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May 4, 2005 11:40 am

Education and Initiation

Two posts on education caught my eye last Monday. On HNN’s home page, there is a wonderful article by Tom Palaima on education and democracy. The discussion that has broken out there is also excellent. His key point is that the ancient Greek word translated as education means:
all that goes into making sure that a newborn baby will mature into an adult with the abilities of mind, moral sensibilities, self-discipline, habits, sense of cultural history and tradition, and intellectual skills that a member of a society should possess.
William Raspberry’s column the same day was another in a series of meditations on our society’s illnesses and the education of children. In this column, Raspberry used a 5-year old girl’s rampage caught on video tape to ask this question: “Can't we let this 5-year-old be our miner's canary -- a warning to us about the growing toxicity of our society?”

W. J. Rorabaugh in The Craft Apprentice lamented one consequence of the decline of apprenticeships in the antebellum United States. It was the role the system had played in both educating and socializing many young urban males. There was nothing to replace it, really, until the rise of high schools. So many were left to the education and initiation of the streets.

I can’t remember if Rorabaugh used this term, but the apprentice process served as a kind of initiation. Joseph Campbell in his many tomes thought long and hard about initiation rituals. In one of his books, Creative Mythology I think, he stated something that has long troubled me. He argued that the absence of clear social ritualized initiation does not mean there are no initiations. Instead, initiations come to individuals individually, randomly, kaleidoscopically.

A fistfight won or lost in fifth grade; a compliment from a teacher at precisely the right moment, a Victoria Secret’s commercial for a 13 year old male; a teenage girl teased about her body when she is most in need of grace. A date rape and the scar of secrecy. The withering criticism that breaks self-confidence. A winning touchdown and being carried off on the shoulders of one’s friends. The first kiss that really means something.

Bit by bit, blessing by blessing, blow by blow we are initiated. Some of that is inevitable, I suppose. No rite of passage excludes all other defining moment. But rites that cap a central learning process do provide a center and a direction in life.

Are there no official rites of passage into adulthood today? For some, either confirmation into a religion or graduation from high school can be a positive rite of passage into adult choices. For some, various youth groups, Scouting for example, help. But I suspect that for most adolescents, a drivers’ license and the drinking age matter as much and maybe more than the other official rites.

I conclude with the five-year old again. Obviously she’s nowhere near adolescence, but she is in trouble. I hope she turns out magnificently. It is possible, but what would it take to provide her now with the “education” that Palaima describes.

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Sherman Jay Dorn - 5/4/2005

As Harvey Graff would point out in <cite>Conflicting Paths</cite> (along with many other historians of childhood), there's no easy conclusion one can make about changes to childhood in this century. In particular, we should be very wary of romanticizing the apprentice system in the early 19th century. It was less a carefully-crafted method of socializing children than a tool to spread out childrearing, and in this "system" we should include the informal apprenticeships (e.g., sending your daughter to keep house a few years for your neighbor or sister). Michael Katz points out (in one of the essays in <cite>Reconstructing Education</cite>) that social reformers in the 19th century lamented the decline of the family (in the same way that others do today) while the decline of apprentices as childrearing repertoire in fact <em>increased</em> children's time spent dependent on parents.

For a fascinating then-and-now look at children and their incorporation into the economy, I highly recommend Amherst historian Carl Nightingale's <cite>On the Edge</cite> (1995, I think).