Home > Education, World4Children > Crying for Superman, waiting for Mr. Anderson

Crying for Superman, waiting for Mr. Anderson

Image credit: Babble.com

Imagine your friends are doing research around the schools they consider for their kids and they ask for your advice. You decide to do a bit of digging yourself and soon you end up with this:

“It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.” — Albert Einstein, one of the most influential and best known scientists and intellectuals of all time

“I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays, and have things arranged for them, that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas.” — Agatha Christie, British writer, famous for her detective novels

“Drop out of school before your mind rots from exposure to our mundane educational system. Forget about the Senior Prom, go to the library and educate yourself if you’ve got any guts.” — Frank Zappa, American composer, electric guitarist, record producer, and film director

What advice would you give to them?

Curious as you are, you start to grow interest in the history of education: How compulsory schooling started? Why — if these thinkers are right about it strangling curiosity — it got so widely accepted? …

You already listened to Sir Ken Robinson telling you that schools kill creativity! You cried watching the kids losing the lottery for the limited admission in the Charter schools in US in the documentary film Waiting for Superman! You heard people talking about alternatives to the schooling system — from special programs like Montessori, to parents homeschooling their children, to the strange (?!) idea of unschooling!

Unfortunately, nothing prepared you for what you learned while investigating the value of schooling! You feel the depression coming and you hope your friends will forget they ever asked you for an advice — after all, how can you possibly tell them you think they should not send their kids to school?!

Oh wait, in my case, I have kids myself — one who is already in the public education system! Depression is clearly not the answer :-(

I realize I have been brainwashed myself through the same public education system that was conceived in Utopian Prussia 200 years ago. This is probably why I still cling to the idea that success is virtually guaranteed to those that work hard and get educated! Surely there must be value in education in general, even if the compulsory schooling system is all wrong, right? The answer, it turns out, is “maybe” and “it depends”!

There is nothing wrong in learning — evolution seem to have unlocked a great capacity for it in us humans as we can see when watching babies learning about the world around them, toddlers learning a language, preschoolers learning to play and socially interact with their peers… But does this mean that learning = education = learning? It seems to me this is a very important question and none of the alternatives to schooling — except maybe unschooling – are providing enough insight to answer it!

If I know one thing about myself, that is that I learn best when engaging with people! I draw inspiration and get to hear new ideas when talking to people — something that no book, online video or similar resource can truly replace! With this in mind, I decided to bounce few ideas with people I know are concerned with the value of the schools just like me. One of these people was Carol Black, the director of Schooling the World, a fascinating film I recently wrote about here. She introduced me to John Taylor Gatto, an American teacher who won the New Your Teacher of the Year several times before retiring in 1991:

Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. — John Taylor Gatto

Carol shared with me an article Gatto wrote for the Harper’s Magazine back in September 2003, titled Against School, How public education cripples our kids, and why. Reading the words of a  disillusioned teacher who decided to rally against the system in which he spent almost 30 years was particularly painful!

Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.

Oh, Mr. Gatto, how wonderfully logical it sounds when you say that,

if we wanted to we could easily and inexpensively jettison the old, stupid structures and help kids take an education rather than merely receive a schooling. We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight – simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids to truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then.

And yet, we haven’t done any of that — as if the very thought of questioning the value of schooling is heretic!

Have you ever stood and stared at it, marveled at its beauty, its genius? Billions of people just living out their lives, oblivious. Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program, entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this, the peak of your civilization. I say your civilization, because as soon as we started thinking for you it really became our civilization, which is of course what this is all about. Evolution, Morpheus, evolution. Like the dinosaur. Look out that window. You had your time. The future is our world, Morpheus. The future is our time. — Agent Smith, The Matrix

But the world seems to be slowly awakening! Many people are asking the same questions that Mr. Gatto raised in his 2003 article:

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 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to rest.

In almost every country in the world, children are taught (that is, schooled) to think of “success” as synonymous with, or at least dependent upon, “schooling,” but the reality is that many successful people didn’t even got to go to high 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.

Why is it that we confuse education with schooling? What exactly is the purpose of the public schools? Is it to make good people? To make good citizens? To make each person his or her personal best? While these may be worthy goals, the reality is quite different! As the great H. L. Mencken wrote in The American Mercury in April 1924, the aim of public education is not

to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. . . . Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim.. . is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States . . . and that is its aim everywhere else.

Maybe the most worrying description of the purpose of public schooling comes from Alexander Inglis and his 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education. Inglis breaks down the purpose of modem schooling into six basic functions:

  1. The adjustive or adaptive function — schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, as you can presume, precludes any curious and critical thinking!
  2. The integrating function — it might well be called “the conformity function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. Conformity, you guessed it, is the best way to create a predictable labor force.
  3. The diagnostic and directive function — school is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. Each student is kept “on record” throughout all of schooling, even later!
  4. The differentiating function — once their social role has been “diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits — and not one step further.
  5. The selective function –this refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favored races.” (see more in comments) In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. By tagging the unfit clearly enough – with poor grades an similar — their peers will accept them as inferior.
  6. The propaedeutic function — the societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project.

I believe that understanding leads to better choices — It is important that we ask questions about education and we learn from the mistakes done in previous experiments like the schooling system we have inherited from Prussia 200 years ago! Mr. Gatto surely plays a music to my ears when says that “once you understand the logic behind modern schooling, its tricks and traps are fairly easy to avoid.”

School trains children to be employees and consumers; teach your own to be leaders and adventurers. School trains children to obey reflexively; teach your own to think critically and independently. Well-schooled kids have a low threshold for boredom; help your own to develop an inner life so that they’ll never be bored. Urge them to take on the serious material, the grown-up material, in history, literature, philosophy, music, art, economics, theology – all the stuff schoolteachers know well enough to avoid. Challenge your kids with plenty of solitude so that they can learn to enjoy their own company, to conduct inner dialogues. Well-schooled people are conditioned to dread being alone, and they seek constant companionship through the TV, the computer, the cell phone, and through shallow friendships quickly acquired and quickly abandoned. Your children should have a more meaningful life, and they can.

If all this makes you dizzy, you’re not alone! The world is getting closer and closer to the threshold where a revolution in education is possible. This time, though, it is important to ask questions!

Mandatory education serves children only incidentally; its real purpose is to turn them into servants. Don’t let your own have their childhoods extended, not even for a day. If David Farragut could take command of a captured British warship as a preteen, if Thomas Edison could publish a broadsheet at the age of twelve, if Ben Franklin could apprentice himself to a printer at the same age (then put himself through a course of study that would choke a Yale senior today), there’s no telling what your own kids could do. After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. 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.

Not just questions about the value of structured education systems that are imposed over the generations of kids eager to learn in this word, but also questions about the value of structured education in general. This is why I support Schooling the World, that fascinating film that opened my eyes to many important questions about schooling and education!

No one denies that learning is important for us as species — but we should be true to ourselves and aim to learn what makes an effective learning, even experiment and adjust if needed!

I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world … without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you. — Neo (Thomas A. Anderson), The Matrix

  1. mmgood
    June 13, 2011 at 10:03 pm | #1

    I think the Zappa quote is “rots”, not “roots”. More later.

    • June 13, 2011 at 10:19 pm | #2

      Thanks for reading the post and noticing the typo!

  2. David
    November 10, 2010 at 4:59 pm | #3

    John Gatto appears to be lying when he says that Inglis was referring to biological evolution. I can only find one reference to biological evolution in the whole text, and it does not make any reference to race. In fact, Inglis goes out of his way to stress that children should not be judged by race.

    Page 87: “The error is common of assuming important differences in mental traits because of easily observed differences in physical traits among pupils of different races, sex, or degrees of physical maturity.”

    Page 90: “…in all probability differences found among individuals of the same racial ancestry are commonly so great as to swallow up the differences between any two racial groups of importance in our secondary schools.”

    Page 93: “Certainly it is most unsafe to assume certain characteristics of a race and to assume that those characteristics will be found in all representatives of that race in the secondary school.”

    By the way, the Alexander Inglis that you linked to was a Scottish cleric who died in 1496. I hope that you do not habitually link to articles that you have not read.

    • November 10, 2010 at 11:13 pm | #4

      David, thanks for taking the time to thoroughly go over the details in my post! I really appreciate when readers are trying to help by pointing to errors — which I am always ready to fix! — and raising questions over topics that require further clarification.

      First, thanks for pointing to the incorrect link. It was an honest mistake, which I must accept as negligence on my part as I was copying/pasting links from the many dozens of open tabs in my browser. :-( The link has now been corrected!

      As for your assertion that Gatto is lying, I obviously can’t confirm or disprove that. In my research I relied on the editorial at the Harper’s Magazine doing their homework before printing Gatto’s article.

      I do think that you’re misinterpreting Gatto’s assertion that the selective function from Inglis’s book refers to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. For the interest of the readers I will include the entire section on the selective function at the end of this comment, but I’d like to point to few things first.

      Gatto may have been too harsh to assert that Inglis referred to “favored races” — and I accept my own mistake in re-asserting Gatto’s view without considering if that is appropriate or not! I believe the reference to evolution here is as a metaphor to the selection function of the secondary education in Inglis’s book as a way to favor certain individuals and traits over others.

      It is clear from Inglis’s writing that he accepts that individuals have “native” capacities which differ markedly, and in his own words “No amount of training can ever equalize the abilities of individuals whose native capacities differ to any marked degree. Hence selection must inevitably be a function of secondary education.”

      As I mentioned, this doesn’t imply race in any clear terms — as a matter of fact, the pages you pointed out seem to imply the opposite. I must admit, though, that the language used by Inglis is difficult enough to make it hard to decipher his conclusions. The examples below should point out to what I mean:

      Page 57: In adolescence, individualism is suddenly augmented and begins to sense its limits and its gradual subordination to the race which the Fates prescribe.

      Page 92: Calling the difference between the original capacity of the lowest congenital idiot and that of the average modern European 100, I should expect the average deviation of one pure race from another in original capacity to be below 10 and above 1, and the difference between the central tendency of the most and the least gifted races to be below 50 and above 10. I should consider 3 and 25 as reasonable guesses for the two differences.

      Page 92: It is, of course, that selection by race of original natures to be educated is nowhere nearly as effective as selection of the superior individuals regardless of race. There is much overlapping and the differences in original nature within the same race are, except in extreme cases, many times as great as the differences between races as wholes.

      Page 93: On the whole, it is probably safe to say that whatever importance for secondary education is to be attached to individual differences due to race considered from the standpoint of biological heredity, far greater importance is to be attached to race influence as conditioning the social heredity and differences in the environment indirect rather than direct results. As a matter of fact it is extremely difficult, if not quite impossible, to separate these factors, just as it is extremely difficult always to separate the results of heredity and environment and training.

      At times, it sounds like he dismisses race as a factor in the education selection, but at others, it sounds like race is still lurking in the definition of the “native” capacity a pupil possess. In any case, given the time the book is written, it should come as no surprise if Inglis had any racist intentions when writing the principles.

      Thanks again for your comments!

      Kima

      — excerpt from Principles of Secondary Education —
      Section 62. The selective function.

      Selection is a necessary function of any form of education, the necessity arising from the factor of individual differences which become an increasingly important factor as the course of education proceeds higher and makes a greater demand on capacity. It was pointed out in Chapter III that individuals differ widely in mental traits. In so far as those differences are due to the limits of capacity set by nature and to rates of development also determined by nature it is clear that, as education demands more and more capacity, with certain individuals the limits of then* capacity are reached, or, what is more common, the point is approached at which given possible amounts of training produce results incommensurate with the amount of teaching and learning energy expended, and the point of diminishing returns is reached. No amount of training can ever equalize the abilities of individuals whose native capacities differ to any marked degree. Hence selection must inevitably be a function of secondary education.

      The selective function of secondary education may be viewed from two somewhat different but related aspects. From one aspect selection is commonly considered as involving the elimination of those individuals who are unable to meet the demands set. To this view little objection could be raised, provided, and only provided, that the demands set could be justified. In the past in this country and at present in some countries the demands set were largely based on the assumption that ability and willingness to meet the requirements of certain specified subjects of study with limited range measure intellectual ability in general a theory which itself rests on the further assumption that either all desirable mental traits are involved hi the specific subjects selected, or the improvement in the mental traits involved can be transferred to other material. Such a theory is discussed in detail in later sections. For the present it is sufficient to state that the theory must certainly be greatly modified and that it cannot justify emphasis on any small number of subjects in the secondary school as affording adequate training for all or as affording a training which is susceptible of unlimited transfer.

      In contrast to selection by elimination the second aspect of the selective function of secondary education emphasizes selection by differentiation. Its justification rests on two considerations: (1) that individuals differ in capacities, interests, and the nature of environmental influences, those differences appearing not in the sum total of mental traits, but in the various mental traits as related to each other; (2) that, within limits, training in various specific mental traits or groups of traits is justified from a social viewpoint. In terms of psychology it assumes that different mental traits are found in different individuals in different degrees. In terms of sociology it means that no one subject or group of subjects can claim exclusive place in secondary education and that different subjects or groups of subjects are equally justified from the viewpoint of social economy. In terms of school practice it means that if a pupil lacks ability or interest in one field of study but possesses ability and interest in another, discrimination is justified, and, particularly in the public secondary school, that pupil has a right to receive education in fields for which he possesses ability and interest. He cannot be deprived of the opportunity for education because of inability or lack of interest in some officially favored subject or subjects.

  1. November 9, 2010 at 3:32 am | #1
  2. December 14, 2010 at 4:54 pm | #2
  3. December 18, 2010 at 1:31 am | #3
  4. December 26, 2010 at 10:12 am | #4

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