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The 7 Sins of Our Current School System

Posted by on May 18, 2015 in Agencies & Systems, Government with 0 Comments

Peter Gray, Ph.D. | Waking Times

student-homework

Forced education interferes with children’s abilities to educate themselves.


In my last post I took a step that, I must admit, made me feel uncomfortable. I said, several times: “School is prison.” I felt uncomfortable saying that because school is so much a part of my life and the lives of almost everyone I know. I, like most people I know, went through the full 12 years of public schooling. My mother taught in a public school for several years. My beloved half-sister is a public schoolteacher. I have many dear friends and cousins who are public schoolteachers. How can I say that these good people–who love children and have poured themselves passionately into the task of trying to help children–are involved in a system of imprisoning children? The comments on my last post showed that my references to school as prison made some other people feel uncomfortable also.

Sometimes I find, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me and others feel, I have to speak the truth. We can use all the euphemisms we want, but the literal truth is that schools, as they generally exist in the United States and other modern countries, are prisons. Human beings within a certain age range (most commonly 6 to 16) are required by law to spend a good portion of their time there, and while there they are told what they must do, and the orders are generally enforced. They have no or very little voice in forming the rules they must follow. A prison–according to the common, general definition–is any place of involuntary confinement and restriction of liberty.

Now you might argue that schools as we know them are good, or necessary; but you can’t argue that they are not prisons. To argue the latter would be to argue that we do not, in fact, have a system of compulsory education. Either that, or it would be a semantic argument in which you would claim thatprison actually means something different from its common, general definition. I think it is important, in any serious discussion, to use words honestly.

Sometimes people use the word prison in a metaphorical sense to refer to any situation in which they must follow rules or do things that are unpleasant. In that spirit, some adults might refer to theirworkplace as a prison, or even to their marriage as a prison. But that is not a literal use of the term, because those examples involve voluntary, not involuntary restraint. It is against the law in this and other democratic countries to force someone to work at a job where the person doesn’t want to work, or to marry someone that he or she doesn’t want to marry. It is not against the law, however, to force a child to go to school; in fact, it is against the law to not force a child to go to school if you are the parent and the child doesn’t want to go. (Yes, I know, some parents have the wherewithal to find alternative schooling or provide home schooling that is acceptable to both the child and the state, but that is not the norm in today’s society; and the laws in many states and countries work strongly against such alternatives.) So, while jobs and marriages might in some sad cases feel like prisons, schools generally are prisons.

Now here’s another term that I think deserves to be said out loud: Forced education. Like the termprison, this term sounds harsh. But, again, if we have compulsory education, then we have forcededucation. The term compulsory, if it has any meaning at all, means that the person has no choice about it.

The question worth debating is this: Is forced education–and the consequential imprisonment of children–a good thing or a bad thing? Most people seem to believe that it is, all in all, a good thing; but I think that it is, all in all, a bad thing. I outline here some of the reasons why I think this, in a list of what I refer to as “seven sins” of our system of forced education:

1. Denial of liberty on the basis of age.

In my system of values, and in that long endorsed by democratic thinkers, it is wrong to deny anyone liberty without just cause. To incarcerate an adult we must prove, in a court of law, that the person has committed a crime or is a serious threat to herself or others. Yet we incarcerate children andteenagers in school just because of their age. This is the most blatant of the sins of forced education.

2. Fostering of shame, on the one hand, and hubris, on the other.

It is not easy to force people to do what they do not want to do. We no longer use the cane, as schoolmasters once did, but instead rely on a system of incessant testing, grading, and ranking of children compared with their peers. We thereby tap into and distort the human emotional systems of shame and pride to motivate children to do the work. Children are made to feel ashamed if they perform worse than their peers and pride if they perform better. Shame leads some to drop out, psychologically, from the educational endeavor and to become class clowns (not too bad), or bullies (bad), or drug abusers and dealers (very bad). Those made to feel excessive pride from the shallow accomplishments that earn them A’s and honors may become arrogant, disdainful of the common lot who don’t do so well on tests; disdainful, therefore, of democratic values and processes (and this may be the worst effect of all).

3. Interference with the development of cooperation and nurturance.

We are an intensely social species, designed for cooperation. Children naturally want to help their friends, and even in school they find ways to do so. But our competition-based system of ranking and grading students works against the cooperative drive. Too much help given by one student to another is cheating. Helping others may even hurt the helper, by raising the grading curve and lowering the helper’s position on it. Some of those students who most strongly buy into school understand this well; they become ruthless achievers. Moreover, as I have argued in previous posts (see especially Sept. 24, 2008), the forced age segregation that occurs in school itself promotes competition and bullyingand inhibits the development of nurturance. Throughout human history, children and adolescents have learned to be caring and helpful through their interactions with younger children. The age-graded school system deprives them of such opportunities.

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