Andy and Jeff, thank you both for your comments. I realize that it's hard, for several reasons, to have any sort of substantial back-and-forth via a blog. This has been increasingly frustrating for me as my posts have grown more critical and less lighthearted in nature. For that very reason, I'm happy to have a chance to engage a little more deeply.
First of all, the quotation I chose was of course one of the more provocative, rhetorical ones. If I were able to post the whole book, or several of them, I would; then you would see more of the technical side, by which I mean details about what's wrong (for example, historical figures about literacy rates, social mobility, incarceration...), what alternatives there are (open schools, home schools, un-schools), and how those alternatives have played out in practice. Holt's “How Children Learn” is a fantastic analysis of what children are really learning inside of the elementary school classroom; his “Freedom and Beyond” looks more at the system as a whole and also discusses some alternatives schools; and Gatto's work unveils the history of the institution. All of the books are short (ie 250 pages or less) and well-written.
I have to say, I think that the "I turned out alright" argument falls flat on its face and amounts to ignoring the fact that different groups of people experience the school system in different ways. Of course, some make it through OK - but is that because of the system, or in spite of it? Remember, the three of us are upper-middle class white guys. Most of our parents have post-graduate degrees, and all have stable, relatively high incomes and a lot of choice in life. I'm lucky that my parents had the luxury of considering the quality of the school district in question when choosing where to move; and then, even after buying a house in a relatively good district, they worked to get me enrolled in an advanced program, open to only about twenty-five kids in my age group (out of the the thousand or more at the four schools in my county). I know your stories are to some degree different, but I also know that your parents went to great lengths to get you into the best schools they could. Not everyone is so fortunate.
You're right to point out that an alternative system might fail to prepare children for a lifetime of participation in the modern economy - but that's exactly the point! Life in the modern economy means, for most people, doing work that they don't care about for bosses that don't care about them (and who are in the same predicament). Not to mention that most modern work involves somehow degrading the ecosystem (not to mention the worker) in order to create and distribute products that nobody really needs. Conventional schools train people, emotionally and philosophically, to accept this state of affairs. Why support an institution that supports such a terrible system?
You both argue that school is about learning to think, not about learning specific facts. I agree - as does Gatto, as does Hoolt - that that's the way things ought to be. But that's not what most modern American schools are teaching most modern American children. They teach children obedience to authority that doesn’t care about their well-being; to evaluate themselves in terms of the grades they receive; to accept and complete arbitrary assignments; that the fundamental rule of life is competition; and, above all, that learning is work and work is boring, painful, and without meaning or joy. Most of these ideas are so repulsive and so unnatural, it’s hard to believe that anybody would buy into them if they hadn’t been closed up in a school for twelve years. Once they have thoroughly internalized what schools have to teach, though, it’s easy to see why alternatives would look so unrealistic.
Of course, you can’t change an institution as gargantuan as schooling and keep the rest of society static. The point is not to stop all schooling and then expect the world (or rather, our part of it) to continue as normal. That’s what I love about these writers – they do a great job of tying together a lot of problems. Resource depletion; environmental destruction; vapid consumerism; persistent racial disparity; urban destitution and suburban malaise; and so forth. If any of these problems are to be solved, starting with the institution that does the most to mold our populace's attitudes, abilities, and expectations about the world seems like a good idea to me.