Nothing is closer to the hearts of erstwhile liberals than public schools. Nothing comes closer to apostasy in the liberal mind that opposition to public schools, or “education.” Nothing constitutes a stronger political commitment than ours to compulsory public schooling. So I’m about to become the skunk at the party, and say that (1) compulsory public education is a process that is bad for children, (2) compulsory public education is designed to make “good citizens,” i.e., it is inherently nationalistic, (3) compulsory education creates “youth culture,” a pernicious phenomenon that has the blind leading the blind into a life of consumerism, (4) compulsory public education cripples learning, (5) even private education is public education, when the state dictates compulsory subjects and demands standardized testing for private or home schooling, and (6) compulsory public education is compulsory – that is, it is an instance where the state forces people to do something they don’t want to do with their own children, including teaching values that are alien to them.
Compulsory public education is bad for children
(1) Given the choice, no person between the ages of five and eighteen would voluntarily sit for hours on end, silent even in close proximity to others, and attempt to memorize decontextualized bits of information that hold no interest for them whatsoever. If they fail to perform they are punished with stigmatizing grades, hectoring teachers and administrators, freaked-out parents, and – if necessary –drugged to make them do what they cannot… sit still and quiet for hours, respond to bells like lab animals, obey authority without question, and eat crappy food. Now, kids even have to go through metal detectors.
Doing this for twelve years damages our children. They are damaged by the Hobbesian competition; they are damaged by the anxiety in the face of so much institutional authority; they are damaged by learning that learning is unpleasant and irrelevant; they are damaged – as are families – when parents and guardians are enlisted as the police on behalf of the school, against their own children; they are damaged by drugs, by Pavlovian conditioning, by shitty food and the junk food now for sale in schools, by making them pass through metal detectors, and by amphetamines used to “correct” their perfectly natural reaction to being told to sit still and quiet to listen to a non-intimate authority figure cajole them all day long.
We do this now out of necessity. The law says you have to give your kids the state’s prescribed education, or you can face charges, even if your children are perfectly happy not preparing for EOG tests and a life of regimentation.
Moreover, our lives have become structured around school schedules, and many households with two money-earners would not be able to spend the days with their children. This makes it difficult to extricate ourselves from the system, and the system is thereby impossible to end by decree because it is mixed into the very mortar of the built environment.
Like everything else in the late capitalist zeitgeist, the only way out now appears to be re-design, and this happens at a different scale and in a different social dimension than that occupied by the state. We almost need to design a way to spend time with the kids first, i.e., work alongside them as people did for most of our history, before we can address the political problems posed by compulsory public education.
(2) Compulsory public education is inherently nationalistic
(a) Why nationalism is a problem
I’ll cheat this one, and just lay out some quotes on nationalism that says what I want to better than I can.
Christianity has not conquered nationalism; the opposite has been the case nationalism has made Christianity its footstool.
Born in iniquity and conceived in sin, the spirit of nationalism has never ceased to bend human institutions to the service of dissension and distress.
Nationalism is power hunger tempered by self-deception.
Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult.
A nation is a society united by a delusion about its ancestry and a common fear of its neighbors.
- W. R. Inge
Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on his own dunghill.
I have been thinking about the notion of perfect love as being without fear, and what that means for us in a world that’s becoming increasingly xenophobic, tortured by fundamentalism and nationalism.
(b) How schools are nationalistic
Let’s see. For starters, they are a state institution, flying a national flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, that are required to teach mythologized history and the fundamentals of good citizenship. I want to talk about citizenship.
What is a citizen?
The dictionary sez: “the state of being vested with the rights, privileges, and duties of a citizen.”
It is, in other words, a legal status. It exists only in the eyes of the law, and it is restricted. Moreover, it lists rights and privileges (privileges are something one has over others), but it also says “duties.” Those duties are to one entity and one entity alone, that is the state.
A “good citizen” is one who identifies first as a citizen against all other categories. This is critical in thinking about an education that is teaching mathematics and training obedient citizens. So if my status as a father conflicts with my duties as a citizen, and if I choose to privilege my status as a father over that of citizen, then I am no longer a good citizen. If my status as the member of a living community conflicts with the demands of citizenship, then I am expected to subordinate my status as community member to my citizenship. If I am a pacifist (which I am), I am expected nonetheless to pay taxes (a citizenship duty) to support wars and lethal injections in order to be a good citizen.
In other words, good citizenship can be boiled down to two basic expectations, obey the state and apologize for it to secure the general obedience of all. The power of the law to punish is adequate to gain the obedience. But to gain the belief in the goodness of this obedience, you need schools.
Compulsory schools have your children for twelve years, six hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year (or whatever it is now). When they vote, they will vote based on the ideas of national superiority and fealty to the state that has been drummed into them during this 15,000 or so hours in class, the additional 5,000 hours spent doing “homework,” and reinforced in the television they watch when their homework is done.
And voting is what they can do, as citizens.
They can vote.
Mark the ballot, get your lapel sticker, that’s democracy, now get your ass back to work so you can eat and sleep indoors.
Citizenship. Worth fighting for? This is the meaning of freedom?
Compulsory education creates “youth culture,” a pernicious phenomenon that has the blind leading the blind into a life of consumerism
In societies that did not have schools, children stayed with their parents, small children predominantly with the mother, especially while cursing, and as children grew they would divide up by gender and spend the day with the same-sex parent. Children in this milieu begin imitating their parents early – pretending to wash clothes or pretending to harvest a crop or tagging along to fish or dig roots – and in very short order, sometimes as early as five or six, they begin actually working themselves, doing what they could within the limits of size and experience, with the parent as a kind of life-trainer for the apprentice child.
This is not to idealize the past, but to point out that most of the history of humans was without school, and without these arbitrary age-segregations. Consequently, if you could get in a time machine and travel back 1,000 years at wherever you sit right now, the nearest people you’d find – even if you spoke their language fluently – would find a description of what we call “adolescence” to be unintelligible. There simply was no such thing, because by the time we developed the notion, it was in the context of an age-segregated, schooled society, where peer-pressure at school represented a major break with and counter-force to kinship bonds.
As far back as we can tell, human beings have had initiation rites that marked critical passages in life; but the age segregation of schools is something altogether different. At an adulthood initiation or a marriage, the entire community participated in the passage, often with various forms of celebration to welcome their kin across this milestone, with no rupture in the constancy of contact with kin.
At schools, children are ripped away from their families and placed in an environment that was adopted directly from the military. They are placed alongside “peers,” with whom they are encouraged to compete, and they are punished if they fail in that competition. Not only punished, but stigmatized in that way that can only exist in a culture of inexperience (segregated youth is ripped loose from its experience base) built on the captivity and forced associations of school.
No industry has been able to capitalize on “youth culture,” a culture uprooted from experience and forged in captivity, than advertising. They have learned to market to the whole “demographic,” that demographic being between five and eighteen and in captivity, in ways that take advantage of this separation from community experience, in ways that take advantage of the inexperience and guilelessness of children, to train them into a deeper competition, of which school competition is but a feeble shadow. Uprooted, children in this form of captivity seek nothing more than to belong. Unable to identify with their captors – their parents rightly included in that sum – they seek to identify with one another, and the rebellious element of that identification then creates a wall between youth and what they really do need to hear from us. But the adults in this society have but a feeble grasp of how damaging this all is, how utterly unnatural, because we ourselves are products of schools and segregated youth culture. So we fail to explain away the contradictions in our own behavior – borne of the contradiction between kin and citizen; and youth fails to hear the critical voices in the adult world, because at their backs is the incessant demand-production apparatus of consumer capitalism.
Parents screw up doing trying to do the right thing. Families, by and large, care about one another, even if we are bumbling and confused about how to do it. The state wants obedience, and doesn’t care. Advertisers go the next step. They actively target this vulnerable population to convince them to get things that are bad for them, and the cynical motive is profit. Stupid, self-destructive fads rip through this part-time prison like wildfire, once key elements within the youth pecking order adopt them; and families bear the financial burden of this lunacy so their kids can fit in, so their kids don’t think they are less cared-for than other kids, so their kids will be able to read the hieroglyphic of the culture which families feel certain they are about to grow up in (and this last is, perversely, an exercise of good will).
The Youth Market is now a predators’ feast, and not just consumer goods, but pharmaceuticals, medical professionals, test-designers, tutors, crackpot educational products, that are not sold to the kids themselves, but to a collective parenthood that is kept in a constant state of anxiety about young people’s performance and potential.
Human beings are dependent, and that is why we are unavoidably social. At the stage where another primate is born, our heads are too big to get through the birth canal, so we are born partly unformed. We don’t get up and caper around like a new colt.
We have a long developmental period from infancy to puberty, and longer still to full-sized adulthood. Our reason outstripped out instincts in efficacy, and then our instincts atrophied, leaving us with this peculiar mental plasticity, or creativity, and the instinct has been stepped down to something akin to the urge to cooperate.
That cooperation, in conjunction with language and collective memory, gave rise to culture, which allows us to carry the lessons of the past along with us – and the errors, too, for a time – so we aren’t starting over every time someone is born. Every newborn inherits a past if that newborn is born into a culture.
Humans learn from the moment they are born. That is what we do. But the idea that a 10-year-old and a 30-year-old and a 60-year-old of the same gender, class, and culture are equally learned is preposterous on its face. There are capacities enlarged by repetitions over time and sustained observation that may not correspond to age in every instance, but they are not possible without age. Age is a necessary if not sufficient condition for the kind of wisdom we associate with age.
Youth Culture, which is inherently xenophobic, stands against this wisdom – in an entirely understandable reaction to the hypocrisy of older authority throughout their school sentences – and has that antagonism amplified by consumer society which sells their rebellions back to them as commodities – whether it’s a popular music label or shoes. So the antagonism between youth and age becomes an antagonism without a common language. We talk past each other, no matter how hard we try. And youth suffers for it. A lot.
Youth is leaderless, in a system of compulsory public education, and susceptible to the most horrific kinds of guidance by advertisers. Youth in a school-lockup are – like prisoners – extremely hierarchical, and the kids at the top unknowingly become the lieutenants of industry. Who do they talk to? A teacher, who is obliged to be their keeper? The authoritative family members have been subtly made the enemy – the veto along the road to consumer happiness. In many cases, we are seeing a second, maybe third generation of people disabled by the toxic combination of schooling and consumerism, so the parents themselves have become partisans of consumerism before their own children, and have actively trained them into it.
Compulsory public education cripples learning
Our official assumptions about the nature of modern childhood are dead wrong. Children allowed to take responsibility and given a serious part in the larger world are always superior to those merely permitted to play and be passive. At the age of twelve, Admiral Farragut got his first command. I was in fifth grade when I learned of this. Had Farragut gone to my school he would have been in seventh.
-John Taylor Gatto
The performance of homeschoolers on tests has proven that kids taught the state curriculum at home can do as well or better than kids trained in institutions. That’s not to make any particular point about relative merit that’s not apparent on its face; but an advantage homeschoolers have is that they are in the presence of someone who genuinely cares about them, even though surrounded by a society where individual self-realization – whatever that is – has become the watchword. At home, they belong. And at home, they are not exposed to the relentless intramural cruelties of captive youth culture.
The ultimate and inevitable result of liberal law and compulsory public schooling was the standardized test. It presumes the fake equality of liberalism, and it’s lawyer-proof – a key consideration in liberal society where lawyers have become dominant among the dominant. Equally inevitable is that the sole ability tested is the ability to recall and identify facts-as-stated when they are mixed with three or four distracter answers. Now, there is no doubt that there are people who have talent at this; nor any doubt that this is a valuable talent for themselves and others. Interestingly enough, this talent can be most usefully applied toward a law degree.
This narrow sliver of human creative capacity is raised up over the rest of life like the sword of Damocles. Every exit door is closed if you don’t possess this one skill. And society is vertically sorted – directly in many cases – by this one skill, a skill the rich can have their kids specially-trained for (ensuring their unhappiness).
Regardless of your ability or affinity for any of it, you will be willed and drilled in this series of tests, with all their intervening humiliations, and time being a constant your capacity in all areas of creativity will be squeezed out. You will sit five days a week in a fluorescent box, observed by the guards. You will say the right things, write the right things, study the right things, and regurgitate the right things on a test, then you will be free of anxiety for a while.
Women, in particular, have their agency ripped out of them in the student lockup. Studies show that girls have dramatic changes (“deteriorations”) in performance before and after the onset of puberty. The gender policing in youth culture is ten times as ruthless as it is in adult-culture, because there is a desperate need to belong and consumer culture has schooled them (pun intended) in the most glaringly offensive, misogynistic representations imaginable.
Learning is the ultimate creative process. Plastic as we are, we learn first by mimesis. From mimesis, we graduate to a point where we understand things schematically, which evolves into synthetic thinking, which evolves into creative engagement with what is understood. I know that’s armchair development theory, but whether I’ve named it accurately or not, I know that people learn faster when they are doing something that allows for the possibility of creativity. I would go so far as to say that this possibility of creativity is the secret to what we vaguely call enjoyment. Learning and joy are decoupled in an educational institution. Education is a product that we are all being forced to buy.
The condition that will allow young people to grow in their learning/creativity – no longer divided – is through strong local culture. If we are to reintegrate across the state-mandated age boundaries, then we first have to render more convivial the environment into which these kids will be released. They need to be able to travel around in the day, to be with many ages of people to see how they speak with each other, how they get things done… and allowed to participate to the limits of their own capacities. If that environment is sterile, releasing them from school is not going to be a solution, but a bigger problem. (It ain’t kid-friendly out there right now.)
The community has to have places where these same young people are welcome, and public multi-aged gatherings for the common good are where the learning curve and the creativity are the highest, imho.
Making our communities habitable for our kids, habitable as in we feel like we really belong there, is a precondition for springing young people from the mess we are in with education. Then they can start learning creatively again; and so can we.
Even private education is public education, when the state dictates compulsory subjects and demands standardized testing for private or home schooling
This is pretty self-explanatory.
Compulsory public education is compulsory
This is pretty self-explanatory, too. But it’s obviously not an argument for a lot of people who support compulsory public education. Many are socialists even, who otherwise seem to have little in common with liberals. Their explicit premise is that compulsory universal education is the domain of the state and will remain so under socialist administration. It is seen as a marker of progress, and many who assume this stance call themselves “progressives.” I am not a progressive.
I don’t believe people should force their visions of progress on others. Some might call me libertarian about that, and I suppose it’s true. I share nothing with “libertarians” (the noun) with regard to their individualism and their arbitrary definitions of property… or much else for that matter. But on this, they are right.
Good faith and good will between people does not admit of forcing our will on others. Democracy that is the outcome of a vote where 51 beats 49, and the 49 are very unhappy, is not a stable solution to anything. And before we defend the idea of these schools, we need to take a long hard look at what they actually are and what they actually do.
Here is Ivan Illich’s classic Deschooling for those who want to read a long-ago critique of education that still seems to apply.