not even sure I have the questions. But is it mere coincidence that the rise in childhood obesity has paralleled the rise in nutrition education? The more we tell our kids how bad their eating habits are, the worse they eat. Perhaps we should admit that the obsession with nutrition is itself a form of gluttony. Instead of promoting good eating habits, all our education seems to promote furtive and guilty overindulgence. We’re teaching our kids to be unnaturally obsessed with food. And I don’t know what to do about that, except to say that perhaps our best course would be to leave nutrition up to the parents, and not get ourselves in too much of an uproar over what children are eating.”

On Going to College

“But the tuition is more than I make in a year,” Mrs. Bowman was complaining. “I want Derek to go to college, but even if there were enough loans in the world, I don’t see how he’d ever pay them off.”

“It does look as if our system of higher education is just about broken,” Mr. Magundi agreed. “But that may not be entirely bad. For the past several decades, our assumption has been that our children will graduate from high school, then go to a college in some completely different part of the country, and then take the best job offers they get in whatever part of the country. The lower classes—the people who don’t get a college education—still stay in their own communities, but the educated classes are expected to be completely mobile.

“We never question our assumption that college graduates need to go wherever they can be most profitably employed. But the result is that there’s no permanent educated class in our communities anymore. The people who might be natural leaders of our communities don’t form communities: they live in interchangeable suburbs, where it’s hard to tell whether you’re in Massachusetts or Colorado. If I were a cynic, I might say that our communities end up being run by stupid people, but I would never be so uncharitable as to equate lack of education with stupidity.

“Now, however, we seem to have hit accidentally on the one potential cure for this rootlessness of the educated class. We have raised the price of higher education to the point where it may simply be ruinous even for comfortably well-off families. And so we may end up abandoning the university system as we’ve built it up, in favor of a system where we stay home for most of our higher education, perhaps in community colleges, or in some similar institution we haven’t thought of yet. Educated people might get in the habit of thinking of the place where they grew up as home. And in spite of the disadvantages to Harvard and Cornell, I think that might be a very good thing.”

On Children’s Names

“I had to ask how to spell it three times,” Mrs. Bowman said, “and I might still have it wrong. I was going to order a personalized blanket, but now I’m afraid to.”

“I can’t help thinking,” Mr. Magundi remarked, “that parents who give their children’s names unorthodox spellings are doing their children a great disservice. An unusual name may be a boon; at least it’s a distinction. But a name spelled creatively—which is to say incorrectly—is a kind of orthographic poison that taints the child’s whole perception of the language. English spelling is far from perfect, but it does largely follow certain predictable laws. A child’s name must be one of the primary filters through which she sees English spelling. If her name violates the rules of our orthography, that filter is broken, or at least badly smudged, and it will take her some considerable effort to overcome the handicap. In fact, she may never overcome it, since the effort would demand an admission that her own name is misspelled, an idea that may well be psychologically impossible for her to form. Yet if the child with the misspelled name cannot see that her own name is misspelled, then the orthographic rule it violates must remain invisible to her. And one rule can hardly be lost without taking the others with it. The lack of an essential piece will obscure the whole pattern, and learning to spell will cost her enormous labor, because she will have to learn the apparently arbitrary spelling of each word separately.

“I should like to see every place of birth employing a competent proofreader to help mothers and fathers with the spelling on the birth certificate. But I know that the parents who most stand in need of that assistance are the ones who would most resent the interference.”

On Our Schools

“Nevertheless,” I remarked sagely, “our schools are the bastion of our democracy.”

“Balderdash,” said Mr. Magundi, employing his strongest expression. “Our schools are the assassins of democracy. They stab democracy in the heart and dance on its grave. If schools were democratic, they would take it as their mission to make sure that each student succeeded in his own particular way. But our schools exist to divide children into classes. Their purpose, starting in kindergarten, is to mark which children will succeed and which will fail. And it is absolutely necessary that a certain number should fail. The failures are not just unfortunate imperfections of the system: the system is adjusted until it produces the proper number of failures. What would happen if one teacher worked so hard, and succeeded in teaching so well, that every student in every one of her classes earned an A, year after year? How would we reward that teacher? You know the answer: if she refused to change her grades so that her class produced the proper number of failures to balance the successes, we’d fire her. No, democracy is not the aim of our schools. Their sole purpose is to create an aristocracy of designated achievers who will be allowed to succeed in life, and an underclass of failures who must scratch out a living by serving the achievers.”