When Jagi Lamplighter approached me about this Fantastical Schools blog, I was both intrigued, and compelled to mention to her that I have a very unorthodox educational background. This in turn colors my writing: in Vulcan’s Kittens and it’s sequel God’s Wolfling, I write about an education for the young characters that I would have enjoyed. It would be very difficult, indeed, for me to write about a ‘normal’ education at a public school or a boarding school, because I’d have to do intensive research on both of them before I could write them accurately.
The story starts nearly forty years ago, before the homeschool movement had gained much, if any, momentum in the United States. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail, but in a thumbnail sketch, my parents wanted the best for their children. I came along first, followed by two sisters, one of whom was severely mentally handicapped. As a military family, uprooting every few months to a year was common… so Mom homeschooled us. That wasn’t all part of her decision, of course. She had serious concerns about the quality of ‘education’ public schools would offer us, so she decided that she’d handle it herself, and she did, carrying on even though it wasn’t strictly legal in some of the places we were stationed and lived during my childhood.
In my teen years, after I’d become a happy autodidact, she balked at my maths, and arranged for us to be enrolled in a small Christian school. How small? When I graduated I was the only graduating senior, followed a year later by my sister’s graduating class of two. So my approach to school is… a little different.
Frankly, I think that the best way for a child to learn is one-on-one. It’s not always possible, of course, but a combination of hands-on, limited rote lesson time, and inculcating a love of learning will usually yield good results. And I’ll probably come back to that later in the blog posts, because there are certainly things in ‘magic school’ books that make me want to beat my head against the wall as a mother and as a teacher. I have spent some time teaching my own children, and other’s children, and adults. I’ve been there, done that, and know that does not work, while that does.
Which brings me to my own writing. I tend to write about smart, motivated kids when I write for kids. It’s not a conscious desire to inspire the readers to themselves be smart and motivated, but that’s what I was like when I was a kid. I didn’t have to conform to the 8 hour school day, and learn how to be constantly bored as a result of that. I could pick up something, learn it, and go on to the next thing, if that took me an hour or a week. So that’s the characters I write. I also tend to write apprenticeships, be they formally committed to, or more informal mentorships. As a child gets past the poll parrot stage of rote memorization, being mentored by someone older and more experienced, either as a tutor or a master of some skill, is an excellent way to learn. At least in my opinion, but if you look back in history I believe I am borne out by the past.
The modern approach to education is to begin ‘school’ as soon as possible. Pre-school is trumpeted as the only way to guarantee success later in life. Children as young as three – barely out of diapers, and that only because most schools will not take a child in diapers – are sitting in a classroom for hours each day. We don’t see this much in the magical school books, for various reasons. Not, in most cases, because the authors regard this as a deplorable policy and a fantastic way to warp a child’s growth and development, as I do, but because most of the books are somehow set in the past. Fantasy as a genre tends to be either high medieval in setting, or as in the most familiar example of ‘magic school’ in Hogwarts, a somewhat-modern present but not quite as modern as present-day. Speaking of Harry Potter, it’s been a few years since I read the series (ironically, we were using the books for literacy education and I read them as an adult in order to create educational entertainment from them) but I seem to recall that Harry hadn’t really gone to school prior to Hogwarts, or perhaps it’s just that the books were not focused on his early years. Either way, the product of an abusive childhood is hardly someone we can consider healthy educationally speaking.
Also, a theme I see over and over in fantasy is that the magic-users do not come into possession of their magic powers early. This means that most of the fantastical schools we will be reviewing here will be more the equivalents of high schools and colleges. Frankly, I don’t blame the authors for this delayed-onset magical usage. I can imagine a toddler with ‘gifts’ but that’s a very messy and short story that ends badly for everyone. H’m, maybe if they had a dragonish babysitter – no! A dragon governess and tutor, to fit the magical school theme of our blog! Ok, I need to jot down some ideas now…