Sunday, February 25, 2007

My (Academic) Upbringing

Responding to Steve Hargadon, who wrote,
"Do we believe in rigor and passion in our own educations? It's a hard message, but if our free time is filled with unchallenging and mindless entertainment, and if when we talk about our school days we speak of something that is behind us that "we got through," then our children will not know any better.

"When our major method for accomplishing something is enforcement (which is really what the culture of school is now), we give the implicit message that it is not something that is going to be enjoyed, no matter how much we say otherwise. Want to help your child become a better learner? Let them see you studying math or reading a classic..."

This comment is exactly right.

Neither of my parents were academics. Neither attended university (except some night classes my father took at Sir George Williams). But in our household, academic virtues were celebrated and practiced:

- the radio was tuned to CBC (Canadian public broadcasting) and so we would hear world news, scientific programs, 'Ideas', and more...

- there were always newspapers in the house - we all ended up delivering newspapers - and articles of importance, such as the current membership of the Cabinet (in the Canadian government) were posed on the wall. There was always a big map of the world on the wall.

- my mother bought a complete set of the classic works of literature for the house (these were very specifically my mothers, and I had to ask to read them), very cheap Pelican's (low-cost Penguins) that fell apart when you read them. Everything from Shakespeare to Butler to Thoreau to Twain. I read about half the 120 book collection before the middle years of high school (talk about an advantage!)

- I joined the Book of the Month Club with my father, through which I learned a lot of history - Pierre Berton, William L. Shirer, and Albert Speer all stand out, as do my Complete Sherlock Holmes

- there was also technology, and an evident interest in technology, in the house (we weren't just about academics). Our house radio was built from a kit. Bits and pieces of telephones were always about, as my father worked for Bell. We had telescopes and microscopes (much to the distress of the local bug and amphibian population). My younger brothers benefited from my father's interest in computers, but by then (1980s) I had left home. Still, I got my first model, a big 300 baud box, from my father.

- somehow I came into possession of an old Underwood typewriter (the reason I can't type to this day, because the keys took too much force to push) and a limitless supply of paper.

- I also somehow had access to tools - hammers, saws, screwdrivers, the works - to build things (and we built numerous things, including clubhouses, tree houses, go-karts and even a stage coach).

- we had a (large) garden and learned how to grow food. We were involved in preserving and canning the food (I can still remember piles of beans, a supply that would last the entire winter). We could cook basically whenever we wanted, so I took the opportunity to bake some cakes and pies.

Things like this - which, really, began with my first set of blocks, which had letters stamped on the sides, characterized my childhood. Knowledge and learning were always valued and supported.

At the same time, though, none of it was forced on me. These things were always in my environment, but I wasn't required to read the books (though the garden work was not voluntary - everybody helped because everybody ate). It was all about the environment, and not some rigorous academic regime.

2 comments:

  1. What a wonderfully supportive home you seem to have had, Stephen. A far more conducive environment than the coercive pressure to perform that Steve Hargadon describes.

    My own was very different again - maybe I will post on that separately. However, I will just mention the issue of reading, since we have some overlap there.

    My mother was an inveterate bookworm, having taken solace in books in her youth as a lonely misfit. Our house was also full of books - although probably not the classics you describe. At the age of 7, I read the Gerald Durrell's children's book: Donkey Rustlers. I enjoyed it greatly and spotted several other books by the same author on our bookshelves. I began devouring them and was soon lost in his adventures, with no inkling that these were aimed at an adult audience. My teacher found out what I was reading and sent a note home to my mother to ask her not to allow me to read such inappropriate material. Considering that I was in a stream for gifted and talented kids with teachers who were usually very forward thinking, my mother was surprised to say the least. She refused.

    I stopped enjoying Durrell after a while, when his drivers seemed to change, but I have remained a voracious reader to this day, and I have my Mom to thank for it.

    I have always said that if you love to read, there is no closed door that you can't challenge.

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  2. Thanks for reminding me (a parent of two young children) that my own liberal education and love of learning originated in the rich and open learning environment my parents welcomed me into. Humble in grandeur (especially compared to the State University were I now work), my childhood home featured books, tools, technology, plants, and all manner of 'cool instruments & gadgetry' --My father was deeply into building and flying remote control model airplanes. Other regular and key events included civic involvement, mentorship and strong encouragement to ask questions when I had them AND encouragement to seek innovation when answers were lacking.

    Your article was just the nudge I needed to take a look around me and make sure I am doing my best to pass the same gift to my children.

    On a humerous note I'm so very tempted to bastardize this piece as a means for convincing my wife to allow me to buy the robotic dinosaur that both my son and I have been contemplating. Perhaps we'll raid grandad's collection of servos and radio transmitters to build our own instead.

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