Educational Strengths & Weaknesses

Written for a college application essay:


When I think about my education so far, what comes first to mind is reading good books and talking about them with parents and friends, looking for some interesting point or meaning in them. Driving back from my college graduation at Northern Arizona University last December, after spending much of the trip talking about Wittgenstein, I remember my father reading, out loud, a 23-page essay on what it was like being a philosophy student of Dr. O K Bouwsma, and how patiently he would guide his classes through all the intellectual “fly bottles” of Philosophy; the elation of hearing for the first time, after so many “what is…” questions, “the meaning of a word is it’s use,” and then the disappointment of finding that that, also, is not a final answer, and so on. We read and talk a lot in my family, and especially since I was homeschooled for twelve years, I consider that to be the strongest part of my education so far.

The most glaring weaknesses are that I have had almost no mathematics past algebra, very little science, and my history and literature has been somewhat haphazard, because I have mostly studied whatever struck me as interesting at the time, leaving a lot of holes in my understanding. So, for instance, in  Jr. High, I enjoyed Sir Walter Scott and Victor Hugo, but ended up spending a goodly amount of time (hundreds of hours, actually), participating in a series of online book clubs and discussions, held together by  an interest in stories about talking warrior mice. Or, as a freshman in high school, I read the Iliad, the Aenead, some of St. Augustine’s Confessions, and perhaps a couple of other good books, because I happened to find them in our bookshelves, but then I spent the rest of my time making quilts, decorated leather wallets, and reading fantasy novels.


At sixteen I started taking classes at the local community college, mostly in art. Actually, I also took Latin, Sign Language, and all my general education. classes there as well, but most of my time and energy went into doing projects for the art classes. After two years I was one class shy of an Associates of Fine Art, while continuing, in the meantime, to work on a number of art and crafts projects through 4-H, in which I was very involved. The art classes were, for the most part, academically neutral: we learned how to draw portraits, buildings, and still lives, make pots, etch metal plates for printing, and so on, using college equipment. I suppose it could be argued that that time spent working on learning all the basic technical art skills detracted from my education, since I could have been learning more serious academic subjects instead, but I do not believe that to be the case. In addition to learning a trade that I can practice and teach, I believe it to be good that art is a fusion of both tactility and meaning, which can be approached from either direction, and still be able to make something of beauty and worth.


After completing an Associates degree from the junior college, I enrolled as an Art Education student at Northern Arizona University, where I was a full time student for two years before coming back to Tucson to complete a semester of student teaching at a catholic high school. My time in the College of Education was rather strange, partly because I am deeply ambivalent about schooling, and have been for some time. I have a strong interest in education, and believe it to be extremely important, but not necessarily in the form of public schools, which often seems irremediably confused. That probably has a lot to do with my homeschool background. But, of course, it’s easy enough to argue for, or at least explain, the system as it is, the standards as they are, and so on – the problem is, we never did. There are a number of irreducible difficulties with the system, which teachers often go to great lengths to make less problematic, without once exploring other options. So for three semesters I found myself walking about campus as if in a daze, with The Abolition of Man” in one hand and a stack of lesson plan rubrics in the other, saying to myself this does not bear thinking about, this does not bear thinking…  and worrying about internal dissonance until I was thoroughly sick of both Education and my own mind. I had good classes, of course; Psychology, Northern Renaissance and Baroque art history, and Argument analysis come to mind; but in Education classes themselves, even when I liked the professor – and I often did – the courses seemed traps set up to manipulate us into thinking about learning a certain way, but how we were to learn to think was always implied, never examined. So, being the sort of person who will always try to analyze things, whether or not I have the raw materials with which to do so, I would sit there in my dorm, disconsolately picking at rubrics, dispositional questionnaires, state content standards, educational theories, and assessment alignments, saying: this doesn’t make sense; this is not logical, I wish I knew on what first principles this was all built! It surely did not help that we were never asked to actually read any of the “educational theorists” who were so often mentioned in fleeting glimpses of the history of modern education, and I was too sick of it all to read them on my own (my fault, I know). I did read Rousseau (Emile), and found that in addition to being an excellent writer, he vehemently disagreed with the whole premise of modern education.


A year or so into the program I started trying desperately to find a new major (English or Philosophy), but the fact is, I like art, I like teaching, I wanted to be able to teach, and majoring in Education is the surest way of being able to find a job at a school, so I figured I might as well stick with it, even if many of my classes were academically useless. As an aside, I’m not saying that I was never taught, or even learned, useful information about practical classroom matters, only that, being by inclination and habit a chewer of intellectual grist, I wanted to learn about existing, coherent, philosophies of education, and instead I was simply told that it’s a personal matter, and to invent my own, after which all the practical advice in the world was like putting the proverbial band-aid on a broken arm.


At the same time I was struggling through all the angst and dissonance of education school, I was also studying as a catechumen in the Eastern Orthodox church, which had a mission right across the street from where I lived. I started going because of the prayers, and beautiful liturgics, which have never been updated as Catholic liturgics have, though the services have been translated into English. While those studies did not help me to be any more content with the degree I was pursuing, I did get to learn about and from a number of great Christian thinkers who are all but forgotten in the Protestant churches I grew up in, including St. John Chrystostom, St. John of the Ladder (the prototype for Kierkergaard’s Johanus Climacus?), St. Athenasius, and St. Basil the Great, study Christian history, and make friends with people who enjoyed discussing the same.


While my education so far has had a number of rough patches, and I have not sought out learning as systematically as I might have, I do believe that the freedom I enjoyed as a teenager and young woman have taught me to love good literature, rational thought, and the search for a more full understanding of the world. Because of my parents, church, and my own studies and interests, I believe that I have a foundation in reading and thinking upon which I will be able to build in the years ahead, as I further my education both on my own and under the guidance of others.


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