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 a gentleman 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.
Anyone who investigates alternatives to the factory school system of the current day will eventually encounter the writings of John Holt. He was an educator, author and advocate for home education. One of his many books, Instead of Education, published in 1976, begins this way:
This is a book in favor of doing - self-directed, purposeful, meaningful life and work - and against “education” - learning cut off from active life and done under pressure of bribe or threat, greed and fear.
I found the book encouraging because the home school movement has made substantial progress since Holt’s time. However, I also found it very discouraging in that little progress has been made in convincing the American public that the authoritarian government education system violates our basic human rights.
Holt clearly sees those violations:
Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very center of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives, we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.
Education with its supporting system of compulsory and competitive schooling, all its carrots and sticks, its grades, diplomas, and credentials, now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern and worldwide slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and “fans,” driven more and more, in all parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve “education” but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and let people shape themselves.
Holt developed his own terms to distinguish between modern schools and other places where true education can occur:
The schools for do-ers which help people explore the the world as they choose, I now call “small s schools” (written s-chools). The schools for educators, which get and hold their students by the threat of jail or uselessness or poverty, I now call “capital S-chools,” (written S-chools). There is very little we can do to make S-chools better and they are almost certain to get worse.
And they certainly have.
Holt has this interesting quote from Crisis in the Classroom by Charles Silberman. That book was the result of research funded by the Carnegie Foundation and encompassed hundreds of schools in the 1960s:
It is not possible to spend any prolonged period visiting public school classrooms without being appalled by the mutilation visible everywhere - mutilation of spontaneity, of joy in learning, or pleasure in creating, or sense of self … Because adults take schools so much for granted, they fail to appreciate what grim, joyless places most American schools are, how oppressive and petty are the rules by which they are governed, how intellectually sterile and esthetically barren the atmosphere, what an appalling lack of civility obtains on the part of teachers and principals, what contempt they unconsciously display for students as students.
So much for the “good old days.” Holt notes that educators believe that one of schooling’s primary tasks is ”to get the kids ready for reality:”
…. that is to prepare themselves to live the kind of lives, and above all, to do the kind of work, that most people in modern societies do. In The Making of a Moron, Niall Brennan reported that in Australia during World War II, teen-age morons, with IQ’s of under 50 and mental ages of less than eight years, were able to do a variety of industrial jobs, not just passably but reliably and well. Despite all the talk about the technological demands of modern society, or the great need of education to enable people to meet these demands, the fact is that most modern work is moronic. It needs almost nothing in training, skill, intelligence or judgment. During World War II we found that even the most highly skilled industrial jobs, jobs that people supposedly had to spend years learning, could be learned from scratch in a few months.
I concur with Holt’s conclusions on the “technological demands of modern society.” I have observed, during many years in the business world, that most people learn what they need to know on the job. When students graduate from college, they often have little practical knowledge that is useful to their their first employer and what skills they have that are useful could have been learned in just months rather than years in the classroom.
What messages does our school system send to students?
The first message that S-chools, like any other compulsory institution, send to the people who attend them is a message of distrust and contempt: If we didn’t make you come here you wouldn’t learn anything, you’d just waste your time, spend the whole day playing basketball or watching TV or making trouble, you’d hang out on the streets, never do anything worthwhile, grow up to be a bum.
Along with this goes the message: Even if you could be trusted to want to find out about the world, you are too stupid to do it. Not only do we have to decide what you need to learn, but then we have to show you, one tiny step at a time, how to learn it. You could never figure out for yourself, or even have enough sense to ask good questions about it. The world is too complicated, mysterious, and difficult for you. You can only learn from us.
Along with these messages - really there is only one message; the parts fit into one whole - goes this one: Learning is separate from the rest of life. If you want to learn something of any importance, you must get it from a teacher, in a school. From this it follows that understanding is not an activity but a thing, a commodity. It is not something you do or make yourself, but something you get. It is scarce, valuable, and expensive. You can only get it from someone who has it - if he is willing to give it to you. You can’t make your own; if you do, it’s no good, you can’t get anything for it. Some of these people have much more of this valuable knowledge than others, and because they do, they have a right to tell others what to do.
These messages lead us to believe in what Holt calls the “Divine Right of Experts:”
Since they can put us and keep us in S-chool, control our lives there, tell us what we have to learn and how, and grade and rank us by how well we learn it, we naturally learn to believe that all through life, in any situation, there must be experts somewhere who know better than we do what is best for us and what we should do next.
I think this is one reason why our citizens are reflexively obedient to government and its agents no matter how obviously unreasonable, unconstitutional or unlawful their dictates may be. It is a devilishly clever self-perpetuating system. Once government seized the patently unconstitutional power to rule over our children’s intellectual development, its system of indoctrination ensured that it would be unlikely that their subjects would care or even notice the violation of their basic human rights.
Holt has some interesting observations about teaching morality in schools:
Most teachers, themselves ready to do whatever authority tells them, think that by making the child obey, they are making him moral. Instead, they are destroying whatever moral possibilities he may have. Teachers ask me all the time how they can teach people to be moral - or “human,” or “humane.” But we can’t teach it, can’t make someone moral or humane, and least of all in a place where, without his consent, we have taken control of his life and thought. The most we can do to help someone else become moral is to treat him morally, which at the very least means that we do not make him our subject or slave. Prisons, jails, S-chools, coercive institutions of all kinds, are very good at teaching dishonesty, irresponsibility, immorality, and crime. But morality, justice, and virtue are precisely what they cannot teach.
I reminds me of the contradiction of government schools teaching the liberties that are guaranteed by the Bill of Rights - while violating those very same rights every day. Holt looked forward to a day when we would have true education freedom but ended the book with this grim statement:
Meanwhile, education - compulsory schooling, compulsory learning - is a tyranny and crime against the human mind and spirit. Let all those escape it who can, any way they can.
And in Holt’s day, that sometimes meant civil disobedience. Thanks to the hard work of the pioneers in the home education movement there are lower risk alternatives - but the laws and the infrastructure that sustain the evil empire still remain.
The recent news of a hard working, academically excelling Texas student who was jailed for truancy is a reminder of the oppressive system that confronts over 40 million public school students each day. The young woman, Diane Tran, is an 11th grade honor student who was working two jobs to help support her family but apparently violated Texas truancy law. The judge’s comment to the press is perfectly consistent with an authoritarian regime: “If you let one run loose, what are you going to do with the rest of them? Let them go, too?” Of course, we can’t allow someone to successfully escape the penitentiary, even if it’s just for limited periods of time.
Identifying public school as a type of prison seems self-evident to those of us who try to objectively examine the modern education system. However, it is an extreme rarity that anyone with academic credentials related to learning would have that view and much less publicly articulate that position. Fortunately, we have such a person in Peter Gray, Ph.D., research professor in the Department of Psychology at Boston College. I think he is particularly qualified to critique the legitimacy of the claims of the current government schooling system since his current focus is research related to “children’s play and its educative value.” He also has an interesting blog at the Psychology Today web site called Freedom to Learn: The roles of play and curiosity as foundations for learning.
Dr. Gray kindly consented to answer some of my questions related to compulsory government schooling. Those questions and his answers are shown in the exchange below.
Issue: Starting in the mid-19th century, state governments decided that the state must control the intellectual development of children. Federal courts have upheld the right of states to use their police powers to force attendance at public schools and enforce government standards at private and home schools.
Forced School (“FS”): Some people see similarities between the fight for education freedom and that of abolishing slavery. Do you see any similarities from a psychological standpoint?
Dr. Peter Gray (“PG”): Yes, there certainly are some similarities. In the discussion of abolishing slavery people worried about what would happen when all of the former slaves were turned loose. People now worry about what would happen when kids are turned loose. People can’t envision what would happen, and that becomes an argument for maintaining the status quo. There was also lots of economic incentive to slave owners—and others who profited from the products of plantations—to maintain slavery; and there is economic incentive on the part of many to keep schools as they are. And, of course, many assumed that Negroes were not fully human and could not deal with freedom, just as many assume that (implicitly) about children today
FS: What problems, if any, do you see with the coercive role played by government in shaping the intellectual development of children (i.e. as opposed to a merely advisory role)?
PG: The main problem with a coercive role played by government or anyone else is that coercion interferes with children’s natural instincts to learn through play and exploration. Coercion is antithetical to these natural ways of learning. That’s the main point of my blog and my forthcoming book, Freedom to Learn.
Issue: Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, recently helped enact reforms that relate to early childhood education. One of the new rules includes this: “Establish performance targets for children under the age of three and academic standards for kindergarten readiness for three and four-year old children to be used in publicly funded early childhood education programs.”
FS: If this becomes generally accepted, do you expect to see the behavioral problems that are not uncommon in elementary and middle school children (e.g. ADHD) being diagnosed in very young children?
PG: Absolutely. In fact, ADHD is already being diagnosed in kids as young as 3, in “academically oriented” preschools, and some of them are already on stimulants.
Issue: The education reforms that are politically successful today appear to be of the “standards-based education” variety. One definition of standards-based education included these points: “Rather than norm-referenced rankings, a standards-based system measures each student against the concrete standard. Curriculum, assessments, and professional development are aligned to the standards.”
FS: When we are dealing with the education of children, rather than manufacturing cars or computers, is it possible to have standardized, age-segregated, objective tests for children that measure meaningful levels of learning?
PG: It is certainly possible to measure the learning of specific skills and information, with some reliability and validity. However, the very act of measuring—especially when it determines whether kids fail or succeed in school—interferes with learning. Children become oriented toward doing well on the test rather than really understanding, and toward pleasing the teacher rather than developing their own ideas and ways of thinking. And the stress induced by continuous evaluation interferes with creativity and learning. Moreover, the goal in education, unlike that in producing a certain kind of car, should not be standardization. The people we need most are those who are creative and have ideas, knowledge, and skills for which we have no measures.
FS: Given the focus on measurement, what do you think is the purpose of modern education?
PG: “Modern education” has a number of purposes. One is babysitting, as most parents work and no adults are home during the day. Another is employment for millions of people in the education business. A major purpose, from the point of view of individual teachers and other school personnel, is to help students go through whatever hoops they need to move on to the next grade and ultimately into college. Rarely is there serious thought or debate about the question of why those hoops are there. Rarely is there real reflection on bigger questions of how one finds meaning and happiness in life, or what skills are really useful, to a given person, to be productive and helpful to others in the larger culture.
FS: When did you come to the conclusion that schools and prisons are similar in nature? Was there a triggering event or series of events that caused you to come to this viewpoint?
PG: When I was a kid in school my friends and I often, only half facetiously, often referred to school as prison, and we often commented that it’s “not a free country” after all. The point was not driven home to me, however, until my own son was in public school and, from the beginning, saw it as prison and rebelled continuously against it. He forced me to realize how coercive and undemocratic this institution is and how much suffering it creates for many kids. I didn’t use the word “prison” or the phrase “forced education” in my writing, however, until September. 2009, when I posted my Psychology Today essay, “Why Don’t Students Like School? Well, Duhhhh…” I just decided then that it was time to do away with euphemisms.
Anyone who dreams of education freedom for our children should be thankful for Peter Gray’s research and his boldness.
Another education crisis has been discovered: the lack of civic knowledge. Suddenly, civic education appears on the radar screen and “solutions” are being offered by the same type of people who created the problem in the first place. The federal government appears to be rallying the troops to push its version of politically correct citizenship in public schools. Perhaps the growing support for limited government is enough of a threat to the political elites that they feel compelled to take action where they can.
The Department of Education’s web page on civic learning includes links for a number of reports. The first one that got my attention was this: Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools. The title is enough to get one’s blood pressure to rise since a democracy is the polar opposite of the authoritarian public school system - as evidenced by compulsory attendance laws and the treatment of its captives. The report was published by the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools in October 2011. Per their web site: “The Campaign is guided by a Steering Committee that represents a coalition of more than 60 advocates, educators, practitioners, and officials dedicated to promoting civic education in America’s schools.”
It is interesting how they frame the problem in the report. Apparently, they see the lack of civic knowledge (and participation) as a material cause of “divisiveness and inaction.”
But the ideal of America as composed of a unified “We the People” can at times seem to ring hollow, since so little seems to unite three hundred million Americans.
The present decline in common purpose is closely linked to a decline in civility. When Americans do not feel bound to their fellow citizens, spirited rhetoric leads to divisiveness and inaction. Even a brief look at cable news or political blogs makes clear that many Americans are talking past— rather than to—each other, and they often do so with a fundamental lack of respect for the other’s perspectives.
The folks behind this report are the people who need to learn civility first before they lecture anyone else on that topic: does anyone remember the teachers protesting Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and similar events in other states? I suspect that these self-appointed Guardians of Democracy really don’t like the “great unwashed” disagreeing with their superiors. As expected, we are told that more compulsory government schooling is the solution to this latest “crisis.”
John Taylor Gatto noted this false assumption behind public schools in his magnum opus The Underground History of American Education: “The socialization of children in age-graded groups monitored by State agents is essential to learn to get along with others in a pluralistic society.” Gatto then elaborates:
The actual truth is that the rigid compartmentalizations of schooling teach a crippling form of social relation: wait passively until you are told what to do, never judge your own work or confer with associates, have contempt for those younger than yourself and fear of those older. Behave according to the meaning assigned to your class label. These are the rules of a nuthouse.
Here are some recommendations from the Guardian of Democracy report with my interpretive headings:
Let’s create more standards and give more tests: “Support the development of common state standards in civic learning (civics, history, geography, and economics). Support the states in the development of common assessments tied to the standards.”
Let’s discuss the glory of big government and then lobby for more education dollars: “Revitalize civic learning from the dry facts of history and the structure of government to a focus on the ways citizens can and must be engaged participants in civic life. Focus instruction on a vibrant discussion of historical facts and their underlying values.”
But don’t talk about liberty and limited government: “All citizens should volunteer time and resources to help schools provide effective civic learning.”
Let’s get our media pals to help us indoctrinate the kids: “The media should recognize schools as an ideal venue for reading/watching news outlets and should support schools through programs such as “Newspapers in Education” and PBS’s “the.News.””
Returning to the Dept. of Education’s web site, I took a look their own “crisis” report: Advancing Civic Learning and Engagement in Democracy: A Road Map and Call to Action published January 2012.
Once again, the civics “crisis” is revealed:
As these data suggest, our public schools and postsecondary institutions are simply doing too little today to adequately prepare Americans for informed, engaged participation in civic and democratic life.
One interesting comment stands out:
The goals of traditional civic education, such as increasing civic knowledge, voter participation, or volunteerism, remain worth pursuing. However, the new generation of civic learning puts students at the center and includes both learning and practice—not just rote memorization of names, dates, and processes. And more and more, civic educators are harnessing the power of technology and social networking to engage students across place and time [emphasis added].
Is this what we want? Should government agents not only be indoctrinating students but also “harnessing” technology and social networking to politically “engage students”? With the possibility of creating public school versions of ACORN, it is difficult to imagine a greater conflict of interest: government agents organizing students to lobby for expanding state power. Since it is happening now to varying degrees, we can see the temptation is irresistible.
The Advancing Civic Learning report also states this:
At no school, college, or university should students graduate with less civic literacy and engagement than when they arrived.
I’m not sure if I should laugh or cry.
Can we reasonably expect public schools to present our founders’ views of the constitutional limits of government (to a captive audience in a prison-like environment) when the very existence of government control of the intellectual development of our children is an affront to our freedom of conscience? I think not.
Since the topic of true education freedom is now so foreign to the American mind, there seemed to be a need for a short, entertaining video on that topic. In order to reach as many people as possible with the basic message, I created a four minute animation video featuring Angus “the world’s most interesting goat” and his human friend Stuart. The video can be found by clicking here: Angus the Goat headbutts the school system.
With the publishing of the video, it seems appropriate to highlight some of the content of this blog. Selected blog posts are shown below for a quick tour of the issues. As with all of my posts, the bold text is a link to the source documents.
A pithy description of the current government education was made by educator John Taylor Gatto (in reference to the 19th Century Prussian origins of our school system) in an essay titled Against School:
… an educational system deliberately designed to produce mediocre intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens - all in order to render the populace “manageable.”
The National Education Association’s motto reads: Great Public Schools for Every Student. In effect, the real objective is this: Great Public Schools for Every Government.
Sometimes we encounter ideas that are simply breathtaking in their scope and arrogance. The current example before me is the paper titled Taking Children’s Interests Seriously by Martha Fineman of the Emory University School of Law . Her bio looks very impressive. “Her scholarly interests are the legal regulation of family and intimacy and the legal implications of universal dependency and vulnerability.” Her bio also says she is “a leading authority on family law and feminist jurisprudence.”
Whatever her positions may be in other subjects, in the area of human rights and public schools she is firmly on the side of government oppression. The basic thesis of her paper appears to be that parental interests in a child’s education must be subordinate to the interests of the state.
In Fineman’s opinion, home schools or private schools are inferior to public schools for the following reasons:
Parents are not qualified to make education decisions for their children.
I question whether parents have superior knowledge when the issues involve what subjects and methods of preparation are most likely to prepare the child for a future in a complex, technical, and rapidly changing world. This type of expertise is almost certainly within the province of certified teachers and school boards, not parents
Governmental entities have difficulty managing an annual budget let alone prophesying the future, yet we are to believe the government’s nominal experts can prepare us for an unknown and unknowable “future in a complex, technical, and rapidly changing world.”
Parents may teach their children ideas that conflict with “secular standards.”
But what if the parental values and morals to be expressed in making choices for the child are not so conveniently exemplary by secular standards as those that are presumed? What is the role for expressive interest of parents who believe in the value and morality of white supremacy or resistance to the “jack-booted” officials of a federal government poised to take over and enslave free people?
What if the “secular standards” delivered in prison-like “jack-booted” environments (such as public schools) in fact alienate the children from their family, their culture, and ultimately themselves and thereby greatly impoverish their lives? Ironically, our modern school system has its roots in a true “jack-booted” society: militaristic 19th Century Prussia.
Private schools don’t inherently operate in the best interests of the child.
Fineman sees private schools as an inferior option because they may teach a worldview that that she finds offensive or unenlightened. Within that context she states: “Children’s interests are pushed to the background under the erroneous assumption that private schools inherently operate in the best interests of the child.”
She apparently assumes that public school administrators, teachers unions and the politicians that are lobbied by them operate in the “best interests of the child.” Anyone who believes that government agencies are somehow exempt from natural human weaknesses is certainly naive. At least with private schools, you can essentially fire them. Like any other private enterprise they are normally very interested in what their customers think – obviously, that is something not found in governmental agencies like public schools.
Fineman does not like the fact that home education is less regulated in some states. However, the “research” she cites is incorrect:
… at least ten states currently lack regulations of any sort over parents who choose to home school their children (Gross, 2008). In fact, in those ten states, parents are not even required to inform the school or the state that they intend to home school their children (Gross). As a result, parents are given total discretion over their children’s education and neither children nor the state are given an opportunity to assert their interests.
I wish that were true but it is not. The states in question appear to be AK, CT, ID, IL, IN, MI, NJ, OK, MO and TX. All of the ten states have compulsory school laws. In all states, home school is an exception to compulsory public school attendance which could be more heavily regulated by legislative decree at any time in the future. All but one state asserts, either explicitly or implied through case law, that the education must be equivalent or comparable to public school. Most dictate the number of days or hours of instruction. Even in the most liberal state of all, Alaska, the state can still make a case that the child is not being “educated” and take enforcement actions etc. Please note that these are the most lenient states.
She also makes this unsubstantiated claim regarding those ten states: “The total absence of regulation over what and how children are taught leaves the child vulnerable to gaining a sub-par or nonexistent education from which they may never recover.” If is true that children would never recover from a sub-par education, then we should immediately release the forty million captives in the public school system since, from a classical education perspective, that system is guilty of that very same crime.
Fineman’s ultimate objective is for the abolition of home and private schools.
Perhaps the more appropriate suggestion for our current educational dilemma is that public education should be mandatory and universal. Parental expressive interest could supplement but never supplant the public institutions where the basic and fundamental lesson would be taught and experienced by all American children: we must struggle together to define ourselves both as a collective and as individuals.
So there you have it. Everyone must be processed and programmed by the government school system. The education establishment and politicians determine whatever they think should be the “fundamental lesson” that must be “taught and experienced” by every child in America. Parents must sit at the back of the bus - and pay for everyone’s ride.
There is nothing new here. If you look into the history of compulsory schooling in America, you will find that Fineman’s totalitarian thinking was represented there at the inception.
The education propaganda machine would have you believe that our government education system has always been seen as something beneficial and absolutely essential to the success of our great republic. One would be led to think that only a few cranky libertarian kooks and extreme religionists would be against such an exalted public service.
Au contraire. There has been resistance to the concept of government control of education from the time of the first compulsory government schooling state law in 1852 (Massachusetts) all the way down to the present time. One of the more interesting people in this resistance movement was Zachariah Montgomery. He was the U.S. Assistant Attorney General appointed by President Grover Cleveland and served in that position from 1885 to 1889. Even while in office, he traveled and lectured on the conceptual problems with what he called the anti-parental “New England system” of compulsory government schools. In 1886, he published Poison Drops in the Federal Senate: The School Question From A Parental and Non-Sectarian Stand-Point.
The concepts contained in the following quotes from Montgomery’s book should be familiar to readers of this blog.
…the true and proper course to be pursued by the friends of educational reform is to keep prominently before the people the fundamental, the vital issue, this question, namely : Shall the parent or the political State determine for a child who shall be its teacher, its companions, and what books it shall or shall not study. Let all other issues be made subordinate to this.
…the law of nature and nature’s God, which ordains that it is both the right and duty of parents to educate their children in such manner as they believe will be most for their future happiness is utterly disregarded and set at naught by the State, which ordains that it is neither the right nor the duty of parents, but of the State, to say when, where, by whom, and in what manner our children shall be educated.
Montgomery provided evidence that states with compulsory government schooling had higher crime and suicide rates (and other social problems) than those states without such compulsion. His research was based on published government census data. Unfortunately, it is a study that we can’t duplicate today since there are no states in America that have true freedom of education (i.e. no compulsion and no government education laws).
Another serious problem with government control of school curricula is the conflict of interest that it engenders: the government has the power to mold the minds of its citizens. It is natural that the government would favor teaching obedience to authority and belief in a benign and benevolent government, even as it perpetually seeks increasing control over our lives. Arguing along this line of reasoning, Montgomery notes the significant changes to the definitions of words in the standard lexicon of the time: Webster’s Dictionary. One of his examples follows:
Webster’s 1859 version: “In free States the Constitution is paramount to the statutes or laws enacted by the Legislature, limiting and controlling its power; and in the United States the Legislature is created and its powers designated by the Constitution.”
Webster’s 1884 version: “The principal or fundamental laws which govern a State or other organized body of men, and are embodied in written documents or implied in the institutions or usages of the country or society.” Montgomery concludes:
Thus, under public-school [instruction], the rising generation no longer look[s] upon the written Constitution as the source and limit of legislative power; but on the contrary the mere “usages of society” are raised to the dignity of constitutional law.
…how would it have been possible for them to have contrived a more ingenious device to justify in the eyes of the rising generation their official misdeeds, than by thus adopting, legalizing, and forcing into the public school, through their willing tools, a definition of the word “Constitution” sufficiently elastic to cover every species of their accustomed rascalities?
Perhaps one could argue that in the above example the definition was simply broadened. However, it is interesting that the dictionary changes that Montgomery highlights in his book, along with modern anecdotal evidence, point to a trend of erosion of the constitutional limits on government. This is consistent with what one would expect with the incentives of a system that has a natural conflict of interest with individual liberty, as noted above. Therefore, it is not surprising that after 128 additional years of such purposeful changes, the Constitution is effectively ignored or revised into such flexibility that it has lost much of its force to contain the government’s power.
Ultimately, Montgomery argued that government should not be in the business of providing education. That is the only long-term answer to the “school question” for a country founded on “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Perhaps, though, we shall be told that so radical a change in the public school system, as that suggested, would work the destruction of the system itself. If that be so, then we would ask whether it is better for us to destroy the system, or to let the system destroy us?
Lest you think Montgomery is just another fossil from the Victorian era, please consider John Taylor Gatto’s summary critique of our repressive education system in his book The Underground History of American Education:
It set out to build a new social order at the beginning of the twentieth century (and by 1970 had succeeded beyond all expectations), but in the process crippled the democratic experiment of America, disenfranchising ordinary people, dividing families, creating wholesale dependencies, grotesquely extending childhoods. It emptied people of full humanity in order to convert them into human resources.
It seems that history has proven that Mr. Montgomery was right.