By Frank Sanitate
The author lives in Santa Barbara
Editor’s note: This is the fifth in a series of Frank Sanitate’s articles on understanding and reforming education.
A friend, a former high school principal, lent me her copy of “The Iliad.” After reading a few pages, I called and told her, “ ‘The Iliad’ is trash!” She was somewhat taken aback.
Why did I say this? Partially for the dramatics of it. But primarily, it illustrates something that seems wrong about how education has been approached for the last 3,000 years!
Britannica tells us “The Iliad” was presumably compiled by a man named Homer about 3,000 years ago, along with “The Odyssey.” It is about the Trojan War. Some of what is annoying to me is that there are a bunch of gods who keep jumping in to save the day. Sometimes it was a demi-god, born from a god mating with an earthling.
What is more annoying, besides gods jumping in all the time, is that the story is simply battle after battle. At the end of the first chapter, I thought everything was settled and the Greeks were going home. But no, another battle, then another. It is just boring. Get on with it!
Britannica goes on to say: “The two epics provided the basis of Greek education and culture in the Classical age, and they have remained among the most significant poems of the European tradition.” It seems our education system is based on English tradition, which is based on Greek tradition.
The reason we pay such attention to something so horrible to read is that it was created three millennia ago, and it has been passed down by hundreds of generations of teachers! This one example seems to illustrate the history of education: Old people telling us what is important, because old people told them!
Don’t get me wrong. I am not against old people, being one of them myself. I am opposed to people who don’t do thinking for themselves and don’t help others do the same — whether they are young or old.
Thinking for yourself is the bottom line of education. This is the job of teachers — to help kids do it!
Getting back to “The Iliad”: I recant. It is not trash! It was good for its time. Maybe it is even good for some people in these times — 1,095,000 days later (three millennia times 1,000 years times 365 days)! We do need teachers who tell us things, books that tell us things.
But stimulating our own thinking is the best gift a teacher can give.
As my son told me, “Every kid has all the world’s knowledge in their pocket anyhow.”
“The Iliad” can leave some people with some good ideas. It is getting the good ideas that’s the important thing. The first lines of one of Keats’ poems says: “When I have fears that I may cease to be, before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain ….” (See, I remember that.) I remember it not because Keats is important, but because the idea is important to me. My brain also teems with thoughts! All kids’ do — just different thoughts at different ages, including alternate types of learners.
I see this “teeming” in myself, simply because I write! “I write: therefore, I think!” (Write that down!) But it’s not writing for the sake of others. It is writing for myself — to see and elicit what’s inside.
To me this reveals the secret of great education, the great job of teachers: Get kids writing! Allow them to discover and see the questions, insights, doubts, worries, joys, etc. that are inside their brains already. This is something that all teachers can do, all kids can do, every day. It doesn’t have to happen in every class, but how about once in 16 years of education, or once a year, or once a month or once a week? How about every day?
Kids don’t need to have ideas dumped into their heads to develop their thinking. There are 1,000 ideas going on inside of our heads. Speaking, talking, discussing, reading are all good. The more important developing, examining, questioning, relating, in-sighting comes from within.
Every kid can do this in every school every day because it’s silent and individual. No worries about spelling, punctuation, consistency — you are writing for yourself. Obviously, kids who don’t write may need other accommodations.
Maybe the first question students should write about is: “How can we make schools better?” How would you answer that question yourself? Write it out.
Frank Sanitate taught high school English for five years, published three books and had a successful seminar business for 40 years.