To begin with, the American public school system was a response to immigration. Faced with the challenge of assimilating the “huddled masses” that had arrived on American shores, during the 1840s US Secretary of Education Horace Mann implemented a model invented by the Prussians: age-graded classrooms. Many similar models spread through Europe in the wake of the Industrial Revolution with the goal of educating the urban poor and shaping national identity. Critics, however, compared these efficient and replicable new systems to factories in which children were treated impersonally. Charles Dickens famously satirized British schools in his 1854 novel Hard Times, in which the inauspiciously named Mr. Gradgrind presides over hundreds of “little pitchers” who sit in rows, waiting to be filled with “imperial gallons of facts.”
One and a half centuries later, Susan Wise Bauer follows suit in her book Rethinking School: How to Take Charge of Your Child’s Education. Though American schools today look different than they did in the nineteenth century, their purpose and foundation remains the same, she claims, and her critique, like Dickens’s before her, centers on the incompatibility of an industrial model and the human beings it aims to teach. The way we do school today, she claims, “has nothing to do with the way that actual human beings acquire knowledge.”
Her book arrives at a time of growing dissatisfaction with public education across the nation. Some parents are wary of the increasingly secular environment in public schools, while others object to the standardization of the Common Core. Still others have seen their child struggle under the load of mandated testing. Not coincidentally, the last two decades have witnessed a sharp increase in alternatives. The number of public Montessori schools doubled between 2000 and 2014, and classical and charter schools have expanded at similar, if not higher, rates. Many of these schools have long waitlists.
One of the main drivers of this trend was a book Susan Wise Bauer published with her mother in 1999 called The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home. A bible-cum-encyclopedia of resources ostensibly aimed at homeschoolers, the book served as a touchstone for educators who, in the intervening years, founded schools on the classical and great-books models. My wife and I, both homeschooled for portions of our childhood, reference the book frequently as we make decisions about our own children’s education. Now in its fourth edition, the book gives a masterful and practical explication of the stages of the classical trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and reveals the author, who herself was the subject of a homeschooling experiment, to be an authority not just on homeschooling but on K-12 education in general. Her book is the first thing I recommend to friends interested in becoming more involved in their child’s education.
Rethinking School attempts to bring Wise Bauer’s homeschooling wisdom to a new audience. Here she puts aside her discussion of classical education and adopts the language of modern educational professionals – learning disorders, standardized testing, multiple intelligences – to take aim at a system designed, she claims, so that “one teacher could corral and indoctrinate dozens of students at a time.”