Review of The Curiosity of School: Education and the Dark Side of Enlightenment by

Book cover for The Curiosity of School: Education and the Dark Side of Enlightenment

I have wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. And now I am. This year has been one of reshaping and redefining my identity—I’m no longer preparing to be a teacher, because I am one. Suddenly I’m frequenting staff rooms, going to meetings, filling out reports, and enforcing rules. I’m plugged into this system that is much larger than I am; it’s a sprawling behemoth of cogs, levers, and twisted chains of cause and effect that has sunk its roots deep into society. I love being a teacher, and sometimes the system works for me and my students. Other times, though, I’ve been dissatisfied with, disheartened by, or disillusioned by the system and all its attendant goal posts, bureaucratic doublespeak, and cracks through which people can fall.

So I was interested in reading The Curiosity of School, in which Zander Sherman explores the origins of compulsory Western education in nineteenth-century Prussia and some of its most recent consequences, such as standardized testing. My teacher training did not actually include much in the way of a “history of education” course … the closest we came was an overview of some the peculiarities of education in Ontario in our Educational Law class. I feel that it’s rather important to understand why our schools are the way they are, and to question whether there are alternatives—but there’s no point in doing the latter unless you’re aware of what alternatives have already been considered and tried, and whether they did any good or not. There’s plenty I like about schools these days, but there is also a lot that should change.

The first chapter is an interesting recounting of how several powerful individuals imported the Prussian system of compulsory education into the United States (and then to Canada). In essence, this means that compulsory public education has its origins in the military-industrial complex. Oppression and colonialism have been a part of it from the beginning. Sherman discusses the establishment of residential schools in Canada and the United States, including the involvement of the founder of Ryerson University. This is merely one of the most notable examples of how compulsory education has been used to indoctrinate and assimilate; it is not the most recent. Though there were times, I admit, where the sheer oddness of the bigotry reflected in quotations throughout this book made me smile wryly, I’m aware that we are by no means perfect ourselves these days.

I really took note in the second chapter, “The Test, and What It’s On”. Sherman tracks the emergence of the American SATs (once known as Scholastic Aptitude Tests, but now strangely meaningless as an acronym) from the intelligence assessments and IQ tests of old. I was aware of the association of IQ tests with racism, but the extent of their ties to eugenics wasn’t clear (and I think that Canadian and American history downplays how prevalent eugenics was in society, on account of that whole uncomfortable Nazi thing). I didn’t know about the link between SATs and IQ tests, though.

Sherman uses the confusion and controversy over this link and the meaningless nature of the SAT’s name to question why it remains a standard for college admissions in the United States. The fast-paced evolution of digital technology has led to a rise in data-driven culture and this idea that both individuals and companies should want to track people’s habits, that more data is within our grasp than ever before. Sometimes we forget that some companies have already been doing this for a long time. In particular, he singles out one of the providers of the SAT, the Educational Testing Service, or ETS. I was interested to learn that ETS produces a staggering number of tests: “in practical terms, you cannot become a firefighter, police officer, marine, naval officer, soldier, librarian, travel agent, realtor, mechanic, golf instructor, barber, or beautician without taking an ETS test”. Now, that in itself might not be disturbing. What’s disturbing is that “factual errors went unchecked”, according to MIT professor Les Perelman. So not only does the United States employ a standardized test for college admissions, the test itself is meaningless as an indicator of intelligence or anything else.

My prior dislike of standardized testing is coming through strongly now, I suspect. So, perhaps it is no surprise that this chapter resonated with me; it’s nice to have some specific examples of why standardized testing, at least as it is currently implemented in the United States, doesn’t achieve the goals it’s supposed to achieve. Canada has its share of standardized tests too, though they are fewer and farther between.

The corruption of education by the interests of capitalism and corporations continues to be a theme throughout The Curiosity of School. Sherman returns to it in chapter 4: “The Corporate Equation“. He discusses how various prestigious universities make deals with corporations, such as pharmaceutical companies: in return for funding, the university signs over the patent rights to any inventions or breakthroughs from its labs. Sherman points out the problems this can cause for academic freedom, not to mention scientific bias. This chapter reminded me a lot of Selling Sickness, particularly the anecdote about Nancy Olivieri, who blew the whistle on drug trials being performed at the University of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and was fired for her troubles.

In the second half of the book, Sherman shifts from the history of Western education in general to analyzing aspects of education, from private schooling and other alternative models to the changing opinions of what education should do for students. He discusses Montessori and Waldorf schools, as well as just the more generic idea of private school, concluding that “private schools select privileged students and, with them, create privileged people”. Although I am intrigued by Montessori, Waldorf, homeschooling, and private schooling, my allegiance has always been to the ideal of public education. There is so much that is broken about our public system, but it rests upon the fundamental promise that education should be accessible to everyone. Elite, private institutions are an aberration, and while alternative regimes like Montessori are not necessarily inaccessible, clearly they haven’t become mainstream despite their presence throughout the world.

Sherman devotes some time to analyzing the Finnish model of education. According to the metrics he cites, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment, Finland’s students rank highly in every category, coming out first place in reading, math, and science. He then points out a correlation: the Finnish government pays for education from kindergarten to university; Finnish children start school later and can drop out earlier, if they choose; teachers are more respected and students also seem to receive more freedom and respect in return. Sherman is positively head-over-heels about the Finnish system—and, I can understand why. I’m a little envious of how supportive Scandinavian countries are of their teachers! (He also claims that Finland has no private schools. A quick glance at Wikipedia—with citations—shows that this is not correct, though private schools operate somewhat differently than they do elsewhere in the world.)

Nevertheless, I find this optimism about the possibility of adopting the system wholesale in countries like Canada and the United States rather unsophisticated. He laments that all it would take is a willingness to pay more taxes. Leaving aside the fact that, at least in the United States, that’s never going to fly, Finland benefits from a population of only 5.4 million people. Canada’s is 6 times that, and the United states is an order of magnitude larger still. The infrastructure alone doesn’t necessarily scale.

Still, Sherman has a point when he lauds the philosophy of lifelong learning present in Finland. I’d like to see that imported into Canada. It’s present in certain respects, but there is still an emphasis on “getting through” education and on “getting a degree” so that one can go out into the world. Even I fell into that trap, in the sense that I focused on obtaining exactly the credentials I require for teaching. I like to think that I am continuing to learn—as my occasional foray into meatier books like this might suggest—but I’m not exactly typical of my demographic….

Towards the end of the book, Sherman throws in a rather low blow when it comes to cultural literacy:

In the nineteenth century, popular books included Wuthering Heights, Sense and Sensibility, and The Picture of Dorian Gray. By the twenty-first, it was The Hunger Games, Twilight, and Harry Potter…. The fifteenth prime minister of Canada, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was a renown intellectual, poised extemporaneous speaker, and wide reader; its twenty-second prime minister, Stephen Harper, didn’t once respond to Yann Martel’s four-year-long campaign to get him to read a single book.

Firstly, Sherman isn’t telling the full story when he claims that a book like Wuthering Heights was the pinnacle of popularity: it had its ups and downs after its initial publication, and it was a controversial book for its time. It’s only now that it has become a classic, and hence a signpost of nineteenth-century literature. Secondly, I’m not going to argue that The Hunger Games or Twilight are better, in any way, than Wuthering Heights. but it’s disingenuous to suggest that the same books that were popular nearly two hundred years ago should be popular with the majority of society today. If that were the case, it would imply that our culture is changeless and stagnant. The fact that the majority of popular books of today aren’t of superior literary quality might be alarming, but it’s beside the point Sherman is failing to make here. Finally, I followed Yann Martel’s four-year project called “What is Stephen Harper Reading?”. It was an awesome stunt, but it was a stunt. Stephen Harper is a busy dude, what with running a country, and he doesn’t have time to read or even acknowledge personally every single book someone sends him. I don’t agree with many (or even most) of his actions and positions, particularly when it comes to how he and his party treat artists and the arts. Again, though, Sherman is being hyperbolic when he implies that this does not bode well for Harper’s reading. I’m sure Harper reads—I’m not sure what, maybe Twilight, but for all I know it’s Wuthering Heights. Curse you, Zander Sherman, for putting me in a position where I feel obligated to defend Stephen Harper!

Other interesting tidbits: in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one method of corporal punishment involved burning students with magnifying glasses, and another entailed threatening them with eternal damnation (somehow I don’t think that one would work so well these days).

The Curiosity of School is packed with interesting information and thoughtful discourse. In particular, I like how Sherman, as a Canadian, spends time discussing both American and Canadian education. Unfortunately, the book suffers from a lack of focus and no clear central thesis. In the epilogue, Sherman recounts a personal story that seems to champion his own homeschooling background. However, the rest of the book is far from a condemnation of public school and an endorsement of home school. It’s fair to say that The Curiosity of School does a good job illuminating certain aspects of compulsory education, including some that don’t get discussed much. I wish that Sherman had been able to construct a more unified narrative from his research.

Speaking of research, Sherman also declines to cite specific sources. In lieu of a traditional bibliography with proper endnotes, at the end of the book he provides a list of selected sources for each chapter, “so that others may re-create a similar picture should they wish”. This omission detracts from the book’s otherwise academic atmosphere. It relies a great deal on statistics and other specific information that really should be cited. Because he does not cite sources, it’s difficult to give credence to some of what Sherman says. Though I agree with many of his critiques of education, it’s difficult for me to point to specific facts that he mentions.

As a first-year teacher, I’m still struggling to find my new identity and find my way around education. It will be years, maybe even a decade, before I can start to understand how I can best serve my students—and that’s what education is for. It’s not a means to train soldiers, to build perfect workers. It’s a careful balancing act between inculcating individuality and cultivating civic virtues. It requires a strong, funded, confident system that nevertheless somehow manages to embrace creativity and lifelong learning. In many ways, that system is broken, and I wonder how successful I, as one fairly inexperienced teacher, can be in administering education under such a regime. But it’s too big a problem to do much about on my own. All I can do is keep teaching, keep learning, and contributing where I can.

So I enjoyed The Curiosity of School, if only because of how neatly it dovetails with a lot of the topics I am considering as they apply to my profession. I would still recommend it for non-teachers, particularly for anyone interested in education—which should be everyone! It doesn’t quite meet the standards of writing or research to make it awesome, but it presents a good mixture of history, philosophy, and argument to make it worthwhile and engaging.


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