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Thanks to Doc Searls, I burned the soup..but it was worth it

May 4th, 2005 · 8 Comments

I believe in taking responsibility for my own actions. So I know it is not truly Doc Searls’ fault that our spicy soup for dinner last (Monday) night developed another burned flavor, bits of black mixed among the vegetables. Just large pieces of wild rice, yeah, that’s what I told the family: Add some Tabasco.

the blame game

No, if I blame anyone I should blame blogger Chris O’Donnell. I was playing the dangerous game of browse-the-aggregator-for-a-moment-while-dinner-is-warming when I spied his post from yesterday. The partial feed was too tantalizing to ignore:Doc Searls connects open source, Microsoft, home education and Gatto I couldn’t wait to read what Doc had written. While the aggregator retrieved, the soup burned…

Later last night, while the pan was soaking and the kids were sleeping, I returned to read Getting Flat, Part 2 from Linux Journal. Doc’s piece, with references to works by Thomas Friedman and John Taylor Gatto hit me with its truth immediately, in a way that soaks into the soul. Although I had other duties that needed to get done last night, I wanted to post on it ASAP. While I sorted through piles of papers and evaluated bills, Doc’s words continued to cook in my mind (maybe even burn?!).

I have to say it now

Doc’s piece impacted me enough that I am willing to reveal something I’ve been reluctant to write on this blog in the past. He begins with a critique of Microsoft’s belief in the bell curve.

What’s wrong here isn’t simply the focus on Microsoft in a country where open source is a huge phenomenon. It’s that both Tom and Microsoft continue to believe IQ tests are important ways to measure citizens in a flat world. Because if there’s one thing the world is flattening fast, it’s the old caste system we call The Bell Curve.

Although I’ve never worked at Microsoft, I may be able to understand part of the company’s culture and values. Why? I attended the same high school founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen did. Lakeside was the only school where Bill G received a diploma, dropping out of Harvard after a year. It’s been called the Ivy League high school of the west coast, or something similiar, and the brick-and-ivy campus in north Seattle as well as the tuition of close to $30k a year, only encourage the comparison. To survive the competitive admission process, kids must score well on exams and demonstrate talents.

a reputation and an identity

School shapes us. The reason I haven’t mentioned Lakeside by name on this blog is because it has a reputation. My mom sent me there after years of frustration with public education, thinking it would be best for me. I wasn’t a typical student: I commuted miles across towns each morning on metro buses and received loads of financial aid. Although I’m biased as an alum, I’d guess that Lakeside School has two prominent associations in people’s minds: if you went to Lakeside, you must be wealthy and smart, in an elite way.

So Microsoft’s use of IQ tests or emphasis on the word “smart” doesn’t surprise me. Lakeside kids, which Gates and Allen still are somewhere inside, as we all are still children – can start attending the school in fifth grade, at age 10, and grow up in a culture where intelligence becomes identity. Why are we all at this school? Because we’re smart. It’s an identity that requires significant investment, both financial and otherwise, so it reinforces itself out of necessity.

I am thankful

Lakeside did provide me with a challenging academic education. Teachers at the school played important support roles in my life when I needed other adults to care for me. For those two factors I am grateful. The private school helped me survive adolescence, mentally and emotionally. I also became active as a runner on sports teams, developing physical abilities I wouldn’t have discovered if had I stayed in a larger school.

But Lakeside is also a culture – or at least it was a culture – that emphasized the belief in the elite, rather than belief in everyone. With words the school may say otherwise, but de facto, by definition, it values intelligence that can be measured on tests, prizing and thereby preserving belief in the tip of the bell curve. Doc described how he hated being judged as a child in school:

I hated being judged in school, right from the start. In fact, I hated being in school at all. In kindergarten I’d stare at the window and wish I could leave. The teacher sent me to the “thinking chair” repeatedly for not paying attention. I remember wondering what I was supposed to be thinking about. In first grade they put me in the slow reading group, because I was uncomfortable reading out loud. I could read; but for me reading Dick and Jane out loud was torture. And the sweet suburban sentiments of the books only made me wish I was out playing rather than cooped up in a classroom.

A school like Lakeside requires judgment – how else to determine who can be admitted? How else to prepare kids to excel at further judgments that happen in the system from SATs to MCATs?

A school that requires significant investment, financial and otherwise, can not help but become incorporated into family values, values the children absorb easily during their early years of education, values they will promote and pass on later in adult life as they create corporations.

what is IQ?

In his critique of Microsoft, Doc then quoted classic Gatto …genius is as common as dirt… and wrote

Here’s an undeniable fact: nobody has an IQ. Tests that measure IQ aren’t thermometers or dipsticks, despite the quantitative implications of “quotient”. They’re merely bunches of questions. You might answer them well on one day and poorly on another, without being smarter or dumber at either point in time.

Ted and I have been arguing over our children’s education recently. I wonder whether someday they might return to the school system and I worry whether I should prepare them for exams. I’m concerned that they wouldn’t be able to pass the right tests and swim in the system. When I give our kids a workbook, sometimes they don’t know what to do. They can draw in their journals, plan experiments, shape paper into three-dimensions, analyze stories and write their own tales. They can invent and create but they don’t know much about multiple choice and playing the testing games. Yet if Ted and I trained our children how to take a test and excel at it, would they be intelligent? What is intelligence? Although I’m concerned for my kids, wanting them to thrive in the world, I don’t believe tests measure much. My arguments with my husband however reveal that somewhere inside I still believe in the system, or that surviving it is important.

no need to fit in the new flat world

Doc continued

I say all this because it’s clear to me–and probably to Tom Friedman, too–that the flat new world isn’t big on fitting. Here we reward differences. We value uniqueness, creativity, innovation, initiative, resourcefulness. Every patch to the software in the server that brings you this essay was created by somebody different, with something different to contribute. Yes, a meritocracy is involved. But I can assure you it has nothing to do with grades or IQ tests. It has to do with quality of code and with the virtues that produce it, only some of which are fostered in school.

Despite being married to Ted, I can’t claim to be an open source expert, yet I agree with these values. Also this great quote:

Work matters, but curiosity matters more. Nobody works harder at learning than a curious kid.

Curiousity kept the kid alive

Our desire to preserve our childrens’ organic curiosity plays a large part in our desire to homeschool. Too often the school system crushes curiousity out of a kid. Kids have a natural desire to learn. It emerges almost from birth, with tiny hands and feet eager to crawl around corners and open cupboards. Boys and girls are happy to explore and discover, to dig deeper in the garden dirt, to walk further into the woods, to scribble songs on construction paper scraps, to pour salt and pepper into water glasses at the restaurant, to pick up slugs and rocks in the garden.

Yet often, as Doc described happening in his own life, by the time the educational system has finished with the child, the child has finished with education. Learning has become boring. Often it becomes a game of passing tests and pleasing teachers. Education seems disillusioning or irrelevant. One size doesn’t fit all: the system of uniformity leaves behind painful blisters, so to speak, on the mind and soul. Ted and I believe in discipline. There are times to do what one doesn’t want to do. We have structure. But I also believe in giving children the freedom to explore with scissors and glue, shovel and microscope, to stare at ants or birds or stars without any specific purpose, without a box to check or lesson to fulfill, only an imagination to satisfy.

We want our kids to keep that creative spark and let it burst into flame. We want them to develop initiative and resourcefulness, to learn how to teach themselves and pursue passions. We want each child to be who she was made to be, not someone stuck into a mold and squeezed but someone unique and confident, able to contribute to the world in her own ways.

Despite our occasional disagreements, Ted and I agree on his statement I want my girls to be ready to thrive in the flat new world..

There’s much more to Doc’s piece but I’m out of time and have a pot to scrub: please read.

Also read Ted’s Doc spills the beans on Open Source and Homeschooling.

Coincidentally, I happened to write part of this post while listening to Kayne West’s The College Dropout (an album which I requested from the library, out of curiousity, months ago when Grammy nominations were announced) – some fascinating relevant lyrics floating past me that I wish I could quote.

Other education related pieces:

  • Amanda Witt on Socialization. Years ago when Abigail was a baby, I read David Guterson’s Family Matters. I remember how he answered the socialization question, describing his children’s interactions with people of all ages, having tea with a British neighbor and also spending time with a Japanese friend, learning about World War II from both of their perspectives. The idea of spending enormous quantities of time with people the exact age as oneself is artificial, I believe, and dangerous, promoting conformity (and feeding the marketing machine). Building relationships with people across generations builds community and diversity.
  • The island where we live will soon have a vote on a tech levy. Cathy Nickum at Bainbridge Buzz responding to intense critique of her published questions, observed that education is about loving the questions. Yes, more and more I am learning to ask and love questions. Our two-year-old is learning to ask questions too. We hope she never stops.
  • Tags: homeschool

    8 responses so far ↓

    • 1 Beth // May 4, 2005 at 7:34 am

      Julie, you and Ted might be interested in this post (http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2005/01/most_classroom_.html) by one of my co-authors, Kathy Sierra.

    • 2 Ernie // May 4, 2005 at 10:08 am

      Hi Julie,
      Very moving, as always. In add sort of way, this reminded me a lot of some (rather abstract) philisophical questions we’re pondering on Centroids:


      e.g., that knowlege only has value within a given context of purpose, and that our environment shapes our understanding of what is valuable (or even true). Or, as I like to say, “Choose your friends and role models carefully, for we are all prisoners of our value community.” I am glad to see you creating such a healthy one for your girls.

    • 3 Chris // May 4, 2005 at 1:23 pm

      After I saw your comment on the fencing post yesterday I kept waiting for something to show up in the Doc Searles post. I knew it would grab your attention 🙂

    • 4 JTH // May 5, 2005 at 6:35 am


      Ran across your piece this AM after having read Doc’s very (very) early this AM.

      First off, thanks for the insight on Lakeside and Bill G.
      I suspect that you have hit the nail on the head.

      Doc summed up the “factory factor” of the current school model, let’s not call it education. So I won’t delve into that.

      Very glad that you are trying to nurture the love of learning in your daughters.
      Raised a couple myself, but chose public schools, later, private colleges.

      Public Schools, in part, for the social aspects.
      Living day to day with youngsters of all walks of life, economic, social and varied intelligence or capabilities.
      There are many social skills that I think can be developed in this environment. If nothing else, a sense of empathy for others.

      Sure, classrooms can be frustrating, but life can be frustrating. Learning to deal with it, find the good in a situation, make the best of it, accept the challenge is itself, educational. Educational in a “life lessons” sense.
      As long as you have access to other educational venues outside the classroom or school system, and engaged parents.

      I was fortunate to grow up in a University town, and had pretty much free run of the Campus Library … it was ‘the web before the web’ for me, following leads and ideas.
      I challenged my daughters to do the same.

      BTW – just bookmarked your pages

    • 5 Tom Guarriello // May 5, 2005 at 11:45 am

      It feels silly thanking a blogger for a post, but, silliness has rarely stopped me before, so: thank you, Julie. Your words capture the struggle so many have in preparing children to live in a world dominated by values at odds with their own. Too much conformity and they’re swept away by the stream. Too much isolation and they’re lost in the woods.

      BTW, nice recovery with the Tabasco!

    • 6 Will Emerson // May 5, 2005 at 5:50 pm

      My children are grown. My wife and I partly homeschooled them and also formed a school with neighbors and friends and educated our children together for their early years. they all joined public school as teenagers. They were all way ahead of their peers academically and had very little trouble fitting in. Our little school started a month late, ended a month early, met 3 days a week, took many trips and covered much more ground than public school.
      I know it is a great fear that you are somehow damaging your children by keeping them out of the educational system but I think you are doing a great thing and they will thank you for it later as my children have.

      The difference I see between the kids I worked with and public school detainees is that the home school kids came through with their imaginations intact and the belief that they can chart their own course. They know that they can be producers and not couch-potato consumers. They can make friends of different ages easily and they value friendship greatly.

      I think you are doing a brave thing. Keep up the good work and keep writing about it.


    • 7 JB318 // May 15, 2005 at 11:27 pm

      Your question/thought was, essentially, “My kids are smart but I’m not sure that they know how to *take tests*.” There are plenty of books devoted to teaching kids (and not-so-kids–ask me how I know) learn how to take standardized tests of the popular variety. They might not help with Mrs. Jones’ calculus exam, but any of the common standardized test (SAT, ACT, AP, CLEP, etc. etc.) will have thorough coverage–and to a large degree, knowledge of some of those would enable them to deal with Mrs. Jones as well, I suspect. If your kids are truly smart, they’ll be able to pick up a book or two and read up on the tips and techniques, should the need one day arise.

      It’s a bit surprising to me that you evidently didn’t know about the existence of that particular industry–although with a little reflection maybe it’s not *quite* so surprising, if you spend your time as far from the current American educational system as you can manage.

    • 8 the head lemur // May 16, 2005 at 2:35 pm

      IQ Testing is all my fault!

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