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October 05, 2004

Exploration: Public Education

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 16, 2005]

Herein I will explore some of the issues surrounding public schools -- from a Youth Liberation perspective. This essay is what I'm calling an "exploration"; it is the place where I'll assemble my own ideas, and not meant as an essay for others.

This writing is in response to a posting by Alison Dunfee on the Scoop list, where she asked people to address the following topics:

  1. the value/purpose of sending a child to school
  2. what "education" is
  3. where/how do kids learn best
  4. can we fix what we've got
  5. (?) And, if anyone's willing, describe your ideal schooling situation for a kid.

As I read through other people's responses, several topics come to mind that I would like to cover:
  1. the age apartheid that compulsory schooling has created
  2. how public schools promote an anti-democratic model -- both the hierarchy of teacher over student, and the social stratification of the grade system
  3. balancing the unschooling option vs. a necessary escape from the parents' home
  4. how people learn knowledge vs. the "teaching" process
  5. (?) if possible, I also want to touch on teaching as an industry, how the New Deal took youth and seniors out of the work pool, and how adult labor (esp. women) has adapted to a form of state day care

[note that although there are five of them, these points do not map onto Alison's questions.]

OK, with that overview stated, let's dive in...

My interest in the public education system is primarily at an institutional level. I'm not so much interested in how it exists at present, that is, how to navigate within it successfully -- I am more interested in the history of where it came from, a philosophical understanding of why/why not such a thing should exist, and what it might more ideally become if we conscientiously work to create change.

1. A form of age apartheid

It has been a while since I've read much on this topic, so some of the relevant facts are fairly stale in my mind. One that has stuck with me, however, I learned from John Taylor Gatto's book "Dumbing Us Down". Here, I've found the relevant passage:

"Our form of compulsory schooling is an invention of the State of Massachusetts around 1850. It was resisted -- sometimes with guns -- by an estimated eighty percent of the Massachusetts population, the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not surrendering its children until the 1880s, when the area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard." (p. 25, in the essay "The Psychopathic School")

...It has stuck with me a long time that compulsory schooling is a relatively recent invention (1850) and that it was essentially met with rioting when it was instituted. Now I would understand this as a conflict over property rights; children, the parents' "property", was seemingly being usurped by the government. I also imagine that these children were probably being used as farm hands; so there is an issue about labor involved as well.

Consider life in Colonial America vs. Contemporary America. I think that one of the effects of compulsory schooling is that it's instituted a form of age apartheid. From roughly 8am to 3pm, five days a week, 9 months out of the year, youth are segregated from the rest of society into school buildings. The impact of this segregation is compounded by nighttime curfews -- and by daytime curfews intended to insure that youth are properly in school. Adults have far less casual daily contact with young people than once they did, and this (I imagine) must have a profound impact on attitudes toward them.

I believe that removing youth from community life has helped create social distance between adults and minors. It has made youth seem more alien, which has helped fuel prejudice against them.

2. Labor issues

The public school is a form of concentration camp. That's an incredibly loaded term to use; but if you can take it at its literal value, I think it's accurate. Young people (generally) get picked up by a bus, and are driven to a building where they are overseen by authority figures whom they far outnumber.

[...I know this brands me as a radical, but yellow school busses often make me think of the trains to the German death camps. Not the same, obviously -- but I'm unnerved by the mass transportation, and not really comforted by the sentimentalization of these cheerily yellow vehicles.

...To avoid invoking Nazism, perhaps it is better to consider the internment camps where the U.S. placed Japanese Americans during WWII. Also very different: Japanese Americans weren't allowed to leave; youth only have to stay at school a part of the day. Still, I'm never happy to hear "it's only temporary" used to silence criticism about individuals' freedom being taken away.]

One of the purposes of public schooling, as we understand it, is to educate the electorate. We live in a democracy, adult citizens get to vote [that is, at least since the Electoral College was reworked with the Fourteenth Amendment!] -- voters should have some minimum amount of education... This is an argument for putting youth into schools; but there is also an argument for taking youth out of society at large.

As part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, efforts were made to shrink the work pool. Laws were created to keep both senior citizens and minors out of the workforce. The nation was in a depression, and it seemed wise to funnel wages earned to heads of households. Thus, you see, laws against child labor are not purely about preventing exploitation, as we're commonly lead to believe -- they're also about protecting the earning power of adults.

I find this interesting: whereas parents rebelled against compulsory schooling when it was instituted, they have now become dependent upon it as a form of state-sponsored day care. There has been a social revolution between 1900 and 2000, where women as a class have escaped the confines of mothering to become an integral part of the (paid) workforce. This is listed among Feminism's great accomplishments; another side of the story, though, is that wages now are such that it generally takes two wage-earners to support a family. [Does that mean that this is really a story about the victory of Capitalism?] ...It wouldn't be possible for (traditional) adult women and men to lead this lifestyle if the state weren't taking care of the kids.

Adult society has adapted to age apartheid, and is now dependent on it.

3. Public schools are anti-democratic

Public schools are an arm of the government. They are the aspect of the government that is most intimate to young people's lives. The inside workings of schools are authoritarian. The web of teachers, principals, parent-teacher associations, teachers' unions, city councils, federal law-makers, and adult voters determines what kind of experience youth will have within the schools. At least at a formal level, youth have very little say. In this respect, schools embody profoundly anti-democratic principles, and set a bad example for the future voters.

By not giving youth real control over the institution, schools teach powerlessness. Adults are compelled to go to jury duty, or to the Department of Motor Vehicles to renew their license -- boring, but only for a day or a week -- yet, imbued with a greater sense of civic duty (I think), because one knows that this is part of one's own contributions to the upkeep of society. For youth, going through 12 grades is waiting out a jail sentence.

[If they're smart, they'll try to put the time to good use, bettering themselves so they'll have better chances at life when they're given their freedom. However, their labors within the institution are understood to have no inherent value. If they were, perhaps we would compensate youth for their time -- as we compensate adults for time lost while attending jury duty. As it is, though, "homework" is like women's housework: unpaid / unvalued.]

Worse, schools provide a powerful example of authoritarianism. Teachers command, youth are to obey. Youth (generally) sit in rows, and are only to talk when they are called upon. I've read [in "A History of Private Life: Passions of the Renaissance", if I recall correctly] that this traditional arrangement of desks was created specifically to prevent student interaction. Teachers are given the right to punish in order to maintain control -- still with legal corporal punishment in some states, but minimally with after-school detentions...

...Years spent in this environment teach people that this is OK. It paves the way for accepting fascist government, for trying to be the authoritarian at work or with intimate partners, and for treating one's own offspring in this way. [It seems to me that over the decades, a circle has evolved, whereby parents seek to emulate teachers, and teachers to emulate parents. Children have increasingly become objects whose purpose is to be educated.]

Schools don't just prepare youth for hierarchical life post-graduation, though. They also foster social stratification within the youth culture. Notice how it's a social faux pas for the 11th graders to hang out with the 10th graders, or for the 4th graders to play with the 3rd graders? The grade system establishes a sort of caste system, whereby people in the grades lower than you are your social inferiors. In part this is a symptom of a larger phenomena, wherein older equals "superior". Still, it seems profound to me, how the grade system provides such an explicit framework for this elitism.

4. Alternatives

As an arm of the government, I think that public schools should embody democracy. This begs the question: what do I mean by democracy? To me, the principle of democracy is this: everyone who participates in a group should have a say in making the decisions that will effect it.

For this reason, I am in favor of making the national vote all-ages. Currently, younger voters tend not to vote as frequently as older voters [perhaps because they feel powerless, or due to less investment in ownership of property]. I doubt that there would be a massive swell of youth voters if the age restriction were struck down; nonetheless, I think that youth, as participants in society, should be allowed their voice in decision-making, simply on principle. Intelligence is not a criteria for whether adults are allowed to vote, and I don't think some sort of intelligence test should be applied to minors. You are a member of society, you get a say. Period.

For public schools to embody democracy, I think that students must be given power over hiring, firing, and funding decisions. From what I've seen of them, "student councils" are meaningless groups. Real control must address money -- and that's going to make a lot of adults, especially teachers, nervous. But it's been done, and successfully.

I am an advocate of the Sudbury Valley School model. Last I heard, there are currently about 18 schools in the U.S. based on this model. It was inspired by the writings of John Holt, and you can read about it in "Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School" by Daniel Greenberg (other books have been written, too). In the SVS, students get to vote on hiring and firing their teachers. This responsibility breeds seriousness. The youth don't choose their teachers according to who will give them the least work; they are most interested in learning, because they own their learning -- and the internal debates among students over hiring and firing are apparently quite something to hear.

In the SVS model, youth also have a great deal of control over their curriculum. They're allowed to pursue personal interests to whatever extent they desire; teachers are largely available on-site to facilitate finding learning resources (particularly outside experts on various subjects). Having friends around, though, groups of students often become interested in working on a topic together. This motivated collaboration is really useful; you have peers working at your own level who can help you work through confusion, not just a single adult voice at the head of the room who's supposed to convey truth to the entire room.

On a similar note, I advocate "unschooling", as described in "The Teenage Liberation Handbook: how to quit school and get a real life and education" and in "Real Lives: eleven teenagers who don't go to school", both by Grace Llewellyn. Unschooling is a subset of homeschooling, but differs in philosophy from how homeschooling is typically understood. Whereas in homeschooling the parents generally take on the role of the teacher, and attempt to dutifully create lesson plans and execute tests, in unschooling youth are allowed to pursue their interests, and the parents simply work to facilitate finding resources (both books and actual people).

Yes, you can learn to read in this way. And math too. I refer you to the books aforementioned for further details.

5. Changing how society schools youth

Within the intellectual circles I run with, there's a legitimate question about whether or not we should abolish schools altogether. Me, I want public schools to continue to exist, but in a much altered form. I want for these institutions to become democratic (students having hiring / firing / funding power), and I want self-directed learning to be the primary educational model. I also want unschooling to be a better understood and more available option.

My main reason for not seeking the total abolition of schools is that I see a need for an institution that counterbalances the power of parents within the private home. For some youth, school is a welcome escape from overbearing or abusive parents. Public schools are youths' prime opportunity for getting out of the house; without schools, youth are more easily trapped by parents who see them as their personal property.

[I think one of the values of public schools is also the way in which they allow you to meet people from other socio-economic classes, ethnicities, and races. The charter school movement, I think, does the nation a disservice by factionalizing us, removing one of our best opportunities to meet each other.]

I'm interested in moving from "compulsory schooling" to "community learning centers". I kind of think that schools shouldn't be age-based; that government should support public education, but that it should be available to adults as well. Society has an interest in having an educated populace; do we have to limit ourselves to providing educational services to the young, in a sort of boot camp model?

The prospects for changing schools? Not good. From what I understand of the educational power structure, instituting the Sudbury Valley School model nationally could not be top down. Activists would have to transform one school at a time, working from the inside as stake-holders. Meanwhile, there would be powerful forces allied against change. Teachers' Associations, in particular I think, would be against putting educators' jobs in the hands of youth. Education is an industry; thousands of people earn their livelihood off of the status quo.

6. A final word about learning

I think most people believe that knowledge must be forced down young people's throats. I don't buy it. I think that we're born curious about the world, and are desperate to learn about what's going on around us.

Rather than answering this curiosity, however, too much of the time parents want their children just to shut up, because it's inconvenient to answer so many questions. Questions are seen as silly, or cute, or annoying -- they're not given due respect. I find this minimizing of young children's interest in the world offensive. Perhaps (some) parents think that it's not their job to teach children; it will be dealt with by the schools.

I think that we remember what interests us. Contrary to what we're led to believe, I think most knowledge is very temporary. How much do you remember from high school history class -- I mean really? Me, I've taken years of Spanish, but because I don't use it, I've forgotten most of it. Yeah, each time I've gone back for another class, it seems to come back to me quicker than if I'd been learning it for the first time -- but still, learning subjects that you aren't going to be using soon seems like a pretty futile endeavor.

I think pursuing what actually interests you is generally a pretty good way to learn. You can't always easily categorize what you've learned through hobbies, but the learning is there. As for getting an introduction to the sciences, I think most of what I ever have needed to know I got from watching National Geographic, Nova, and Bill Nye the Science Guy episodes. Most of the introductory stuff can be adequately conveyed by videotapes.

You need to be able to read. According to Grace Llewellyn, that skill can be picked up in 100 hours. You need some basic math. There should be an intro to evolution, a word about how whales aren't fishes... Really though, twelve years is too much. It's the theft of years of our lives.

Maybe you made the best of the years. I know I tried to. I was top of my class, tried to learn everything, had lots of friendships with my fellow students... But what could I have done with my life if I'd had freedom?

Posted by Sven at October 5, 2004 12:00 PM