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

by Zander Sherman

There is a lot about school that is curious, as Zander Sherman outlines in his provocative examination of the history of formal education. Finnish students, for instance, consistently rank at or near the top of international proficiency measurements in literacy, mathematics, and science, even though the schools Finns attend have eschewed the global mania for standardized testing. And yet, for all the attention Finland’s success has garnered, educational institutions elsewhere haven’t stampeded to adopt the Finnish model, which, among other things, favours a relaxed approach to learning and fewer class hours than in North American schools. If anything, the rest of the world continues to march in the opposite direction.

Chief among the factors behind Finland’s pedagogical ascendancy, in Sherman’s view, is the cultivation of “lifelong learning,” with institutionalized schooling but one element in that holistic process. Sadly, the author repeatedly reminds the reader, unfettered learning was not the purpose for which schools were conceived.

Instead, compulsory education – introduced in the early 19th century as a way to give Prussian soldiers an edge over their Napoleonic adversaries – was then and remains today largely a means of indoc­trination and conformity. The various alter­natives on offer now – whether public or private, Montessori or Waldorf, or even home-schooling – have done little to shift that paradigm.

Sherman, a writer and editor who lives in Ontario’s Muskoka region, was home-schooled until the age of 13. Although he retains a bias for this approach, he complains that its growing popularity is motivated by parental desire to subject a child to an insular, often religious learning environment. The book also successfully gores several sacred cows, including standardized university entrance examinations (which have their origins in the eugenics movement) and the much ballyhooed rankings of Canadian universities in Maclean’s.

The Curiosity of School targets the general reader with a narrative that leans heavily on anecdotal, thumbnail biographies of influential (though usually not in a positive way) historical figures, including Canadian educational pioneers such as John Strachan and Egerton Ryerson.

Sherman also remains true to his goal of avoiding prescriptions. The guiding dynamic of true education, after all, is rooted in the stimulative quality of questions, not the definitive finality of answers.