A Critique of Education

In “The Prophylaxis of Insanity” by Mary Putnam Jacobi (originally published in 1881), she critiques education. The critique comes within a discussion of people who don’t learn well, which is, according to her, a major cause of insanity.

In minds predisposed to insanity there is often, perhaps always, a marked deficiency of elasticity. An impression sinks and remains; the mind cannot disengage itself or recover its tone; it cannot pass quickly enough into the contrasting mood… This capacity should, therefore, be carefully cultivated by encouraging alternations of attention at the first sign of fatigue. The contrary practice of forcing an immature mind to continued attention while under the influence of fatigue, instead of teaching it how to quickly change, is the habit of commonplace education. Injurious to all, it is especially so to persons predisposed of depressing forms of insanity. It exhausts still further the elasticity in which they are naturally deficient. (193)

from Essays on Hysteria, Brain-tumor, and Some Other Cases of Nervous Disease.

So when our students are tired of one topic, we should lead them to another? This seems to be the problem with shortened attention spans. Students must get all their lessons in “one minute lectures” and five minute writing assignments.

It seems to me that, rather, we need to have our students exercise their ability to do something for a sustained amount of time.

Perhaps I could add that to the freshman comp classes. Freewriting, which starts for a minute, then moves up to five or ten or even fifty minutes.