Education and the Wonder and Mystery of the Child

The now late John D McDonald was a prolific author of a series of novels that probably end up in the “Crime” section of libraries and book shops. He wrote a highly popular series where the main character was Travis McGee who lived in a house boat called the “Busted Flush” which was moored at Slip 18 Bahia Mar in Fort Lauderdale in Florida. I was chatting to an American friend of mine the other day and apparently that address actually exists. John D – as he became known – chose to withdraw from the world and lived with his wife in voluntary isolation in Florida. I enjoy the stories a great deal. They are well and crisply written and call on your own imagination. The outcomes are seldom obvious. A reviewer has described them as stories that “not only knock you down, they rabbit punch you while you are on the floor.” One of the reasons I enjoy them is that John D uses them to get across his own, often amusing, often cynical and often deeply sad view of where we have taken and are busy taking our society. Paradoxically there is an underlying optimism that we can get it right. His hero, Travis McGee – always does. As the stories unfold John D habitually drops in provocative little chewy bits about what we are doing to ourselves and our children and our society and our planet. He is quite obviously deeply angry about the way in which we are doing things in all these areas. So am I! Frankly so should you be! If you are not I am not sure you grasp the reality of the cess pit we are in

I was rereading one the stories this morning – “A Purple Place for Dying” (the McGee stories all have a colour in the title) – and I came across his comments on education:

“Education is something which should be apart from the necessities of earning a living, not a tool therefor. It needs contemplation, fallow periods, and the measured and guided study of the history of man’s reiteration of the most agonizing question of all: WHY?”

He goes on:

“A devoted technician is seldom and educated man. He can be a useful man, a contented man, a busy man. But he has no (more) sense of the mystery and wonder and paradox of existence……” and it is surely an awareness of this “sense of mystery” that entitles us to use the sobriquet “I am human!”

And lo (sic) there is a headline in Business News of 20th January that reads:

“White Paper prioritises artisan training at colleges”

In John D’s terms – and there are thank goodness, a few, albeit very, very few, exceptions – our schools are not educating our children. They teach them some skills and some facts and do little or nothing about calling forth – educare – the humanity that we are all blessed with. It would seem that with the current system of what we call education what we have and can look forward to is a crop of essentially uneducated young people who are dab hands with a screwdriver! In other words the system is producing and will continue to do so – technicians.

Small wonder that our children are kicking against the system with ever increasing vigour and with often, very unfortunate results. Small wonder that they disappear into what appears to be the magical, mysterious world of TV, video games, drugs and other mind-bending activities. Certainly the so-called practical world we offer them will have little appeal to a newly arrived mind that itself is a product of the mystery and the magic of existence.

This is the challenge that we are failing and failing miserably, to meet – and thank goodness for the few exceptions. As it says in the Christian New Testament in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke “ we must render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s” In other words we must give due attention to the screwdriver (whatever that might mean) without neglecting the mystery of the child that presents itself for education.

As it stands it is small wonder that both the child and our society are in very deep trouble indeed