Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 673, June 3, 2012

"This is the strangest era ever,
in American politics. So far."

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Self-Taught is Best Taught
by Bob Wallace

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

I don't remember much from grade school, especially in-between second and fourth grade. It's mostly a blank. I chalk it up to being in public schools. For all practical purposes I might as well been asleep. Now that I think about it, for the most part, maybe I was.

To be fair, I didn't really sleep my way through school, although I did nod off a few times in high school (as did some other kids). Mostly I daydreamed. I had such an imagination I could shut out the world and get lost in my dreams.

Yet at the same time there are things I remember vividly—and very few of them were from school. I lived on the edge of the suburbs, with a lot of country around me. There was a very large lake about a mile down the road.

On the weekends I was content to wander around by myself investigating things. One day I looked into one of those small bodies of water than come and go with the rain or the lack thereof.

In it were about a thousand tadpoles, which I knew turned into frogs. There were also what appeared to be tadpoles, only they were about ten times larger. I discovered those turned into newts—what we called mud puppies. I finally found some mud puppies, which, true to their name, lived in the mud, although I was a bit disappointed to find they didn't look like puppies. They were kind of cute, though. Much cuter than toads.

When I wandered down the railroad tracks in-between my house and the lake I discovered bamboo. It was taller than I was. I had no idea there was bamboo in southern Illinois. I thought bamboo grew only in China. I also discovered onions, which I confirmed were onions by pulling them up and tasting them. They weren't very good.

Then there were the sunflowers I found. They, too, were taller than me. The seeds weren't too bad—a lot better than the onions. (I figure if the economy collapses I can live on onions and sunflower seeds. And crawdads, which I will get to in a minute.)

Once I found a lit railroad flare that had been tossed off of a train. It impressed me, because when I put it under water it still burned! I tried to drown it in mud and it still wouldn't go out. That's when I realized there are some pretty serious chemical compounds out there, which is why I was very careful with my chemistry set (I was always expecting something awful to happen to me, which would have gotten me into trouble with my parents).

Public school bored me. I considered it something of a prison (my high school, I swear, did not have windows in any of the classrooms or the lunchroom). It was not only a prison; it was a boring prison, which is one of the worst kinds. I did a lot better on my own, only I wasn't allowed to be on my own, not when in school.

In grade school ever so often the Bookmobile would visit and we were allowed to check out books. I was in heaven. When I was 11 I picked up a book about Rommel, who I found out was called the Desert Fox.

Years later in college I had to borrow a typewriter from a girl I knew. She told me to get it from her father at their house. Her father taught political science at the university, although I never had a class with him.

When he gave me the typewriter he said, "The bomb is ready to go. Put it next to Hitler." I just laughed. He probably thought I didn't know what he was talking about.

When I returned the typewriter a few days later I said to him, "The bomb went off but Hitler escaped. Now they're after Rommel."

His eyebrows shot up to his hairline and he said, "It's glad to know that not all of Kathy's friends are historical and political ignoramuses." I just laughed, because I was a little embarrassed.

Then I realized I wasn't taught about Rommel in school. I picked it up on my own. Just the way I learned about the ME-262 on my own, which if the Germans had got into the air in time would have cleaned the skies of every Allied aircraft.

That wandering around outside when I was a kid was one of the best times I had at that age. It was play, but it was the best kind of play—completely absorbing. Play isn't necessarily "fun," but when it is true play it absorbs you. And sometimes it astonishes you.

For example, once at the lake I took a bamboo pole (guess where I got that from), tied a string to it, put a piece of bread dough on the end, and lowered it into the lake. When I bought it up there was a crawdad on the end on it, munching on the bread. I clearly remember the feeling of surprise. It was more like awe, so much so I put the crawdad back into the lake.

I was also in awe of the snakes. I didn't know some snakes could swim. What the hell—snakes that could swim? Would they chase me in the water? Thank God they couldn't fly. It'd be like something out of H.P. Lovecraft.

Our generic name for the swimming snakes was "water moccasins." Then there were the cottonmouths, which when they opened their mouths (probably to swallow a frog, which I have personally seen) the insides of their mouths were white. I operated on the assumption they were all poisonous, although I knew the garter and ribbon snakes weren't.

I didn't bother the snapping turtles either, which were so large they appeared to be able to take off a finger. They were bigger than a dinner plate and armored like dinosaurs.

One thing I wished I had at the time was a mentor, some grandfatherly figure (the kind with a walking stick) who would have gone for walks with me and explained things to me. I would have sucked it up like a sponge.

But I didn't have such a mentor. I have met people who told me their grandfathers used to take them for walks and explain things to them. I was a little envious.

So, when my nephews were little I used to take them for walks in the woods and show them things. ("What are those big fuzzy balls in the trees, Uncle Bob?" "They're full of caterpillars, which turn into moths." "Really?" "If you think that's something, look at his spider on the ground dragging this dead moth." "Wow!")

I wasn't honest with them all the time, I'll admit. To this day they still remember about my swearing dragons lived in the woods. And they believed it, too, which I knew they would. When you're five you'll believe just about anything.

Even as a kid I doubted all kids were like me. In fact I seemed a pretty rare kid (people considered me strange). But I was always puzzled that not one teacher figured me out. That was their job, wasn't it? Or did they expect a ten-year-old to figure everything out on his own?

Is this what happens to teachers who spend years trying to teach 25 kids in a classroom? They just don't have the time and energy to pay attention to every kid? It's why I think every kid needs a mentor, to pay one-on-one attention.

I have for years thought the best way to teach a kid is for the teacher to sit on one end of a log and the student on the other. Then, if he makes a terrible mistake, you can just catapult him into the nearest lake.

I am reminded of a scene in the movie, Meatballs. Bill Murray is playing cards with Chris Makepeace (they're playing for peanuts) and it's hysterical, since Makepeace ends up winning all of Murray's peanuts and Murray pretends to be outraged. But Murray is the mentor and Makepeace (who appeared to be about 12) is the student.

I've always done better on my own. In college I had no intention of taking any economics classes (spend money for destructive Keynesian nonsense?), so I took proficiency exams for both Introduction to Macro and Micro. I got an A and a B. The dean of the department came out and shook my hand, saying what I had done was almost impossible.

I didn't tell him it wasn't all that hard. I was just motivated by the thought of not spending two semesters in agony while taking those classes. I also took proficiency exams for English 101, for that matter (I got a "Pass" on that one).

I would have preferred taking proficiency exams for about three-quarters of my degree, only they weren't offered. I'm more of an autodidact than anything else—a word, by the way, I learned not in school but from the dictionary.

Some people are made for sitting in class. I was never one of them. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with exceptionally high intelligence. Some guys should be taught to be car mechanics at the age of 12. "School" is mostly a waste for them.

I could never focus in class. These days, I would have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder without Hyperactivity (a fancy pseudo-scientific term for "daydreaming"). The administration would probably try to give me psychiatric drugs (I can't call them "medication").

Outside of class I could focus, when I was allowed to do what I wanted to do—and it was easy. How can anyone focus being forced to sit in a chair for several hours a day? No wonder the high school drop-out rate is 50%.

What does it take 12 years to learn in public school anyway? After I learned to read, write and do arithmetic I don't think I learned one more thing. For all practical purposes I could have dropped out of school after the 4th grade.

I won't go so far as Ray Bradbury and claim there should be no schools at all and kids should educate themselves, but I do understand his point and can sympathize with it. It couldn't be any worse than people spending years grinding away getting doctorates in worthless subjects like Education or Sociology.

Here I will quote from Neil Stephenson's novel The Diamond Age about an exceptionally intelligent boy who would have never done well in public school and wasn't educated in one—at first:

"A typical school day for Finkle-McGraw consisted of walking down to a river to study tadpoles or going to the public library to check out a book on ancient Greece or Rome." And when he finally made it into a public high school: "The coursework was so stunningly inane, the other children so dull, that Finkle-McGraw developed a poor attitude."

A poor attitude? What a surprise.

Kind of like I developed a poor attitude. I still have my report cards, which have comments on them about what a bad student I was and how I had such potential, which I never developed because I was daydreaming and not doing my schoolwork. It might have helped if they let me smoke cigars in class, which I started doing when I was 16.

No wonder parents are deserting the public schools in droves. They obviously have more smarts than the public school bureaucrats—who for the most part don't have any smarts at all. In fact, they remind me of the government assassin/drone/bureaucrat played by Arte Johnson in the movie The President's Analyst, who lives his life strictly by one code: "Rules are rules!"

When you don't break the "rules" there can be no progress. And when it comes to the State, the worst sin of all is to break the rules. Like daydreaming in class and not doing your homework.

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