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Zander Sherman

Handout

Title
The Curiosity of School
Author
Zander Sherman
Publisher
Viking
Pages
374
Price
$32
Year
2012

Zander Sherman has set himself a tough task in this book. He is taking a process and institution familiar to everyone and trying to make it "curious," in the sense of strange and unfamiliar. He wants people to ask different questions about the purpose and nature of schooling. He does this largely by telling the stories of a wide range of historical figures in the development of public education – some well known, others much less so – and by looking at issues that are not typically the focus of public debate on schooling.

For example, the book gives a lot of attention to the development of schools in Prussia – which Sherman sees primarily as being about the preparation of a strong army – and the subsequent importation of those ideas into North America. Although Sherman, a freelance writer living north of Toronto, says at the outset that his book "has no thesis" and simply intends to "present the story of schooling," this claim is disingenuous. Of all the aspects of schooling he might have examined, he has (as any author must) chosen some and neglected others. He takes up issues of testing, of private schools, of the military.

There is a lot in these pages about the United States, but much less about Canada, even though schooling has evolved very differently in the two countries. And within Canada there is virtually no discussion of Quebec, even though that system has a very different history and current configuration. Indeed, there is surprisingly little about the current Canadian school system – for example, not much about teachers or funding, or about the balance of authority between provinces, school boards and individual schools, or the struggle for control of schooling between professionals and the public. So a reader will not get a full picture of schooling in Canada today.

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Sherman does have a thesis, to my mind. It's in the quote from Einstein that starts the book: "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education." And especially in the latter pages, it is clear that Sherman, home-schooled himself until the age of 13, thinks that mass education is excessively focused on the wrong things – compliance, a narrow curriculum, preparation to fit into a society and economy – and thereby does not give sufficient attention to real education, the pursuit of curiosity and personal challenge.

This is a reasonable if hardly original critique. It's difficult for any mass institution to operate in a way that respects the individuality of millions of people all at the same time, even more when its clients are children who have to be protected as well as nurtured. Philosophers have struggled with the question of how best to organize education for centuries, though this discussion is largely absent from the book.

One problem is that Sherman does not cite sources for his facts, so it is impossible to determine if they are all correct. And at least a few of his claims are simply not true, for instance that the federal government plays an increasing role in Canadian education (Canada remains the only modern country without a national minister or ministry of education), or that most private schools in Canada serve the economic elite (some do, but most private schools serve religious and cultural minority groups).

He has problems with money issues, as well, confusing the endowment of one institution with the annual budget of another, and giving impossible figures on university revenues in Nova Scotia. All of this reduces confidence in his larger argument.

Sherman does not like modern schooling and wants to argue that Canadian students are less well educated than in the past. The problem is that the evidence does not support that view; indeed, it shows that Canadian schools produce results about as good as anywhere in the world, with no sign that standards are falling. Here, as in many places, Sherman uses the journalistic approach of telling a story and then jumping to the conclusion that the story is representative, when often it is not.

There is much of interest in this volume. The accounts of some of the history – such as the development of standardized testing, the role of Prussia in shaping education in North America or the story of the Steiner schools – are all fascinating. Reading it gives a different and useful perspective on many aspects of education. But a fair and thorough account of schooling, whether in Canada or elsewhere, it is not.

Ben Levin is a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto. He was formerly deputy minister of education in Manitoba and more recently in Ontario. His most recent book is More High School Graduates.

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