Again, thanks to everyone for your input. There’s so much good stuff in the comments I just reposted, it seems like responding would be a full-time job, and I hardly even know where to start. I’ll try to do the best I can, though, taking on themes rather than individual comments.
The System Works, Mostly
This point is hard to combat convincingly, since it’s really about data, and you’ll have to read a fair amount before there’s anywhere near enough data to combat the prejudices and assumptions that schooling has built up in us. Some facts (if you’re willing to regard them as such) that struck me are:
Works like Paine’s Common Sense and Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, both written before a unified school system existed, sold so well that we can be sure literacy rates were much higher than we usually assume. People were not illiterate before the creation of the public school system.
In the early twentieth century, it wasn’t strange for elementary schoolers to be reading Shakespeare, Thoreau, Twain, Franklin, and other such authors – none of whom, by the way, learned to read or write in a public school.
Children given the right kind of safe, supportive atmosphere can learn to read in about 30 hours. And yet,
The literacy rate is incredibly low in the US, despite official statistics putting it at 99%. Gatto provides data from the military, which tests incoming soldiers’ levels to make sure that they can read and follow instructions on varios devices. In 1932, 98% of those tested passed at at least 4th grade proficiency. In 1942, it was 96%. In 1951, 81% (yes, by the same standards.) In 1973, 73%. This despite the fact that the amount of teacher training, time spent in school, and money spent on students increased each year. Now, although the official rate is near-perfect, studies that don't involve asking people directly "can you read?" often result in rates of sixty percent or less.
Many other countries school their children less, spend less per child, and still achieve higher literacy rates. As did the United States, one hundred and fifty years ago.
The system itself was initially theorized, created, promoted, and funded by the titans of industry, for the good of their industries. Here’s a rather nefarious quotation from Rockefeller:
In our dreams...people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [of intellectual and moral education] fade from our minds and unhampered by tradition we work for our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science . We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets, or men of letters . We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors ,preachers, politicians, statesmen – of whom we have an ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple---we will organize children...and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way. (Cited by Gatto, Weapons of Mass Instruction, 8)
Exceptions may reasonably be taken to this; maybe making literacy isn’t the best measure of whether or not our education system is doing what it should (but then what is?), or maybe other things, and not school are to blame. This is certainly true; it would be unfair to pin the whole problem (well, the whole host of problems) on only one aspect of our society. On the other hand, though, this almost leads one to a position of saying that we need schools to protect our kids from advertisements, drugs, television, violence, etc. Clearly, that’s not something they can do.
What Will Happen to Kids, and the Rest of Society Without School?
The fear that unschooled children will become wild, illiterate, unrefined, unemployable, hedonistic beggar adults is somewhat understandable, but doesn’t seem justified to me. First of all, “despite” our schooling, a frighteningly, despair-inducingly high proportion of individuals in our society turn out this way anyway.
Second, the fact that people who don’t undergo a formal system of preparation/indoctrination may be unprepared to do for society what we’d like them to is not something that a democratic society ought to be proud of. While I hesitate to support the original provocative quotation (which got us all into this beautiful mess) by turning to yet another provocative quotation – I think there’s something important in this passage from Philip Slater’s 1970 book The Pursuit of Loneliness, which blew my mind in much the same way as Jensen’s Endgame and Henry’s Culture Against Man.
“Some of this resistance [i.e. resistance to the changes in social structure proposed by the hippies and radicals of the late 60s] comes from the old culture’s dependence upon the substitutes and palliatives that its own pathology necessitates. ‘Without all these props, wires, crutches, and pills,’ it adherents ask, ‘how can I function? Without the “extensions of man” I am not even a person. If you take away my gas mask, how can I breathe this polluted air? How will I get to the hospital without the automobile that has made me unfit to walk?’ These questions are serious, since one cannot in fact live comfortably in our society without these props until radical changes have been made – until the diseases that necessitate these palliatives have been cured. Transitions are always fraught with risk and discomfort and insecurity, but we do not enjoy the luxury of postponement. No matter how difficult it seems to to engage in radical change when all is changing anyway, the risk must be taken.” (151)
We need the school system to keep our society on track, but the track itself leads us to results that are neither desirable nor sustainable. We shouldn’t let our fear and our instinctive latching on to the status quo blind us to these facts and prevent us from thinking about large-scale, thoroughly thought-out, constructive changes that can be made.
People Need to Get Educated, Somehow / Learning Only Happens in Schools
If people don’t go to school, how and where will they learn? A knee-jerk response to a straw man argument. Nobody, not even the most radical of writers, is suggesting that we outlaw education and encourage children to soak up TV all day long. Rather, we need stop thinking of schooling and education as equivalent, and to broaden our concept of the latter so that it includes things like playing with friends, participating in the management of a household, finding ways to amuse yourself during long days, creating your own projects, finding your own mentors, exploring your environment, and watching adults perform tasks that are personally rewarding and socially useful.
Insofar as there is a need for places dedicated to learning– which there certainly is - we don’t need a one-size-fits-all, monolithic institution bloated with rules and preconceptions about what’s worth learning, who’s ready to learn it, and how long it should take them to do so; we need an open, democratic one that allows communities (to the extent that they still exist) to decide what to teach their kids, and how, and when, and where.
It’s true that, if set free, kids may not start to intentionally devote their time to developing an integrated, whole self. Kids don’t need to, though – that sort of enterprise is for people who are already able to recognize that somehow, somewhere, they were fractured (ahem..). If given a fair shot, (which, yes, includes limiting access to TV and video games and other pernicious influences, though perhaps these things wouldn’t seem so stimulating if school weren’t so boring) kids will naturally and organically learn the things that are important to them. The very reason that we quickly learn to drive, flirt, and masturbate is because they activities whose values we experience directly. Kids need to be given a chance, though, to find out for themselves what is important. Once the motivation is there, they can learn just about anything.
The Burden’s On the Student / Kids Need Pressure
Paradoxically, this response was often placed in the vicinity of the one above. One the one hand, it is said, students need school to get an education; on the other, if schools don’t do it well, the kids should just try harder and make use of their other time to learn. This looks like me to blithely accepting the fact that many children are forced to waste away inside concrete buildings for at least ten years.
If individuals kids are responsible for their own education, though, why not let them be really responsible for it? Instead of saying “you’re responsible for learning what we think you should learn,” why not say “you’re responsible both for figuring out what it is that you need to learn, and then for actually learning it, too”?
Why should it be up to the student to make the best of a bad system? Why not let him, and his family, and the community that he’ll eventually be a part of, create a system that suits their needs? There’s a difference between being encouraged, or even forced, to practice piano by your parents, who know and love you, and by teachers who, through no fault of their own, can hardly help but ignore your emotional needs, and who may even blame themselves for this and then begin to resent you for making them feel that they’re not up to their task. We all know that even parents can push too hard and ruin a child’s desire to learn something; it seems to me like our system of schooling, based primarily on fear of failure and humiliation, mostly does the same.
It’s true that the onus is on the learner, in the sense that no learning will happen if the learner doesn’t want it to. But it’s on society, and the institutions of learning in particular, to make kids want to learn, which means showing them the value of education. Kids are smart, smarter than we think, and they see through the lies we tell them (and ourselves) about what they’re doing in school. They know, better than most of us like to admit, that their time in schools is largely being wasted by people who themselves didn’t reap the promised benefits of their own ten-to-twenty years spent preparing to take test after test. As long as this fundamental discontinuity exists, schooling is a farce; true learning is based on authenticity.
Anyway, The System Won’t Change
This assertion has some force behind it – the system is indeed gargantuan, and even if we admit it's in crisis, it seems that we’ve got so much invested in it that we can’t just throw it away. Better to undertake smaller changes, to chisel away the defects.
To quote Slater again, though: “An action program must thus consist of two parts: (1) a long-term thrust at altering motivation and (2) a short-term attempt to redirect existing institutions.” (153)
What this means to me is that we need both small, pragmatic changes like reorganizing desks, using different textbooks, training better teachers; and big, sweeping goals like rethinking the fundamental goals of the system, which may mean rethinking the fundamental goals of our society. There’s no point in chiseling away if we don’t have something beautiful in mind that we want to create.
Wow! A contender for the longest, most through, most thoughtful, most interactive, most rewarding post ever! I feel like I’ve gained a lot from writing it. Thanks, folks.