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How the school system got to be the way it is

Zander Sherman was home-schooled until he joined a public high school. What he now considers the problem with the school system was painfully obvious to him from an early age.

Scott Turnbull

As the back-to-school scramble gets under way, some of us might be pondering the point of it all: Will those standard-issue, three-ring binders really affect our kids' success? Which are the classes that matter? Which ones don't? Is the new year a chance to build good behaviour, or confident individuality?

For Zander Sherman, these questions have particular poignancy. Home-schooled until the age of 13, he was the odd man out when he finally joined a public high school, a vegetarian who played classical guitar, read his grandfather's Marxist literature – and found himself wondering about the strange entity called "school."

As he tells The Globe and Mail, it wasn't much fun at the time – but it sparked his interest in how we got the school system we have now and spurred him to write The Curiosity of School: Education and the Dark Side of Enlightenment, which explores education from its roots in 19th-century Prussia (where it was aimed at ridding soldiers of individuality) to the big issues currently occupying teachers, parents and students.

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You started thinking about the school system from a young age.

We're in it our whole life, or a very good chunk of it, but we don't often think of school as having a history. Most people look at the specifics – standardized testing, the number of homework hours a week, teacher tenure – but not the bigger issues. What is an education? What are we supposed to take away from it? As a home-schooler, though, I felt like an outsider, like I didn't necessarily belong. At the time, it was kind of excruciating, but in retrospect I was able to look at this thing called "school" with fascination and curiosity.

You seem to feel "that thing called school" discourages students from having their own perspectives.

Yes, often. But the real question is why. Schools have historically turned out citizens and voters; today, though, you could say we're focused on human resources – schools have become standardized, and that's because it makes for a good labour pool, it's convenient for the economy.

Isn't that a good thing, given the economic turmoil we're facing?

I think there's an entanglement between schooling and what I call "social utility." It's a tail-wagging-the-dog approach – it makes broader education a luxury, when in fact it's a necessity. Education should be about instilling a sense of wonder and a love of learning. If people aren't galvanized by curiosity, what's the incentive to go to work?

What would an alternate model look like?

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Finland is a great example. They don't value standardized tests (although they perform well on them) and there's less schooling-per-year than elsewhere. Students learn, then bundle up and go skiing. It's a wonderfully eccentric system.

Does that eccentricity extend to how they treat teachers?

Teachers in Finland are venerated above doctors and lawyers. Why can't we look at our own teachers the same way? It's totally baffling.

There was outrage when François Legault, the leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec party, said he wanted students to be more like "Asians" – to focus more on math and science. What do you make of that?

I think a growing number of educators are disillusioned with international comparisons. They often put the economy first – these are not necessarily the subjects that make for the best education. These countries are at war to be economic superpowers, and math, technology and engineering are the sectors that generate the most capital.

Which subjects do foster the best education proper?

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I would say there is no universal definition of "education proper." Think of food: We all know healthy food when we see it, and when we pass McDonald's, we all know that's not it.

Having said that, I'm currently working on an article about the importance of Latin and Greek. In the schools of yesteryear, knowledge of the classical languages was part of a pedagogy known as "formal discipline." The idea was that the human brain is a muscle; learning Latin and Greek gave the brain a workout, students' minds were toughened, sculpted.

In the 20th century, the curriculum no longer focuses on simple knowledge and wisdom, but what's required for the work world.

What about home-schooling? Maybe we should just give up on the school system entirely...

I was home-schooled for creative reasons. But many home-schoolers are from religious families, and I think the temptation there can be for parents to indoctrinate instead of developing inquiring minds.

Are there any promising programs in Canada?

I like what I see at the local level, when teachers take things into their own hands. One of my best friends is a public high-school teacher. Every day he practices what I preach: He chooses material that engages his students – that gets them excited and curious. He also avoids an emphasis on testing, grading and data in general. That's what excites me most.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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