On medieval peasants

I suggested a couple of days ago that a child who did not receive a broad and balanced curriculum might end up like a medieval peasant, with a stunted and restricted outlook on life. Predictably, a number of people were quick to assure me that medieval peasants were a lot sharper than I seemed to think and that they were real whizzes at growing their own organic vegetables. I should have expected this. These types are rather like the pre-Raphaelites, harking back to a simpler and less complicated lifestyle in which children were unencumbered by too much book learning. This is quite a strong theme among some British home educators; the Guardian reading, sandals wearing, organic food and no vaccinations brigade.

Perhaps I did not make my meaning clear enough though and the fault may be mine. My reference to medieval peasants was meant to convey that this class had little opportunity for exploring elevated ideas; art, literature, science and culture. They had enough on their plates averting starvation and very little time to sit down in the evenings and read Chaucer. Their everyday life occupied them fully and they had neither time nor money to explore anything else. This is the risk that I see when parents talk about education being part of everyday life. Instead of actually trying to introduce their children to the wonders of mathematics and high culture, ancient history and quantum theory, they might rely upon what their child knows and encounters every day. History will consist of looking at pictures in the family album. Geography will entail learning about the streets around his house, mathematics will be learnt during shopping trips.

For many of us, the role and purpose of educating children is to show them something beyond their ordinary lives, ideas which they might not come across in the local shops or while looking at their family history. This is why I compared such a lifestyle to that of a medieval peasant; the horribly stunted horizons of this lifestyle are uncannily similar. It is all very well saying that little Timmy will learn about maths while shopping with his mother, but unless somebody takes the trouble to show him things like calculus or Algebra, he may well grow up thinking that mathematics consists only of arithmetic. This is not very exciting or stimulating and the child's view of the subject has been artificially limited, to the great detriment of his future development. The same happens when history is taught through the family photograph album. In this way, even the most fascinating topic can be made humdrum and dull for the child.