DISAPPOINTING is one adjective that eventually comes to mind for this curiosity about the education system.
A cursory glance could give the impression that a Canadian freelance writer, one Zander Sherman from Muskoka, Ont., has sprung upon us a major contribution to the literature on education.
Reaching such a conclusion would surely be an exaggeration in assessing Sherman's purpose for this mixed bag of assertions, trivia and loosely connected facts and anecdotes.
What does Sherman expect the reader to do with statements like the following: "My intention is to simply present (split infinitive) the story of school, and let you take away what you want"?
The reader will find the story of school runs the gamut from the influence virtually everywhere of the Prussian model on school practice to the success of Mount Allison University.
Interested in the free school theories of John Holt or of A.S. Neill? Want to know about the nasty development of IQ tests? The role of Mussolini in Italian education?
Sherman praises home-schooling and declares that he was educated thus for eight years. Interestingly, he makes a point of naming other "illustrious alumni" of home-schooling. Gandhi, Mark Twain, Woodrow Wilson, Charlie Chaplin, Einstein and Malcolm X are among them.
Furthermore, Sherman notes that home-schooling has become a growing phenomenon in the 21st century. He quotes one historian (not named, of course) as observing, "By the 21st century, home-schooling was becoming 'cool.'"
Sherman does admit to spending time in an elementary school, and takes pride in having challenged the principal of his high school. Sherman's main accomplishment there was writing and distributing a pamphlet he called The Anarchist. His message from this episode: perhaps that creative results come from students given freedom and power within the school system.
Historical bits emerge, however, and Sherman's anecdotes about schools in centuries gone by are diverting. Actually, the story (the word he uses to label his account) moves immediately to universities.
He reports on the horrific treatment of students entering places like the University of Leipzig. Having passed gruelling entrance tests, students were "bound, gagged and whipped until they bled."
What is the relevance of such tales? This question recurs again and again. A pioneer U.S. educator named Holmes Beckwith is noted for his work on a doctorate but he was suspected of attending socialist meetings. Yet the significance of his so doing is not mentioned.
What is mentioned is the fact that Beckwith fired a handgun in the office of a dean at Syracuse University. Not said is whether he hit anyone -- before he turned the gun on himself, successfully presumably.
Ultimately the many weaknesses wear on one's patience: the flatness and awkwardness of the style and the random, disconnected pieces of information, the throwaway lines.
The Curiosity of School concludes predictably. Sherman quotes a conversation in which he is interviewed briefly.
"Asked where he had studied, he replied by saying he had been home-schooled, 'apart from a few years in school.'
"The questioner cheers the response, 'I think it's simply wonderful and amazing that you are doing this,' meaning the book you've just finished reading.... (that is, the reader). It speaks well about your home-schooling.
'What it really gave me is an insatiable curiosity,' I told him.
"'Well that's just grand,' he said.
"And we left it at that."
And so will we.
Winnipeg writer Ron Kirbyson has taught and supervised in schools from kindergarten to graduate school for many decades.