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ACCOUNTABILITY FOR WHAT CHILDREN LEARN: An Essay from an Academic-Turned-Unschooling Mom
by JJ Ross, EdD

Maybe I need a regular alarm clock.

When I wake to news radio as is my custom, the golden-throated stories I hear in half-consciousness stay with me, imprinting my mood and thoughts. Yet the accurate details of which news is made -- facts my fully alert mind would have recorded and filed for recall -- escape me almost entirely. Thus I'm left with a sort of dj vu sense of the story, sure that I "know" but off-balance about how I know. (Could this be the way divine revelations are experienced, as beyond explanation or objective proof?)

In any case, as an academic, I've been embarrassed over less. Fortunately PDE is not a traditional academic setting!

It happened again, as I awoke this morning. Suddenly my mind was filled with stuttering orphans used for 1939 experiments, in the then-nascent science of speech pathology at some university in the Midwest -- Iowa? As I said, I was half-asleep -- and it turns out that the orphans weren't stutterers at all. They were purposely TOLD by the university they needed speech therapy to correct a tendency to stutter, given a few weeks of "sessions" to see if the bogus diagnosis and intervention could create stuttering rather than curing it, and subsequently were returned to their regular orphan lives with the only noted effect being a new hesitancy in their speech. (Itself a sign of stuttering, I mused, but then I wasn't really conscious.)

The news story continued. Some 50 years later, a journalist discovered the dusty thesis and tracked down a few of the now-elderly participants, who had never doubted what they'd been told as children by those university experts. This "educational experiment" had caused them to live their lives believing they had a scientific tendency toward communication problems, a diagnosis some say was destiny, making them hesitant and reclusive, removing some options, limiting their identity. But here's the truth, the journalist says -- it was all a lie in service of experimental research, says the journalist. You could have been a contender!

Lawsuits are pending.

The university named a building after the now-dead "father of speech pathology" who supervised the orphan stuttering studies. His protege, Mary Somebody (told you I was semiconscious, remember?) says she regrets that ethical standards in 1939 weren't what they could have been. There are some quirky legal points about sovereign immunity in place at that time in that state, whichever one it was but that's not the part that imprinted me for the day.

My own random-abstract take on it is not legal or even scientific, but educational. Power of Story. Humans are impressionable, especially children. Facts and ideas and judgments can enter a child's mind and lodge where they land, almost like radio news flowing into a brain whose daytime defenses are asleep. This educational research was high-minded, meant to help children generally with speech problems. Whether it contributed anything to that goal is debatable, but it did apparently harm, not help, the specific children it involved. Children who -- talk about Power of Story! -- literally had no chance for any form of parent-directed or parent-protected education, because they were orphans.

Where is the accountability for what was taught and learned in this "story?" The radio says orphans often were used by this university for such human experiments, precisely because there were no parents taking primary responsibility for the best interests of each specific child, as opposed to this generalized whatever-is-for-the-social- good-and-the-benefit-of-my-own-reputation approach to working with children.

I'm not sure how far working with children has come since 1939. It seems to my free-associating mind that there are similarities in this "story" to today's accountability frenzy, in which demonstrable harm to actual individual children is perhaps "regrettable" but only of secondary concern to the rankings and statistics and academic reputations of those arguing over how vast sums of taxpayer and grant money should be spent next -- all the while building university buildings and naming them after each other (never for the learner-subjects of their research, who make the educational "research" possible.)

My half-awake mind doesn't care about money or academic reputations, not even my own. It cares only about the two fully asleep little minds dreaming down the hall, the ones that will sleep until they wake with their own thoughts and their own songs forming, in their own time, no radio alarm, no clock alarm, no alarm at all. Each morning belongs to them and them alone, and my accountability as their mom is very clear in my mind, asleep OR awake. I am accountable to keep it this way. Period.




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JJ Ross is a homeschooler in Florida, contributes to NHEN and is the
Legislative and Education Resources Director for ParentDirectedEducation.org.

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