Crying for Superman, waiting for Mr. Anderson
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:
- 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!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Are you dreaming too?
I am curious about everything and this blog is my way to ponder the meaning of the hard questions of life, mind, culture, future...
I like to engage with my readers so please comment if anything catches your eye -- criticism is welcome too! ;-)
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