Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what?
Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale, because two million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln?
Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school system, and not one of them was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. Throughout most of American history, kids generally didn’t go to high school, yet the unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut; inventors, like Edison; captains of industry like Carnegie and Rockefeller; writers, like Melville and Twain and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead. In fact, until pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all.
We have been taught (that is, schooled) in this country to think of “success” as synonymous with, or at least dependent upon, “schooling,” but historically that isn’t true in either an intellectual or a financial sense. And plenty of people throughout the world today find a way to educate themselves without resorting to a system of compulsory secondary schools that all too often resemble prisons. Why, then, do Americans confuse education with just such a system? What exactly is the purpose of our public schools?
With manufacturing jobs a sliver of what they once were, and field-level farming jobs largely stocked with immigrant labor, the coming generation of middle-class and working-class Americans needs not strong backs but educated minds. The titans and geniuses, the Warren Buffetts and Mark Zuckerbergs, will still propel themselves from privilege to power. What we need are people to work behind the counter at Southwest, to keep a million offices purring efficiently, to oil the machinery of civil service. A blue-collar economy is yesterday; a white-collar one is today and tomorrow. America can’t exist on muscle anymore.
Americans also can’t afford the fantasy that we have the world’s best educational system. The U.S. is near the bottom of advanced countries in math and reading scores. We may not pass sleepless nights worrying about Finland, but that country’s kids get a world-class public-school education, and ours don’t.
Our problems are bigger and more systemic: that, in the world’s richest nation, a seventh of our citizens live in poverty; that the majority of African Americans form a near perpetual underclass; that the nuclear family has detonated into pieces, leaving many children with only one parent, if that, to love, instruct and keep an eye on them; that the culture of instant gratification convinces kids that studying is a bore, while the infinitesimal chance of making millions as a pro athlete or a rap star is worth pursuing. Surely the young deserve full-time parents, more realistic goals and inspiring teachers.
But maybe that too is a fantasy.
The evidence is clear. The function of public education was (and is) to turn out compliant workers. Not educated voters, not passionate idea makers. No, we spend all this money on school taxes to be sure that there will be enough people to do all the work that the factories once needed.
The mission: to teach you that you’re average; That compliant work is the best way to a reliable living; That creating average stuff for average people, again and again, is a safe and easy way to get what you want.
Step out of line and the system would nudge (or push) you back to the center. Show signs of real creativity, originality or even genius, and well-meaning parents, teachers and authority figures would eagerly line up to get you back in line.
Our culture needed compliant workers, people who would contribute without complaint, and we set out to create as many of them as we could. And, so generations of students turned into generations of cogs—factory workers in search
of a sinecure. We were brainwashed into fitting in, and then discovered that the economy wanted people who stood out instead.
We were brainwashed. Brainwashed into believing a set of rules that aren’t true (any more). And because the brainwashing has been so complete, the shifts in our world and new opportunities they open up are easy to see as ways to shore up yesterday’s faltering system. Please, don’t fall for that. Don’t use the tools of today to support your effort to do yesterday’s job better.
This is an opportunity to completely reinvent the system.
Sometimes, American people don’t believe it when it’s said that public education is a failure. Even if they grant that “other schools” may be in trouble, they insist that “our schools” are all right.
They say, ‘There’s nothing wrong that money can’t fix.” But reformers argue that you could give the public schools all the money in America, and it wouldn’t be enough. As an example, 2 billion was spent on gaudy “improvements at a Kansas City school district ” — indoor pool, indoor track, weight rooms, computer labs, and so on. The kids’ scores got worse not better and those schools lost their accreditation.
The money makes no difference because public education is a government monopoly — immune to competition and under no pressure whatsoever to improve.
The money for education should be attached to the kids, not the schools, and parents should have full choice. So if the schools are not good, they’re gone.
So, why should we keep kids in a school that’s not working?
Exceptional teachers, the ones who make a difference, are not only rare, but they’re almost always in trouble for bending the rules and not optimizing for the standardized tests.
What are the results? Only a few children in school ever become good at learning in the way we try to make them learn. Most of them get humiliated, frightened, and discouraged. They use their minds, not to learn, but to get out of doing the things we tell them to do- to make them learn. In the short run these strategies seem to work. They make it possible for many children to get through their schooling een though they learn very little.
In the long run, these strategies are self-limiting and self-defeating and destroy both character and intelligence. Then children who use such strategies are prevented by them from growing into more than limited versions of the human beings they might have become. This is the real failure that takes place in school; hardly any children escape!
School used to exist to learn a trade. You apprenticed, and then you worked the rest of your life in the same job, in the same town, in the same factory, doing the same work.
Ha. Dream on.
Only lighthouse operators have that “luxury” today, and when was the last time you met a lighthouse operator?
To bring the school-as-event mindset to work today is to court certain failure. School isn’t over. School is now. School is blogs and experiments and experiences.
Now, more than ever, we need a different way of thinking, a useful way to focus and the energy to turn the game around.
It’s going to be a long, long time before we can make everyone on earth wealthy, but we can help people find dignity this year (right now if we choose to). Dignity is more important than wealth. Dignity comes from creating your own destiny and from the respect you get from your family, your peers and society.
It’s easy to take dignity away from someone but difficult to give it to them.
When we better understand the ways, conditions, and spirit in which children do their best learning, and are able to make school into a place where they can use and improve the style of thinking and learning natural to them, we may be able to precent much of this failure. School may then become a place in which all children grow, not just in size, not even in knowledge but in curiosity, courage, confidence, independence, resourcfulness, resilience, patience, competence, and understanding.
We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves.
If we are serious about transformation and I’m not talking about polishing yourself, improving yourself, making things a bit better. I’m talking about the reset button, a reinvention that changes the game. The path, though, is just that—a path; is to discard what you think you know and instead learn what you need to learn. Every single day.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
Thanks for reading. Please pass this on to someone who means something to you.