In his Age of Reason pamphlet (1807), Thomas Paine declared that “Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.” Thomas Jefferson’s famed letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut mentions how the First Amendment effectively establishes a “wall of separation between church and state.” These men, plus the many others that influenced or participated in the founding of the United States, were very familiar with the dangers of state religions and wished to prevent establishing such a religion in America.
Underlying the First Amendment is the concept of freedom of conscience. It can be defined as: “The right to follow one’s own beliefs in matters of religion and morality.” Freedom of conscience is normally considered a human right, which is "any basic right or freedom to which all human beings are entitled and in whose exercise a government may not interfere (including rights to life and liberty as well as freedom of thought and expression and equality before the law)."
Unfortunately, most of the debates in the public square tend to focus on a narrow definition of religion when discussing the influences of “religion” on government policy. If we consider “religion and morality,” we will find that they are essentially elements of a worldview. A worldview can be defined as “a comprehensive conception or image of the universe and of humanity’s relation to it.”
When worldviews attempt to explain the “big questions of life” they they are essentially indistinguishable from religious thought. For example both worldviews and religions attempt to deal with these four issues: 1.) origin of man and the universe, 2.) the meaning of life, 3.) morals, and 4.) a person’s destiny.
What does all this have to do with public schools and the state’s ultimate control over the education of our children?
First, there is a widely held belief that public schools are “secular.” In a narrow definition they are ” secular” (i.e. without an affiliation with any specific religion) but a more fundamental (and honest) definition shows that they are no more free from “religion” than the local Roman Catholic private school down the road. How the state attempts to answer the four issues above may not be based on any particular religion but the answers they provide are informed by various worldviews that are popular today among the people that establish curricula and approve the textbooks. Since these people have a very significant influence in the development of children’s worldviews, one could argue that we have a state religious system and the thousands of public school buildings are the temples of that religion. In some ways, the situation is reminiscent of the Imperial Cult of ancient Rome where that set of beliefs was seen as a politically useful and necessary unifying force of the empire.
Second, I know of no way of providing an education without some sort of coherent system of thought that is directly founded upon a worldview. This raises several important questions. Given the above, should the government (or if you prefer, “society”) impose a worldview on its youngest citizens? Should every parent, under the force of law (i.e. the threat of violence), be required to ensure that his or her child is “educated” in the government-approved way? Should taxpayers be forced to pay for so-called secular schools that in the course of their instruction, either directly or indirectly, year after year, send messages to their captive audiences about origins, meaning, morality and destiny that are essentially private matters (and beyond the realm of science as classically defined)?
Thomas Jefferson clearly favored promoting education. He said that regarding the “diffusion of knowledge” that "…no other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness." He is often quoted by the education establishment when defending the government education monopoly. However, being sensitive to freedom of conscience issues, he also said this: “It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible asportation [removal] and education of the infant against the will of the father” (Note to Elementary School Act, 1817).
As with other “religions established by law,” our state-controlled schooling system is no stranger to persecution. Anyone who follows homeschooling news will find plenty of accounts of government agents ensuring that temple attendance is enforced or at least the state liturgy is practiced in the form and place acceptable to the government. Disobedience is costly.
Although some of the priests and acolytes of our state religion may wish it to be so, the state has not yet taken complete control of the feeding, clothing and housing of the majority of our children. However, it has taken possession of their bodies for much of their waking hours while attempting to control their thoughts. It is difficult to think of a more egregious violation of our founding principles. Yet it continues. Perhaps Justice Louis Brandeis’ observation provides some insight into to why that is so:
Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.
We are often told that a solution to the various problems of public schools is to “bring education back under local control.” Prior to the advent of the Common Core conflict, I had not infrequently encountered the argument that education is locally controlled. The folks that hold such a position are getting harder to find these days. In this brief essay, we will look at what this “local control” really is all about.
School districts are the governmental bodies that are supposed to provide the local control of education. However, that control is extremely limited. For example, the Texas Education Code specifies the purpose of school districts:
The school districts and charter schools created in accordance with the laws of this state have the primary responsibility for implementing the state’s system of public education and ensuring student performance in accordance with this code.
If you read the list of requirements and duties of school district board members, you will see that school districts are simply the local administrators of the state’s policies - as we are told at the beginning of that Code section. They have virtually no important policy development role at all: no meaningful choices on curriculum, student attendance, total hours in the school year etc. They are essentially like the local soviets (councils) in the former Soviet Union. They provided an appearance of giving the proletariat a say in local governance but were, in fact, simply servants of the central communist party.
If the state is in control of education, then where does the state get its grand ideas about what must be taught? A recent post on the EdWeek blog titled Who Decides What is Taught in Our Schools? provides some clues as it relates to Common Core:
The “deciders” in the Common Core process were those who set the process in motion at the Gates Foundation and Department of Education, and the testing companies who were involved in crafting the standards so they would be testable.
The Gates Foundation, Pearson, the Department of Education, and a host of allied corporate reformers have dominated our classrooms long enough. This need NOT be a permanent state of affairs. It is time for students, teachers and parents to take back our schools.
The problem with the last statement is that parents have had almost no control of government schools since their establishment in the 19th Century. In fact, that is one of the design features of the system. Public schools were created, in part, to distance children from the “superstitions” and “inferior” world views of their parents while creating a more uniform herd of employees to serve large corporate interests and provide docile taxpayers for an ever expanding government. [For evidence of these motives please see the three earlier posts regarding the history of public schooling: In the beginning, The Prussian model and The resistance]
The current oligarchy of educrats (including private foundations, universities, teachers unions , the Dept. of Education and state education agencies) have controlled the important aspects of “public” school policies for many, many years. It appears that the uproar over Common Core is simply because the federal government is in the driver’s seat. I do agree that the federal government is exceeding its constitutional authority (through the backdoor in this case) but that problem is not the most fundamental issue. The individual states, through their compulsory education laws, have exceeded their legitimate authority for a very long time.
This post is the third in a series that discusses the origins of the modern government schooling model. The first is In the beginning: mostly voluntary and private and the second is The Prussian model.
Although modern education mythology characterizes the emergence of government-controlled schooling as a natural evolution embraced by the public, the reality is that parents resisted the new authoritarian Prussian model. That resistance was due, in part, to the fact that it really wasn’t needed for educational purposes.
E.G. West, in the The Spread of Education Before Compulsion, examined the state of education in New York state in the early 19th Century as reported by the superintendents of common schools for the state:
By this time the superintendents were expressing complete satisfaction with the provision of schooling. On the quantity of it the Report of 1836 asserted: “Under any view of the subject, it is reasonable to believe, that in the common schools, private schools and academies, the number of children actually receiving instruction is equal to the whole number between five and sixteen years of age.”
The fact that education could continue to be universal without being free and compulsory seems to have been readily acknowledged. Where there were students who had poor parents, the trustees had authority to release them from the payment of fees entirely, and this was done “at the close of term, in such a manner as to divest the transaction of all the circumstances calculated to wound the feelings of scholars.”
When you explore the historical record, you will find that public schooling was imposed top down using the power of the state, driven by special interest groups with aggressive lobbying and marketing techniques. This can be seen in E.C. Cubberley’s classic book Public Education in the United States (originally published in 1934). Cubberley was Stanford University’s first dean of its new School of Education (appointed in 1917) and was an enthusiastic supporter of our modern system of compulsory government education. Cubberley noted that the concept of “state schools” was initially resisted and took many years of lobbying and “propaganda” (in his words) to overcome resistance from parents:
With many of the older citizens no progress could be made; the effective work everywhere had to be done with the younger men of the time. It was the work of many years to convince the masses of the people that the scheme of state schools was not only practicable, but also the best and most economical means for giving their children the benefits of an education; …
Cubberley describes how “propaganda societies” were “organized to build up a sentiment for public education” in 1830’s and 1840’s:
For this work of propaganda hundreds of School Societies, Lyceums, and Educational Associations were organized; many conventions were held, and resolutions favoring state schools were adopted; many “Letters” and “Addresses to the Public” were written and published; public-spirited citizens traveled over the country, making addresses to the people explaining the advantages of free state schools; many public-spirited men gave the best years of their lives to the state-school propaganda; and many governors sent communications on the subject to legislatures not yet convinced as to the desirability of state action. At each meeting of the legislatures for years a deluge of resolutions, memorials, and petitions for and against free schools met the members.
Cubberly reveals that the compulsory attendance laws were strenuously opposed at first and he then summarizes how the system was imposed. It is also interesting to see how the expansion of government control over the lives of its citizens was a natural and necessary requirement to enforce compulsory school laws.
The history of compulsory-attendance legislation in the States has been much the same everywhere, and everywhere laws have been enacted only after overcoming strenuous opposition. At first the laws were optional in character, and not infrequently required acceptance by vote of the cities or counties concerned before becoming effective. Later the law was made state-wide in application, but the compulsory period each year was short (ten to twelve weeks) and the age limits low (nine to twelve years). After this the struggle came to extend the time, often little by little, to include the entire period during which the schools are in session; to extend the age limits downward to eight and seven and upward to fourteen, fifteen, or sixteen; to make the law apply to children attending private and parochial schools as well as public schools, and to require co-operation from such schools in the enforcement of the law; to secure proper information as to the ages of children as a basis for enforcement; to require the appointment of attendance officers and the establishment of parental schools [special schools for habitual truants] for the proper handling of cases; to institute some state supervision of local enforcement; and to connect school-attendance enforcement with the child-labor legislation of the State through a system of working permits and state inspection of mills, stores, and factories. As a consequence the development of compulsory-attendance legislation has been very uneven in our States, and attendance laws in almost all the stages of legislative evolution may still be found.
Please see my post Resisting public schools in 1886: the work of Asst. Attorney General Montgomery for an example of one notable figure opposing the expansion of this model.
Most of the complaints we have about modern schools (lack of relevance to the student’s life, lack of critical thinking and creative problem solving, focus on rote memorization tasks, harmful psychological effects etc.) were documented in Richard Grant White’s 1880 essay, The Public-School Failure .
Before the concept of government-controlled schooling gained traction in America, William Godwin, an English political philosopher, raised concerns that are still applicable today. His Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, was written in 1793. Godwin noted that learning needs to be self-directed rather than coerced:
It is our wisdom to incite men to act for themselves, not to retain them in a state of perpetual pupillage. He that learns because he desires to learn, will listen to the instructions he receives, and apprehend their meaning. He that teaches because he desires to teach, will discharge his occupation with enthusiasm and energy. But the moment political institution undertakes to assign to every man his place, the functions of all will be discharged with supineness and indifference.
He saw the inherent political conflict of interest:
…. the project of national education ought uniformly to be discouraged on account of its obvious alliance with national government. This is an alliance of a more formidable nature, than the old and much contested alliance of church and state. Before we put so powerful a machine under the direction of so ambiguous an agent, it behoves us to consider well what it is that we do. Government will not fail to employ it to strengthen its hands, and perpetuate its institutions. Their views as institutors of a system of education, will not fail to be analogous to their views in their political capacity: the data upon which their conduct as statesmen is vindicated, will be the data upon which their instructions are founded. It is not true that our youth ought to be instructed to venerate the constitution, however excellent; they should be instructed to venerate truth; and the constitution only so far as it corresponded with their independent deductions of truth.
Although there were many reasons why such an authoritarian system was seen as desirable by “educationists,” politicians and industrialists at the time, perhaps some of the more important ones included the growing influence of positivism in the various elite institutions, the growth of factories and large corporations, and the perceived threat posed by the large numbers of immigrants coming from predominantly Roman Catholic countries such as Ireland and Italy. Factors such as these caused certain leaders with various worldviews and political positions to seek more control over the growing “masses” to cure various perceived ills in society. “Scientific” management of children would produce citizens that would be happy to stay in their assigned stations in life, were obedient to the state and other authority figures, having uniformity in thought (for social order) and free from “superstitions” of the past. This required separating children from their parents for as much time as possible and placed under the supervision of the state’s ostensible experts and their methodologies.
As we survey the current system of government-controlled schooling, we can safely say that the system has largely succeeded in achieving the original objectives. The fact that so few people question the model and those who do are viewed as dangerous heretics, demonstrates the system’s effectiveness.
This is the second post in a series examining the origins of our government-controlled school system. The first can be found here: In the beginning: mostly voluntary and private.
Perhaps one of the most concise descriptions of how the 19th Century
Prussian schooling system became a model for American schools can be found in the Wikipedia entry Emulation of the Prussian education system in the United States :
American educators were fascinated by German educational trends. In 1818, John Griscom gave a favorable report of Prussian education. English translations were made of French philosopher Victor Cousin’s work, “Report on the State of Public Education in Prussia.” Calvin E. Stowe, Henry Barnard, Horace Mann, George Bancroft and Joseph Cogswell all had a vigorous interest in German education. In 1843, Mann traveled to Germany to investigate how the educational process worked. Upon his return to the United States, he lobbied heavily to have the “Prussian model” adopted.
Mann convinced his fellow modernizers, especially those in the Whig Party to legislate tax-supported elementary public education in their states. Indeed, most northern states adopted one version or another of the system he established in Massachusetts, especially the program for “normal schools” to train professional teachers. In 1852, Mann was instrumental in the decision to adopt the Prussian education system in Massachusetts. Soon New York state set up the same method in 12 different schools on a trial basis.
That system was characterized by compulsory attendance, teacher colleges, standardized national tests, national age-graded curriculum, compulsory kindergarten, the fragmenting of concepts into separate subjects with fixed periods of study, and the state ultimately asserting a superior claim to the child over the rights of the parents. This was a radical departure in methodology and content from the successful traditional forms of education in America.
Educator John Taylor Gatto in The Underground History of American Education describes Prussian thinking at the time:
The Prussian mind, which carried the day, held a clear idea of what centralized schooling should deliver: 1) Obedient soldiers to the army; 2) Obedient workers for mines, factories, and farms; 3) Well-subordinated civil servants, trained in their function; 4) Well-subordinated clerks for industry; 5) Citizens who thought alike on most issues; 6) National uniformity in thought, word, and deed.
The area of individual volition for commoners was severely foreclosed by Prussian psychological training procedures drawn from the experience of animal husbandry and equestrian training, and also taken from past military experience.
In The Prussian Elementary Schools, Thomas Alexander, Professor of Elementary Education at the George Peabody College for Teachers wrote the following in 1919:
We believe however that a careful study of the Prussian school system will convince any unbiased reader that the Prussian citizen cannot be free to do and act for himself; that the Prussian is to a large measure enslaved through the medium of his school that his learning instead of making him his own master forges the chain by which he is held in servitude; that the whole scheme of Prussian elementary education is shaped with the express purpose of making ninety five out of every hundred citizens subservient to the ruling house and to the state.
Alexander’s book clearly documented the totalitarian nature of the Prussian model but, foreshadowing the intellectual myopia of today’s education establishment, he did not appear to see that an Americanized government-controlled education system would be only marginally better and would clearly contradict our founding principles.
For some additional background on the Prussian system, see The Prussian-Industrial History of Public Schooling published by The New American Academy.
Given the top-down (i.e. forced) introduction of a system that was so clearly antithetical to American values, one would expect some resistance. Stay tuned for the next post to see how the system was imposed on an often unwilling populace.
Most people have no idea how the modern school system evolved. Some may think that compulsory public schools grew “organically” from the bottom up with parents demanding tax-supported public schools to be established for the good of their children and the nation. However, that is not the case.
Early American education from 1776 through the early decades of the 19th century, could be characterized as being “decentralized, entrepreneurial, and driven by the demands of individual parents and local communities, not school districts or states.” Some form of education was “a universal aspect in the lives of the majority of children by the early part of the nineteenth century,” long before state compulsory attendance laws were enacted and public schools were the norm.
In Free to Learn, Boston College psychologist Peter Gray describes the educational environment in Europe and America at the time:
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, churches throughout Europe had been forced out of political power, and states began to take over the task of education the young. The primary purpose of the new state-run schools was not literacy. By this time in history, the written word was everywhere, and literacy was high throughout Europe and North America. Children whose parents could read learned quite easily to read at home.
The primary educational concern of leaders in government and industry was not to make people literate but to gain control over what people read, what they thought , and how they behaved. Secular leaders in education promoted the idea that if the state controlled the schools, and if children were required by law to attend those schools, then the state could shape each new generation of citizens into ideal patriots and workers.
As Gray notes, prior to the advent of compulsory public schools, literacy was quite high. Jack Lynch, of Rutgers University, addresses this
topic in his article titled, “Every Man Able to Read,” Literacy in Early America:
In 1974, University of Montana scholar Kenneth Lockridge’s groundbreaking book, Literacy in Colonial New England, surveyed evidence from legal records and offered provisional conclusions—”The exercise is bound to be tentative, as it uses a biased sample and an ambiguous measure”—but he made the case that, among white New England men, about 60 percent of the population was literate between 1650 and 1670, a figure that rose to 85 percent between 1758 and 1762, and to 90 percent between 1787 and 1795. In cities such as Boston, the rate had come close to 100 percent by century’s end.
They showed that American literacy was high by European standards. As the University of Delaware’s F. W. Grubb wrote in 1990: Such research confirmed a widespread belief in early America itself. In 1800, a magazine called The Columbian Phoenix and Boston Review reported that “no country on the face of the earth can boast of a larger proportion of inhabitants, versed in the rudiments of science, or fewer, who are not able to read and write their names, than the United States of America.”
What about women?
In some ways, though, the story of women’s literacy is more dramatic than men’s. As Bard College’s Joel Perlmann and Boston College’s Dennis Shirley write, “Half the women born around 1730 were illiterate; virtually all the women born around 1810 were literate.” Though women lagged behind men chronologically, their progress came faster.
Even though it appears that the American approach to education that was predominately voluntary and private was apparently working, the push for compulsory tax-supported government schools began in earnest in the 1830’s. However, contrary to the modern public school mythology of today, the concept of tax-supported public schools, known as “free common schools,” was generally resisted by parents (evidence for this fact will be published in a subsequent post).
The first state to enact compulsory attendance laws in concert with a state-wide government school system was Massachusetts in 1852. It took 15 years before another state enacted such a law but by 1918 all states had them. This chart documents the enactment dates of compulsory school laws by state: State Compulsory School Attendance Laws. The Massachussets system was based on a model imported from Prussia and became the prototype “New England system” eventually adopted by every other state in the country. Stay tuned for the next installment discussing the Prussian model.
The classic problem with central planning of economies is that the planners have insufficient knowledge of everyone’s needs and desires to rationally allocate resources. Therefore, they are often operating with faulty assumptions. An excellent example of this problem is the current focus of our federal government on producing more science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM”) graduates. The Office of Science and Technology Policy section of the White House website has this statement:
A world-class STEM workforce is essential to virtually every goal we have as a nation – whether it’s broadly shared economic prosperity, international competitiveness, a strong national defense, a clean energy future, and longer, healthier, lives for all Americans. If we want the future to be made in America, we need to redouble our efforts to strengthen and expand our STEM workforce.
Therefore, in its continuing effort to manage our economy and help us live “longer, healthier lives,” the federal government continues to spend large sums of our money promoting STEM education. The U.S. Government Accountability Office states that “in fiscal year 2010, 13 federal agencies invested over $3 billion in 209 programs designed to increase knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and attainment of STEM degrees.”
However, does this reported problem and its government solution correspond to reality? According to a New York Times op-ed piece titled America’s Genius Glut, “If anything, we have too many high-tech workers: more than nine million people have degrees in a science, technology, engineering or math field, but only about three million have a job in one. That’s largely because pay levels don’t reward their skills.”
A Washington Post article carried a similar story citing the same organization represented in the New York Times article : “A study released Wednesday by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute reinforces what a number of researchers have come to believe: that the STEM worker shortage is a myth.” That study, Guestworkers in the high-skill U.S. labor market, shows that “for every two students that U.S. colleges graduate with STEM degrees, only one is hired into a STEM job.”
A recent article in the IEEE Spectrum, a journal of the “world’s largest professional association for the advancement of technology,” provides a thorough examination of the myth and its sources and consequences. The article, titled The STEM Crisis Is a Myth, notes that
Even as the Great Recession slowly recedes, STEM workers at every stage of the career pipeline, from freshly minted grads to mid- and late-career Ph.D.s, still struggle to find employment as many companies, including Boeing, IBM, and Symantec, continue to lay off thousands of STEM workers.
The argument that we need more STEM graduates because we are “falling behind” dates back at least to the National Defense Education Act of 1958 (which was a reaction to the former USSR launching the first satellite). That initiative led to a glut of STEM graduates in the 1970’s and the cycle has been repeated several times since then (see Piled Higher and Deeper for more historical context). The IEEE Spectrum article has this perspective:
Michael S. Teitelbaum, a Wertheim Fellow at Harvard Law School and a senior advisor to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, has studied the phenomenon, and he says that in the United States the anxiety dates back to World War II. Ever since then it has tended to run in cycles that he calls “alarm, boom, and bust.” He says the cycle usually starts when “someone or some group sounds the alarm that there is a critical crisis of insufficient numbers of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians” and as a result the country “is in jeopardy of either a national security risk or of falling behind economically.” In the 1950s, he notes, Americans worried that the Soviet Union was producing 95, 000 scientists and engineers a year while the United States was producing only about 57,000. In the 1980s, it was the perceived Japanese economic juggernaut that was the threat, and now it is China and India
Bill Mathis of the National Education Policy Center warns us of the implications of the current STEM “crisis”:
STEM as urban myth has several bad implications for education and social policy. First, it excites pressure to add even more science and math high school requirements — even though they encourage the glut in an over-supplied field. (Common Core believers are pressing forward in science based on the myth). It also wastes educational resources teaching skills which most students will never use.
More importantly, the myopic concentration on higher, harder STEM skills for all students distracts us from the purposes of education and overshadows the true skills for the twenty-first century. These include things like communications, responsibility, teamwork, evaluating information, listening, negotiating and creativity.
Why has this myth been developed and promoted? One obvious reason is that it is useful in generating surpluses of STEM graduates which then helps suppress wages. The myth also creates the “necessity” of importing cheaper foreign STEM labor, further suppressing wages. It is also another excuse for the federal government to intervene and save us from the evil free market – which, by implication, is shown to be inadequate in serving our needs. One wonders how many people will be pushed into unsuitable career choices and will face painful decisions in the future because of this enduring propaganda.
The arguments for freedom of education are many. The focus of my concern is generally on the human rights aspects of compulsory government-controlled schooling, e.g. the clear violation of freedom of conscience that occurs when the state compels us to submit to its definition of “education” and then regulates and controls how that “education” is provided. There are also sociological, economic and political reasons why governments should not be entrusted with such awesome power over their citizens. However, it seems that those arguments are too esoteric for those of us that have not sufficiently recovered from our years of indoctrination by the system in question. I am hoping that Free to Learn, a new book by Peter Gray, psychology research professor at Boston College, will be received by many people as a compelling set of reasons to question, if not abandon, the existing model that has been imposed on our fair nation (and many others) for roughly 150 years. Fortunately, it is not a dry recitation of psychological research but an interesting and engaging look at how children naturally learn.
The subtitle of Free to Learn provides his basic positive argument: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. The book also has a basic negative argument: our system of schooling (public or private) is the antithesis of a healthy learning environment. I suspect that if we wanted to design a process that would destroy creativity and instill antipathy toward learning in our children, it would look very much like modern schooling.
Gray argues that children’s play serves many critical purposes:
The drive to play is a basic, biological drive. Lack of free play may not kill the physical body, as would lack of food, air, water, but it kills the spirit and stunts mental growth. Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives. It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing.
However, our current system of education contradicts and inhibits our natural learning processes:
We are pushing the limits of children’s adaptability. We have pushed children into an abnormal environment, where they are expected to spend ever greater portions of their day under adult direction, sitting at desks, listening to and reading about things that don’t interest them, and answering questions that are not their own and are not, to them, real questions. We leave them ever less time and freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests.
Gray provides much evidence from research that supports his assertion that when children are “provided with the freedom and means to pursue their own interests, in safe settings, they bloom and develop along diverse and unpredictable paths, and they acquire the skills and confidence required to meet life’s challenges.” When learning is allowed to happen naturally, “there is no need for forced lessons, lectures, assignments, test, grades, segregation by age into classrooms, or any of the other trappings of our standard, compulsory system of schooling.”
Gray notes the increasing intrusion of school into home and family life, where children have an increasing burden of homework and parents “are now expected to be teachers’ aides.” But he also highlights a more insidious effect: “The school system has directly and indirectly, often unintentionally, fostered an attitude in society that children learn and progress primarily by doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time.”
Since Gray’s work has such profound implications about how we treat our children and, ultimately, order our society, all I can do on a blog post is provide a very brief survey of certain aspects of his book. As Gray begins to tackle the existing education environment in this country, he poses this overarching question: “Is forced education – and the consequent imprisonment of children – a good thing or bad thing?” As that question is considered, he provides “seven sins of our system of forced education.”
Sin 1: Denial of liberty without just cause and due process.
Sin 2: Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction.
Sin 3: Undermining of intrinsic motivation to learn (turning learning into work).
Sin 4: Judging students in ways that foster shame, hubris, cynicism, and cheating.
Sin 5: Interference with the development of cooperation and promotion of bullying.
Sin 6: Inhibition of critical thinking.
Sin 7: Reduction in diversity of skills and knowledge.
I must say he has nicely summarized the wonderful attributes of modern schooling. Those seven sins ultimately manifest themselves in increasing mental disorders in children. Gray documents the increases in anxiety and depression and its correlation with the decline in play and the increase in time devoted to schooling: “five to eight times as many young people today have scores above the cutoff for likely diagnosis of a clinically significant anxiety disorder or major depression than fifty or more years ago.” And: “Since 1950, the US suicide rate for children under age fifteen has quadrupled, and that for people age fifteen to twenty-four has more than doubled.” He notes that these increases appear to have nothing to do with major external events (economic cycles, wars, etc.) but is likely linked to “the rise of external locus of control” (i.e. a sense of control by circumstances outside of the person) in young people.
Fortunately, he has many helpful positive observations and suggestions based on his own work and that of other research psychologists. Since his research focuses on play and its educative value, Gray spends much time defining, describing and evaluating the various types of play as they relate to learning and social and emotional development. For example, he describes how “a playful mood improves creativity and insightful problem solving” and “a playful state of mind enables young children to solve logic problems.” He also sees free age mixing as “a key ingredient for children’s capacity for self-education.” Obviously, all of the above are in conflict with our age-sorted factory-model schools.
Although the current education situation is very grim, he does not leave us without hope. As an alternative model, the Sudbury Valley School is examined in some detail. The school’s website includes this statement:
Students enjoy total intellectual freedom, and unfettered interaction with other students and adults. Through being responsible for themselves and for the school’s operation, they gain the internal resources needed to lead effective lives.
Whether it is the spread of the Sudbury model or some other cooperative effort where there are the basic elements necessary for learning, he is optimistic that the migration to more humane and effective education environments will eventually prevail. However, it will have to come from parents. The current system is fundamentally so far off track, it can’t be reformed and, therefore, it must ultimately be abandoned.
When one reflects on the research and subsequent conclusions offered by Gray, it seems that at least some of what he reports should be self-evident from our own experience as children. In fact, as I read the book, I was reminded of George Orwell’s famous statement that “we have now sunk to a depth at which the restatement of the obvious is the first duty of intelligent men.” Fortunately, we have an intelligent psychologist who has given us much to ponder about what we are currently doing to our children.
A major thesis of this blog is that government should have little authority over education. The compulsory government-controlled education system that rules the minds of our children today can only be justified by a twisted view of our founding documents. Courts have assumed that “public education” is a public good and a duty of the state. [See my post “Protection” against ignorance: the offer we can’t refuse.] Not only is it antithetical to our founding principles, it is also antithetical to true education.
What would be the long-term result of eliminating governmental compulsion in education? Here are just a few of the many possible personal and societal benefits:
Centers of learning would be able to arise and compete in local markets. Governmental control of curricula and education dollars effectively squeezes out real competition – competition that is truly innovative. The solution is not simply privatizing public schools. We need to be open to the creation of entirely new learning environments (private, local and voluntary) that could evolve in a truly free market. We do not have this now since all 50 states have arrogated unto themselves the authority to tell us what should be taught and when and how that should occur. Just as we couldn’t forecast the technological developments of this century, neither can we predict what learning environments may yet develop in a free market.
Education, in the historical understanding of that concept, could occur. Dictionary.com defines education as “the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.” Much of what passes for modern education is imparting mostly irrelevant information that is quickly forgotten (if ever learned). True education is something that you acquire, not something externally imposed. The modern school system, being based on a mechanistic, assembly-line philosophy, is the antithesis of a natural learning environment. Ken Robinson, education theorist and creativity guru provided this perspective in his 2010 TED Talks presentation:
We have to go from what is essentially an industrial model of education, a manufacturing model, which is based on linearity and conformity and batching people. We have to move to a model that is based more on principles of agriculture. We have to recognize that human flourishing is not a mechanical process, it’s an organic process. And you cannot predict the outcome of human development; all you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which they will begin to flourish.
There is little evidence to suggest that such a system will ever develop if it is under governmental control.
There would be a realistic chance of finding the right vocation. We would all benefit by finding what Ken Robinson, calls the Element: “the place where the things you love to do and the things that you are good at come together.” Incarcerating children in our rigid school system effectively prevents children from exploring the adult world. The existing impoverished view of education is ultimately wasteful from both an economic and a psychological perspective. It is not uncommon for students to acquire a college degree in a discipline that they later realize is unsatisfying or unsuitable to them and sometimes leave that path soon after graduation. Others may spend decades working in a field that they will eventually have to abandon in order to preserve their mental health. A real education (as opposed to “schooling”) would help prevent such misallocations of time and resources.
Noted educator John Taylor Gatto, in his essay We Need Less School, Not More, made this observation:
Whatever an education is, it should make you a unique individual, not a conformist; it should furnish you with an original spirit with which to tackle the big challenges, it should allow you to find values which will be your road map through life; it should make you spiritually rich, a person who loves whatever you are doing, wherever you are, whomever you are with; it should teach you what is important, how to live and how to die.
Does that sound anything like results of compulsory government schooling?
If you were wondering why we must have a public education system, you can thank these folks for providing some answers: The Center for Education Policy, “a national, independent advocate for public education and for more effective public schools.” Fortunately, they produced Preserving Principles of Public Education in an Online World which contains “a list of key questions for policymakers to ask about major education reforms, grouped according to what we believe are six essential purposes and principles of public education.”
Here are the ”key questions” and my comments:
1) Effective preparation for life, work, and citizenship. Will the proposed reform produce an education of the quality needed to effectively prepare young people: (a) to lead fulfilling and contributing lives, (b) to be productively employed, and (c) to be responsible citizens in a democratic society?
Who determines what constitutes “fulfilling and contributing lives?” The second point is job training and the third is primarily a moral issue. Are these things best accomplished through coercion and control by government? The implications of government control in such personal matters are explored in my post Education: Free and Compulsory.
2) Social cohesion and shared culture.Will the proposed reform promote a cohesive American society by bringing together children from diverse backgrounds and encouraging them to get along? Will it help to form a shared American culture and to transmit democratic values?
Public schools tend to produce social division, not cohesion. Per the Cato Institute’s policy analysis paper titled Why We Fight, How Public Schools Cause Social Conflict: “Such clashes are inevitable in government-run schooling because all Americans are required to support the public schools, but only those with the most political power control them. Political — and sometimes even physical — conflict has thus been an inescapable public schooling reality.” See my post Social conflict - your school tax dollars at work.
3) Universal access and free cost. Will the proposed reform guarantee a public education that is universally accessible to all children within the governing jurisdiction and is free of charge to parents and students?
If you define “free of charge” as no tuition, then it is “free.” However, taxpayers ultimately pay for the cost. Does having government provide this “essential service” make sense? See Free groceries and other analogies for a comparison with another essential service not provided by agents of the state.
4) Equity and non-discrimination. Will the proposed reform provide the same quality of education for poor children as for non-poor children? Will it treat all children justly and without discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, disability, religious affiliation, or economic status?
Equity, in this sense, is defined as the quality of being fair and impartial. Forcing all children into a rigid age-based program of instruction is certainly not fair. Children naturally have different aptitudes and interests that are simply ignored and often crushed by the system. Boys and girls develop physically and mentally at different rates, yet every day they are herded into classes based simply on their date of birth. Ignoring these biological differences is not only unfair it is harmful. For a look at learning and gender see Smart boys, dumb system.
5) Public accountability and responsiveness. Will the proposed reform ensure that education supported with public dollars remains accountable to taxpayers and the public authorities that represent them? Will the reform be responsive to the needs of local communities and afford citizens a voice in the governance of their schools?
Public schools are notoriously deceptive about the true costs of the service that they deliver (see What do you expect for a mere $600 billion a year?). It is also difficult to determine who really controls the system. The controlling group includes state and federal government agencies, teacher unions, colleges of education, private foundations and various special-interest lobbyists. Local school boards may oversee local schools but they are primarily managing personnel, buildings and budgets, and in the end, they implement what the education establishment dictates. Citizens may have a “voice in the governance of their schools” but they have very little input for things that really count: choice of schools, curriculum, teachers, or attendance.
6) Religious neutrality. Will the proposed reform provide a public education that is religiously neutral and respectful of religious freedom?
The supposed religious neutrality of public schools is one of the most outrageous yet generally accepted myths in the public square. How can any institution that claims to teach children to “lead fulfilling and contributing lives” and “to be responsible citizens in a democratic society” possibly be religiously neutral. The following is from my earlier post Conceptual problems with the system:
Any system of knowledge is based on some sort of worldview. A worldview is an “overall perspective from which one sees and interprets the world.” As it relates to the big questions of life, a worldview is essentially a religious framework. To see if schools inculcate a religious viewpoint, all one has to do is examine the four big questions that any religion must answer: 1) origin of man and the universe, 2.) the meaning of life, 3.) morals, and 4.) a person’s destiny. Although many religious concepts are taught in government schools, much of the basic message seems to be a mixed bag of atheism, existentialism, relativism and perhaps nihilism (for those students who dig a little further toward the core - although few can live in that dark place).
As usual, absent from the discussion about public education is a fundamental principle that used to be important in our country: freedom. In a truly free nation, there would be freedom for parents and children to determine what is an appropriate education and freedom to determine when, where and how it is accomplished. We have not had that freedom for a very long time.
After struggling to understand why most people are very supportive of government control of education in spite of its many fatal flaws (violation of civil rights, indoctrination etc.), I keep coming back to a religious model as an explanation. However, it is not a religion freely chosen by its adherents but a system of thoughts and beliefs inculcated in them under the threat of force. The mind control techniques used by cults look very much like the what we see in the modern school environment.
Steven Hassan, a specialist in mind control and cults and founder of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center Inc. has developed what he calls the BITE model for identifying organizations exhibiting “destructive mind control:”
My mind control model outlines many key elements that need to be controlled: Behavior, Information, Thoughts and Emotions (BITE). If these four components can be controlled, then an individual’s identity can be systematically manipulated and changed.
The person’s identity is profoundly influenced through a set of social influence techniques and a “new identity” is created - programmed to be dependent on the leader or group ideology. The person cannot think for him or herself, but believes otherwise. The cult system reinforces an “illusion of control.”
Hassan notes that not all characteristics in his model need to be present to identify an environment that is conducive to destructive mind control:
It is important to understand that destructive mind control can be determined when the overall effect of these four components promotes dependency and obedience to some leader or cause. It is not necessary for every single item on the list to be present. Mind controlled cult members can live in their own apartments, have nine-to-five jobs, be married with children, and still be unable to think for themselves and act independently.
I examined the BITE model to see how closely it fits our coercive government school system. For each of the main categories, I selected the characteristics that seemed to fit best. I also added a few comments in brackets for purposes of clarity.
Out of eight characteristics, these seven fit:
1. Regulation of individual’s physical reality [schools are essentially a day prison]
2. Major time commitment required for indoctrination sessions and
group rituals [most of a child’s waking hours every day]
3. Need to ask permission for major decisions [or even minor decisions]
4. Rewards and punishments (behavior modification techniques- positive
5. Individualism discouraged; group think prevails
6. Rigid rules and regulations
7. Need for obedience and dependency
Out of six characteristics, these four fit:
1. Use of deception [presenting debatable concepts as “fact”]
2. Access to non-cult sources of information minimized or discouraged [government approved textbooks and curriculum]
3. Compartmentalization of information; Outsider vs. Insider doctrines (e.g. Leadership decides who needs to know what) [must follow the rigid age-segregated curriculum]
4. Extensive use of cult generated information and propaganda
Out of six characteristics, these four fit:
1. Need to internalize the group’s doctrine as “Truth”
2. Adopt “loaded” language (characterized by “thought-terminating clichés”). Words are the tools we use to think with. These “special” words constrict rather than expand understanding. They function to reduce complexities of experience into trite, platitudinous “buzz words”. [politically correct speech and thought]
3. No critical questions about leader, doctrine, or policy seen as legitimate
4. No alternative belief systems viewed as legitimate, good, or useful [don’t expect a balanced discussion about alternative education models in a public school classroom or a school board meeting]
Out of eight characteristics, these five fit:
1. Make the person feel like if there are ever any problems it is always their fault, never the leader’s or the group’s.
2. Feeling-stopping (with number , Excessive use of guilt). Like thought-stopping, this is the automatic suppression or blocking of feelings that are not acceptable by the cult identity- such as feeling ”homesick” or feeling ”depressed” or feeling ”resentful”.
3. Excessive use of guilt, e.g. Identity guilt: Who you are (not living up to your potential)
4. Excessive use of fear [a very useful tool in a tyrannical system]
5. Phobia indoctrination : programming of irrational fears of ever leaving the group or even questioning the leader’s authority. The person under mind control cannot visualize a positive, fulfilled future without being in the group. [If you don’t follow the government’s idea of education, you will be a failure]
At least 20 out of 28 characteristics of a destructive mind control environment appear to exist in public schools. Since most private schools follow the public school model (usually by government dictate), one could argue that almost all of us have been subjected to this environment during our formative years.
Is it a stretch to equate government-controlled schooling with cultic mind control? Looking at the historical purposes of public education as articulated by its founders, it is safe to say that mind control was at least one of the objectives. The long-term effects of this mind control on the adult population helps explain why government-controlled education is never questioned and any suggestions about replacing it with a more humane approach are resisted with an almost irrational fervor.