The Good Life – The Mythology of Back to the Basics

In The Good Life, Janice’s focus is on the little details that mean so much, and her keen observations illuminate truths we often miss. This article originally appeared January 12, 2007, in issue 1502.

A friend of ours, a school teacher, informs us that in recent years there has been what amounts to a minor exodus of students away from the public school system in favour of private schools. Sometimes, this move is initiated for religious or other valid and well thought out reasons. Often, however, the reason for this migration involves a sort of misguided nostalgia. The belief is that private schools, with uniform requirements, adherence to a stricter academic curriculum more focused on basics such as grammar and arithmetic, and a higher emphasis on respect for authority, are somehow better able to prepare our young for the supposedly grim realities of life. Somehow we have come to believe, as a society, that we should return to some mythological golden age, when children were sheltered inside a bubble of rigid discipline and encouraged to cast off frivolity as they prepared to enter the working world.

The public school system is not immune to this sort of backward-looking thinking. Over the years, we have seen schools place more and more emphasis and funding on subject areas such as math, science, and computer science, whilst funding for other educational areas, such as fine arts, music, drama, and physical education has been steadily reduced. The thinking is, I suppose, that math and computers are serious business. Mastering these subject areas will help our young people become successful citizens and contribute to our country’s economic success.

I’m not sure whether this sort of thinking has any merit. By hammering our kids over the heads with math texts are we really going to create more productive citizens? More importantly, though, I think this emphasis on getting back to the basics betrays an essential sickness at the root of our society. We have somehow convinced ourselves that exposing our children to art, music, food, theatre, physical education, and poetry is all very well, but not truly essential. If it is necessary to make a choice, it is those luxury programs that will be first to get the axe.

It has often amazed me that we spend so much time teaching our children the things that we think they will need to know later in life. We are obsessed with teaching them grammar and math, and developing their accounting and computer skills. If they don’t show aptitude in those areas, we panic that they will come to some sort of a terrible end.

But in truth, technology is becoming more and more user-friendly every year. Think about grammar-checking and spell-checking computer applications, for instance. On the other hand, we spend relatively little time and energy teaching children to enjoy the pleasures of going for a walk in the woods; creating a piece of sculpture or music; preparing and enjoying a healthy, delicious meal; or simply enjoying the company of others. In reality, it is those things that we seem to value so little that are the best and most important things in life. Without them, we become only lifeless drones, shackled to computer desks. Is this the sort of future success we want for our children?

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