Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Genius And Schools

Did I need college to become a teacher? Yes and no. Yes, because college degrees were required for a teaching license. No, because it took time to unlearn university thought patterns that inhibited good teaching.

Colleges in the late 20th century and early 21st can be stultifying, especially for highly-intelligent and imaginative people. I do not claim to be such a person, but I’m smart enough to recognize that some brilliant Americans kept themselves unencumbered by formal education and the rest of us benefited. Two well-known examples are Thomas Edison and Bill Gates, but a couple of local examples are illustrative as well: Philo Farnsworth and Rufus Porter.

Bill Gates
Edison and Gates need no introduction, nor any description of what resulted from their genius. Philo Farnsworth and Rufus Porter are less well-known and both have connections here in western Maine where I live: Farnsworth invented the electronic television and held over 300 patents. Porter is best known as a painter of portraits and murals, but he was a prolific inventor as well. His inventions include the revolving rifle, the rights to which he sold to Samuel Colt who then became famous for producing the first revolver handguns. He designed, built, and flew an airship 240 feet long and founded Scientific American magazine.

Philo Farnsworth
Philo Farnsworth was born near Beaver Creek, Utah in 1906, but later in life lived for several years in Brownfield, Maine. He invested in his property there and in a business venture in Fryeburg. He was burned out in 1947 by the devastating fire that destroyed most the the town and moved on. His son, nick-named “Skee,” still uses the property.

Rufus Porter was born in Boxford, Massachusetts in 1792, but his family moved to a part of Denmark, Maine that is now part of Bridgton, Maine when Porter was a boy.

Rufus Porter
My contention here is that because all four lacked formal education, they weren’t encumbered by contemporary thought patterns. They weren’t burdened by notions of how they were supposed to think. They weren’t fitted with intellectual blinders by the academy. They didn’t have to complete a rigid course of study and, consequently, weren’t bound to think along a rigid course. They didn’t know how they weren’t supposed to think, so they let their thoughts go wheresoever they would. The rest of us are beneficiaries of their lack of formal schooling.

Rufus Porter Mural

Thomas Edison had three months. Rufus Porter had six months (at our local Fryeburg Academy). Philo Farnsworth went to high school, was accepted at Annapolis but didn’t attend. Bill Gates had a couple of years at Harvard before he dropped out.

Another Rufus Porter Mural

From his biography on the Rufus Porter Museum site we learn: “[Rufus’s] sole teacher was the Rev. Amos Cook [at Fryeburg Academy which he attended for six months at age 12], and he never had formal instruction thereafter. He profited from independence of the self-taught, though lacking disciplines of scholars. The narrow prejudices and conventions escaped him and he became the most progressive American of the 19th Century as he developed his ideas from within.”

Rufus Porter Airship Design

From Wikipedia, we learn: “When [Bill Gates] was in the eighth grade, the Mothers Club at the school used proceeds from Lakeside School's rummage sale to buy a Teletype Model 33 ASR terminal and a block of computer time on a General Electric (GE) computer for the school's students. Gates took an interest in programming the GE system in BASIC, and was excused from math classes to pursue his interest. He wrote his first computer program on this machine: an implementation of tic-tac-toe that allowed users to play games against the computer.”

Harry Truman
Opinions vary as to who were America’s greatest presidents, but most lists would include Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman - neither of whom went to college.

No schools at any level have a monopoly on learning. As their control by unions and government increase, costs go up and effectiveness goes down. Nowhere is this more true than New York City where they spend more than $20,000 per student per year but, according to CBS New York, 80% of high school graduates are illiterate. Taxpayers should insist on educational vouchers to smash the government/union monopoly.

As an educator for thirty-six years, I believe the US Department of Education should be eliminated but for one function: it should decide on a minimum set of skills for each grade level and develop tests to measure them. The tests should be voluntary for each school district. If people don’t want to know how their community schools measure up, it would be useless to pour   state or federal money into them. They have to want to fix themselves before they’ll be any progress.

As long as their children can pass tests of basic skills appropriate to their age level, give parents vouchers for ½ to ¾ of local per-pupil costs to use on any educational strategy they wish. If parents want to home-school, fine. If they want to pool that money and form independent schools, let them.


Anonymous said...

Its a start....

Anonymous said...

I love your out of the box thinking Tom!

Sam said...

Of course the far right is anti-education, because the more uninformed and uneducated the masses are, the more likely they are to vote against their interests and elect far right politians. Studies have proven this correlation.


"Keep 'em dumb and ignorant and maybe we can dupe em into voting for us" seems to be the thinking.

Basing anti-education theories on a few genius outliers is uneducated and ignorant in itself. Like saying that music lessons are worthless, because hey, look at Hendrix, or many of the blues greats.

I'm sure Tom would love to have surgery by a doctor with no higher education to hinder their thinking...

What a clown.

Rick said...

Boy, did Tom ever get taken to the woodshed in a letter in today's Daily Sun! They pointed out what I always thought - that Tom's columns inevitably do more harm to his cause then good. His twisted thinking always seem to get one thinking how absurd his line of reasoning is, while at the same time turning people off due to his childish "attacking" tone.

Keep up the great public service Tom, the world needs more people like you and Stephen Colbert.

George said...

So you propose the government doles out money, say $10,000 - $15,000 per child for New Yorkers "to use on any educational strategy they wish".

Hmmm, I wonder how many people will come up with the "strategy" to pump out as many children as possible, getting $80,000 of government money for their brood of 8, and using the money to "educate" their children by buying TV's, drugs?, and god knows what else?

Well thought out, Tom. Thank goodness people with your thought process aren't able to elect like-minded politicians.

Tom McLaughlin said...

As long as those children could pass annual tests demonstrating minimum competency, yes, it would be a good investment. Minimum competency would have them literate by sixth grade.

If they couldn't pass those tests, those kids would join the legions of other students in NYC public schools with 85% illiteracy rates in spite of $20,000 per year per student and "earning" diplomas. My idea would be a bargain for NYC taxpayers compared to that.

My idea would, however, dry up contributions to Democrat candidates when all those unionized teachers paying $500 per year in union dues were laid off. About 85-90% of those dues go to Democrats and other leftist groups.

Randy said...

Wel, have fun dreaming about your goofy la-la land. I'm sure glad it does not now, nor ever will, resemble reality.

What is it like insde your bubble now.....Romney still about to rout Obama in their? Climate still just dandy?