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 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.
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.