Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Calvin and Hobbes—the problems with schooling

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I am a regular critic of the traditional school system (cf. e.g. [1]), and the topic has surfaced very often during my blog readings the last few months. Correspondingly, it was on my mind as I re-read some Calvin and Hobbesw comics, and I was struck by how well Calvin illustrates some of the common problems. This is particularly clear when we compare Calvin (exaggerated boy) and Susie (stereotypical girl) with an eye on how the school systems in many countries are systematically to the disadvantage of boys.

Susie does what the teacher says, she wants (or feels compelled by external forces) to excel in school, and she has the ability to sit still and concentrate for the required time (unless disturbed by Calvin…); further, on the balance of probabilities, she appears to enjoy school or, at least, have no major non-school interests that are compromised by school.

Calvin, in contrast, overflows with energy and ideas, has an extraordinary fantasy, countless interests—and is bored to tears by school. Notably, even when he is physically present in class, he tends to be mentally absent—and he does not appear to learn anything near what would be needed to justify the time spent.

School may be adequat, possibly even good, for Susie; however, for Calvin, it is a waste of time and energy, a dreadful dreariness that likely even hinders his development.

Calvin would, at least at the age depicted in the comic, be better of outside of school (and so would school, I suspect). To put him on Ritalin would be a horrifying crime, a chaining of a tiger that should roam free—yet, Ritalin is what many schools would demand by default, in order to “treat” him.

What Calvin needs is not school, but education—and this education can be reached by other means, adapted to his specific characteristics. Notably, he has a very sharp mind when he applies it, and his knowledge of dinosaurs shows that he does not have a learning problem when he is motivated to learn (and that he is capable of learning without a teacher).

Predicting the future success in life and intellectual development of two fictitious 6 year-olds is chancy; however, I very, very strongly suspect that Calvin is the one who will achieve more of the two. This unless poor school grades, lack of conformity, or a preference for his own company give a too poor impression among superficial judges in his surroundings—or school breaks his spirit and hampers his development… Susie, on the very outside, could become a middle manager (and probably a poor and rule-bound one). More likely, she would be a dull teacher or a comparatively entry level office worker or civil servant. Calvin could be so much more, e.g. a successful author, a (good) politician, or a college professor (paradoxical only to those narrow-minded where schooling are concerned)—of course, depending on his exact abilities and interests later in life.

When similar points are made by me or others, a common counter-argument is that school is just a matter of biting the bullet, and that he who does not only has himself to blame. (Disturbingly often by teachers…) This argument is faulty on at least three counts: Firstly, it presumes too much of younger children. Secondly, it need not be a realistic strategy for humans of any age (they are, after all, humans—not robots). Thirdly, school is extremely inefficient even for those who do bite the bullet. Those who do not happen to be in the ideal range of the one-size-fits-all-poorly schooling (or happen to receive special attention, home schooling, acceleration, whatnot) will have a poor return on the invested time—no matter how hard they bite the bullet. Indeed, the possibly gravest mistake of those in favour of traditional schooling is to fail to consider the horrifyingly large opportunity costw of school—be it with regard to other ways of spending time (in general) or of gaining an education (in particular); or to how the tax-payers money are spent.

As odd as it may seem: I strongly recommend that anyone who intends to state an opinion on schools or the educational system first reads up on (and actually gains an understanding of) Calvin, his world-view, his school situation, whatnot.


Written by michaeleriksson

November 11, 2010 at 7:46 am

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