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The Role of Education

Over dinner with a friend yesterday, I mentioned by way of conversation that Rockland Middle School eighth graders are getting Social Studies credit by rowing once a week with Station Maine. My friend went silent for a moment, far too polite to nay-say this project, far too open minded to reject it, yet troubled. Finally he agreed that of course Social Studies could be taught on the water. He proceeded to lecture me on all the important things I must teach the kids. About how the first ship built in America was built on Small Point in Maine in 1605. About Red Jacket’s record breaking Atlantic crossing. Of limestone and granite and Basques and Indians.

I listened politely. All history interests me. But what amused me most was my liberal minded friend’s instant need to slot “historical facts” as the study of Social Studies. What a leap of perception we are asking our community to make with Station Maine. We are asking them to re-define education, Social Studies, and learning. We are asking them to un-learn everything they think they know about education, or at least schooling, and look at the world with fresh eyes. The education of the eighth grade is easy, now that they’re in the boat. The education of the community will be so much more challenging.

So, what have these kids learned this first week? And how much of it is relevant? They have learned the bow, the stern, port and starboard. The oars have blades, shafts, and looms and are manipulated between thole pins. They learned that it is to their advantage to follow their stroke oar and to obey the commands of the coxswain, and that rules on a boat, like the stricture against chewing gum, are there for very good reasons.

John learned to leave his pugnacious attitude on shore so that he could pull for the crew. He succeeded where I believe he rarely has in school. Greg learned how good it feels to pull the stroke together and be depended on to take us to the dock. Kayla learned courage. Real courage that comes from being genuinely afraid of not insignificant wind and waves, yet pulling your oar anyway because the crew needs you. Lee learned courage in jumping from a dancing boat to the dock with a line because somebody had to do it. This is not insignificant. Aillie does not swim. Josh learned that you smell like salt when you get off the boat. Andy learned to focus on making proper clockwise circles with his hands to make his oar pull in the right direction.

We learned that seals really do sun themselves on Seal Ledge and the purpose of the day marker there. That cormorants swim as well as fly. That most of the young sea gulls don’t survive the winter. That sea spray tastes salty and those whips of clouds are the sign of a front coming through.

Their social studies lesson for this week lay probably in the knowledge that our ancestors lived in a very real, vital, physical world for which we softies of the 21st century are not conditioned or prepared. And that they have this year, once a week, to grow themselves to the standards of the people who settled this coast.

I wonder if these lessons aren’t somehow more important than dates and facts of history. I wonder if we can teach our community the value of these unmeasurables that now stand once a week as social studies for the yellow group of grade eight in Rockland District Middle School. I wonder if, while we open the minds of students who have not before enjoyed so much success, we can open the minds of our community as to the definition, role, and purpose of education.


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