I have arguments with my nine-year-old son about gnomes. They go more or less like my arguments with him about Santa Claus.
"They don't exist!" I tell him.
"They do too!" he tells me. "Don't mess with them! They'll get you!" Then he looks at me with wide eyes and tries not to start giggling.
Gnomes -- or, technically, earth-spirits -- are big at Waldorf schools, especially in early grades. My son knitted a super-cute one when he was in preschool. Now that he's in third grade at Urban Prairie Waldorf School, they've faded into the background behind arithmetic and Chinese and building models of wikiups and so forth. Still, I wouldn't be surprised if they came up occasionally. As Emily Chertoff noted last November, Rudolf Steiner, the founder of the Waldorf movement, was a moon-eyed German hippie whose philosophy was a mish-mash of Christianity, paganism, theosophy, various child development theories, and a passionate dislike of media (a friend of mine summed Waldorf up as "Gnomes good! Television bad!").
Urban Prairie does frequent outreach to teach parents more about Steiner's thought, and I just as frequently refuse to pay any attention, because ... well, gnomes. I don't want to hear about them, and, like my son, the Waldorf folks don't want to hear what I have to say about them. For that matter, I don't think they really want to hear what my son's pop-culture-critic dad has to say about television either -- though thankfully Urban Prairie's anti-media stance is quite low-key and non-intrusive.
No doubt some parents (or more likely, people who aren't parents) will find this mystifying. How can I entrust my child to a school that does not accord with my own religious and spiritual beliefs? How can I expose my boy to an ideology that I believe is largely nonsense? What, in short, is wrong with me?
In response I would say, first, that while I'm not on board with all of Waldorf philosophy, I am absolutely on board with parts of it -- and those, are I think, the most important parts. I would rather have my nine-year-old learn about gnomes, by a long shot, than spend his school days preparing for a multiple-choice test designed by some distant bureaucrat. I love that recess and flopping about in the mud in all weather and movement (that's Waldorf for "gym") are considered not discardable extras, but central parts of learning. And I really love that his gym teacher is not encouraging him -- as my public school gym teacher encouraged me -- to pick on the kids in the class who were weaker, or, in one case, on the kid who had to wear braces on his legs.
And there are plenty of other examples. I love the arts education -- my son, in third grade, can really and truly draw in a way that I still can't, because no one cared to teach me. I love that he knows how to knit. I love that his school took him on a camping trip where he learned to tap maple trees and went ice fishing. I love that when he gets sick, he cries because he can't go to school. I love that, if he is ever having any problem in class or with other students, I call his teacher, and the teacher listens carefully -- and then she fixes it.
Thus, on the one hand, I have a bright, kind, loving, cultured, energetic, active child who adores school and his classmate and his teachers. On the other hand, he sort of thinks gnomes exist. To me, that seems like a good bargain.
Part of the reason it seems like a good bargain is that I'm okay, in general, with my son learning things, or thinking things, that I don't think myself. After all, surely part of the point of education -- or for that matter, the point of leaving the house -- is to find out about things you wouldn't necessarily find out about at home. That can mean gnomes. It can mean ice fishing. It can mean knitting. It can even mean discovering that there are adults who will bully the weak if they can -- though, obviously, while that knowledge may be valuable, there are other reasons for wanting to put your child beyond the reach of such people as quickly as you can.
I don't think I'm unique or anything; there are a lot of parents who are perfectly happy to have their kids learn from people who are not exactly like them. The Jewish Community Center camp my son went too, where they taught Hebrew prayers and had Sabbath celebrations, was filled with African-American kids -- some of whom may have been Jewish themselves, but many of whom surely weren't. And not all students in Catholic schools are Catholic by a long shot.
At the same time, though, there's also this ethos in the U.S. that seems to judge the quality of education on the basis of whether it keeps students from learning anything that their parents don't want them to learn. The Chicago school board issues warnings about adult content in Persepolis; religious believers battle with atheists over the way evolution is taught in schools. Content is important, of course, and if my son's school were teaching Intelligent Design, I'd want to ask some questions. But to have evolution be so important to all sides in the light of everything else that is wrong with our schools is depressing. Is this really how we should judge education? As a list of topics? And what exactly do we gain by treating schools as if their main goal is to prevent our children from learning stuff?
Rather than focusing on topics covered, it seems to me, it would be healthier to look at whether a school is committed to learning, and committed to its students both as learners and as human beings -- rather, than, say, as disciplinary problems or as potential test scores.
I don't agree with Waldorf about everything, but I agree with it about the main things. My son will grow out of gnomes. And if he doesn't -- well, I didn't send him to school so that he'd end up agreeing with me about everything, anyway.