What has not really been asked is, What’s wrong with school?
What has not really been asked is, What’s wrong with school?
As an anthropologist studying education, I have learned that formal schooling is a fairly unusual way to accomplish something that all societies have to do: to prepare the young for their lives. Oh, among elites in ancient Greece and Rome or in the Renaissance, or for the few extraordinary boys in imperial China, or for religious Jews or Muslims, we see a kind of formal schooling, where teachers would assemble students of a certain age or level of knowledge, and supply a curriculum. But this was usually linked to certain specific needs, such as preparation for civil service positions, participation in democratic processes, or religious practice.
Aside from these experiments, most young humans learn what they need to by watching, attempting, carrying out small tasks, or sometimes undergoing an apprenticeship. This kind of learning comes without external structures, and is well suited to the natural ways humans learn. As Howard Gardner points out in The Unschooled Mind, and Daniel Willingham in Why Don’t Children Like School?, there are some powerful forces at play—based on the brain and evolutionary tendencies favoring imitation and physicality—that make sense in traditional forms of learning. These are still evident when children learn to play the guitar from their friends, or learn to cook from watching their elders—or master complex video games.
What is especially tough, though, is the two-decade-long school-centered life that we impose on virtually all of our young, and now witness increasingly around the world. This schooling emphasizes the abstract over the concrete, the mental over the physical, the theoretical over the practical. It removes students from using any of their knowledge, telling them that they will use it “someday in the future”—or if they won’t actually use it, they will be tested on it.
I will not rehearse the arguments against testing-as-center-of-schooling, except to point out that, as Alfie Kohn puts it in Punished by Rewards, even those who are the victors in the testing game—such as Amy Chua, the “tiger mother”—lose something. What they lose is the joy of absorption in a task, the pleasure of learning something they love or need or want. Meaning and motivation are replaced by something imposed from outside: approval, grades, credentials, diplomas.
So whether we are talking about young children medicated so that they can sit still for hours at a time, elementary school children increasingly lost amidst a sea of unrelated facts, junior high students bewildered by their peers’ bullying, high school students harnessed to college admission as the single focus of their entire teenage life, or college students skating through their required, and lamented, courses while they immerse themselves willingly in extracurricular activities—what we see are the limits of humanity coming up against the inhumane edifice of monolithic schooling.
Tinkering around the edges—block scheduling as opposed to traditional, uniforms, contemporary classics as opposed to the old canon—will make no difference. Many recent changes, such as No Child Left Behind or the increasing competitiveness of the most select colleges, have brought us to the brink.
We see increasing evidence that people are fed up. More and more parents are homeschooling their children or even removing them from the realm of schooling entirely, in a movement called “unschooling.” More and more high school and college students are taking “gap years,” to take a break from the relentless grind of schedules and competition and external judgment. Some such as Anya Kamenetz in DIY U argue that we don’t even need college for economic survival and success.
In the 1960s a movement against schooling was widespread, evident in books such as John Holt’s How Children Fail or John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, based on “progressive education” ideas of people like John Dewey, Maria Montessori, and even Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the idea that children are naturally good and have a natural ability to direct their own curiosity and learning. Newer theories of learning, based on cognitive science and the anthropology of learning, may take us in entirely new directions. I’m eager to see what develops.
I have spent my entire life in school, as student and professor. I am also a parent. I have watched some children thrive and many children struggle. I used to think the good ones were the successful and somehow that the ones who failed “deserved” it. But I have completely changed my mind about it. Now I worry about those who succeed in a system that rewards docility, pleasing others, and always doing things in the hopes of getting a gold star. The rebels have a stronger spirit, I think. In my own teaching I am more compassionate about the ones who resist and more skeptical about the ones who go along. I try hard to connect my students’ lives to the material that I have spent my own life and energy investigating, and sometimes they catch fire. But many are bewildered, trying to figure out what each teacher wants, juggling the demands of classes, social life, athletics, employment, and all those other activities that fill their time.
I still love school, learning, reading, writing, arguing. There is nothing more remarkable than the transformation that happens when somebody begins to see the world in a new way. But I no longer think that schooling has a monopoly on this, and I am encouraged by all the ways our young find to manage their own energies, curiosity, and passion, often outside the walls of our institutions. I am awed by the fervor with which students devote themselves to causes of justice, devoting hours and days to things they really care about. This gives me great hope.
But it should also give us pause, as we think about schooling as the sole path for all. It may be no wonder that students are “academically adrift”; the academic path has not compelled them, so they wander off in search of more genuine learning, not just exercises that are imposed from above.
If we open the gates, how many roads will be available?
March 6, 2011