In the first part of this series I wrote about the Hidden Cost of School in the Philippines. Adding all the hidden costs of school in Payatas (the slum I live in) it’s about P15,000/year to have any chance of success. For the average family of five making P7,500/month (just below the poverty line), then, this means half of their income must be spent on their kids’ “free” education.
In this second article I want to move from the hidden cost of school to the hidden purpose of school. Let me first be clear in what I mean by saying school is not a human right but a prison, then, as universal education is being tied to ‘human rights’, it’s a Millenium Development Goal, and many NGOs focus entirely on education. There are a lot of good people with good intentions leading this fight, however we need to be VERY careful about what we’re fighting for because if we don’t define what we mean by Education and by School we can so easily become part of the problem, for they are very different things.
The Psychopathic School
For newcomers to this topic there is a huge number of people who have shown how school is a prison, many of them teachers. People like John Taylor Gatto, Ivan Illich, Paolo Frere, John Holt, AS Neill, Leo Tolstoy, George Dennison, and more have written countless books about how the real purpose of school and why it was designed that way. Let me also define what I mean by school here, as the institution we are compelled to go to by law to learn. There are many alternatives and good schools which don’t fall into the same category as what I describe below, or are much better. However the vast majority, especially public schools, do and the alternatives tend to be highly discouraged by the education system. This also doesn’t include colleges and Universities, as we don’t have to go there, it’s a choice, whatever the methods employed.
In Dumbing Us Down, John Gatto writes about how school, well, dumbs us down. It’s quite self-explanatory really. In one chapter he writes about ‘The Psychopathic School’. Compulsory education means you are forced to go, you cannot leave the premises during the 8 hours in school, you are told by a further authority what to do during those hours, what to learn and how to learn it. Any objection, any speech or protest, is met with sanctions and detention. Even going to the bathroom requires permission (and often a hall pass).
So, where we are, what we do, what we think, what we say, what we wear, who we’re with, and increasingly what we eat is controlled. Any objection, however slight, is met with instant disdain, shaming, and further restrictions on time (detention). For a more personal feel of what that feels like again, check out this article by a teacher which went viral as she shadowed a couple of students for two days. For an interesting read from a more psychological perspective you can check the Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education also, for more about the effects of this psychologically.
What other institutions follow this same strategy? The only other places where you have no choice in attending, in the rules, the place, what you wear, and where you have to ask permission to go to the bathroom are prison and mental homes.
A Brief History of School
Just like prison and mental institutions, one of the biggest reasons school continues in its current form is that we think we’re doing this for their own good. Kids will need to learn this stuff if they’re to succeed in the world right? Kids will need to develop the right character and listen to the teacher because one day they’ll be listening to their boss?
In a large way that’s why compulsory education was invented – so the transition between obedience from the teacher to the boss would be easier. The biggest businesses and wealthiest families led the charge for forcing children into classrooms because they stood to gain the most. Check out John Taylor Gatto’s An Underground History of Education for more on that. Sir Ken Robinson talks about how the original purpose of school was to produce factory workers, not as a place of leaning, in a well-known TED talk here.
Now, the biggest employers in the USA are Walmart, McDonald’s, and Burger King. The system has had a facelift, but the framework is the same; producing uncritical, obedient workers for production lines.
To those who haven’t read about education philosophy and history before it sounds conspiratorial, but school as an institution became popular in the 19th century. This is a time of colonialism, a time when women were still largely considered property, and where only the richest men could vote. This is a time right before the USA embarked on eugenics, secretly sterilising their ‘undesirables’ so they couldn’t reproduce. This is the context for compulsory education because it was never about providing an opportunity; it was about the elite serving their own interests.
Universal compulsory education really took root from the Prussian model. In 1763 they declared all children until 13 or 14 years old must attend school to be educated in Christian ways, forming a universal curriculum. From the outset it was unapologetically about propaganda – convincing their children to blindly follow certain ideologies – and the duration has only increased since.
Other countries began copying this model and over the next century most of Europe had a compulsory education system. In the USA, Massachusetts was the first State to adopt compulsory education in 1852 and the last was Mississippi 1918 – fun side-note, Mississippi only officially outlawed slavery in 2013.
In Britain compulsory education came relatively late on – the Elementary Education act of 1880 forced kids to go to Primary School from 5-10 years old. It may be surprising that this comes after Britain’s rise through the Industrial Revolution, you would expect education to lead to the innovations they had, but despite other countries in Europe having a wider education system Britain produced the best inventors at the time precisely because it allowed creativity. As with Ken Robinson’s talk the system was about producing the right kind of citizen to fit into a rapidly growing nation, turning citizens into consumers (check out Edward Bernays for a fascinating look at this).
It’s For Their Own Good, Right?
There is no denying the overlap of methods in schools, prisons, and mental homes but you may still believe that it’s for their own good. It’s a big world and we have to prepare our kids for it. Well that’s exactly the reason I’m writing this; compulsory education is actually making us worse off.
As with Illich, Neill, Holt, Dennison, and others, it’s long been known that children learn to read and write naturally if given the freedom to, much like kids learn to walk and talk. Instead, the effect of The Psychopathic School has been to reduce literacy, as Gatto notes in Weapons of Mass Instruction, where he notes that to enter the US Army you need to read at a Grade Four level. In WWII the soldier’s literacy rate was 96%, in 1950 81% and by the 1970s this fell to 73%. This wasn’t an issue of increased participation of marginalised sectors, either. When you isolate racial factors you see that illiteracy doubled for blacks and quadrupled for whites.
See school kills that natural curiosity because whatever questions you have, whatever interests you have, are pushed aside for the National Curriculum. You can longer learn what you want to, you have to study what some faceless bureaucrats decided was best, and how they say too. Try asking a question in class not related to the ‘lesson’, you’re told to shut up. Try standing up in class just to move about naturally, you get shouted at again. That’s what I meant by the lack of freedom of speech, that school actively discourages certain human rights. Many children have such an enthusiasm when they first go to school, it’s not surprising then by the time they reach High School they’re apathetic, lazy, they “need to apply themselves”. It’s not that they’re actually lazy, it’s that they’re tired of being told what to do all the time, of having not a single choice throughout most of the day – even having to do homework when they can finally leave the building.
I’ve restricted myself to talking about the philosophy and overall purpose behind compulsory education rather than talking about its effectiveness and more practical elements. Part of the reason is that the ineffectiveness of modern schooling has been known for decades (centuries in all probability). Finland regularly tops the world charts for education, yet there is no Pre-School and little if any homework is done. Studies have previously shown homework does not improve grades, it is to extend the authority of school. Rote learning is based on memory and has nothing to do with intelligence, yet despite largely using rote methods no memory techniques are ever taught, though many brilliant and easy techniques exist to build a great memory. Anyone skilled in these techniques shoots to the top of the class. This is why Daniel Goleman, among others, writes much in Focus about how self-direction is a better indicator of future success (however defined) than grades and IQ. The problem is that school actively destroys self-direction; you have no choice in school. Those anonymous bureaucrats aren’t interested in your success, or your child’s success, because potentially that’s a threat to the system. And all of this is why Universities more and more are turning away from grades when admitting students – they don’t indicate competence in the student.
To conclude this point, the ineffective nature of school is why George Dennison, and others who ran alternative schools or research the effectiveness of education, say that a 12 year old child who has never been to school can learn everything from Elementary School in about 4 months. Imagine how much time and unnecessary frustration we could have saved.
What Can We Do?
This, of course, will all sound very negative to many of us, not least to teachers. If school is a prison than teachers are in effect prison guards. Many teachers will already know and understand what I’ve written and see their job as doing the best they can within the system. My Dad and Uncle were teachers, my brother-in-law is, and I’ve done some classroom style teaching myself (outside of coaching).
Others may be angry right now and say I’m criticising them and their profession. I hope I can show the opposite. The problem is not teachers, the problem is the system. Teachers, in the modern sense, also have little choice. Teachers cannot choose what to teach, how they will teach it, or where. My hope isn’t that we get rid of schools and therefore get rid of teachers; my hope is that we get revolutionise schools so that we can free teachers. If teachers and Headmasters were really free to arrange the school as they wanted, they’d be much happier places teaching far more effectively.
And this is the reason why I’m writing, to advocate for students choosing what, how, and where they study, and teachers choosing what, how, and where they want to teach. It’s not just cheaper and more effective, it’s also a much happier and more fulfilling environment.
If it sounds impossible just consider that it’s been done by so many before. Many of the key education philosophers I’ve mentioned typically founded their own alternative schools and showed how much more effective and how much happier their schools were. Many of those had taught in traditional education for some time and no doubt many of our current teachers and headmasters can do the same. There are democratic schools (where students choose what to study and students choose the school rules) in over 30 countries, homeschooling is becoming a far more popular choice, and parents are banding together to found mini-schools.
So this is the basis of the revolution in education: choice, freedom. You learn best when you decide to learn, when you choose to learn. Teachers teach best when they have freedom and choice too. This is the basis of what we hope to achieve in our education programs at the Fairplay for All Foundation, too, as if what we really want from our education system is to encourage learning, creativity, and self-drive, then we need a revolution in education.