Conservative and right-wing forces have busied themselves in recent years attacking the public school system. Progressive-minded people have responded by coming to the defense of the public system. That is a great misfortune, because our public schools are one of the most regressive forces in our society. By supporting school, as it presently exists, we are, in fact, making our work of transforming society all the more difficult. It is time to be realistic about the effect that our schools have on our children and our society.
Though schools are meant to promote learning, they are, in fact, one of the most effective tools in destroying the love of the learning. A long and dreary compulsory curriculum, the constant evaluation and the utter loss of freedom do just that. As children enter kindergarten they are anxious to learn and understand the world about them. These same students, a few years later, almost without exception, regard learning and reading as being boring and of no interest to them. The end result is citizens who are not interested in learning the facts that are relevant to important issues. Such people are not capable of taking on an active, meaningful role in a democracy and are inclined to leave issues to the “experts” – the voices presented to them by mainstream media – the very people who serve society’s established interests.
One thing that students do learn from their school experience is that people get what they deserve. Their report cards come with a statement of the class average or the prescribed standard. One half of the students in every class learn that they are below average. This further discourages learning and leads to further poor marks. As the message is repeated year after year, these students fully understand that they are among life’s losers, the underachievers and the undeserving. Upon leaving school, they have been prepared to accept the miserable, low-wage jobs that our society creates. They accept their lowly status in society as their own fault and do not become voices demanding change. The world of business relies on school to produce such workers and to produce them in large numbers.
School also works its magic on those who are successful at school. These students come to understand that schooling is about marks, not learning. They have succeeded in attaining higher marks and earning more advanced degrees. They have heard educators and parents state that without an education they will suffer in life, and that attaining an advanced education is the key to worldly success. The successful students come to believe that they are deserving of a disproportionately large share of society’s goods. School don’t just help create an unjust society composed of the overly rich and the overly poor, school also creates students who see these divisions as natural and just.
Schoolchildren’s lives are dominated by assessment and marking. Everything they produced is graded, and determined to have a certain value in the eyes of the teacher. Students very quickly learn that their own value, and the value of the work they produce, is rooted in the opinion of an external authority. Self-exploration and self-expression are less important than the approval of those with power over them. The graduates of this system have been trained to accept the common wisdom of the day and the values of the powerful. They no longer critically evaluate things on the basis of their inherent goodness or justice.
A fundamental docility is the key to success in school. Students can play pranks and even organize a small protest – perhaps about the quality of the lunches in the cafeteria - and earn some applause from their elders. But all students know that to succeed they must comply with the many hours of work and the detailed instructions handed down by the teacher. Any student who proclaims that he or she is unwilling to follow the long compulsory program is labeled a problem, and a troublemaker, and will ultimately earn our most crushing label, that of school dropout. Every student knows that a fundamental challenge to the values and procedures of school is futile. And so we have a society populated with adults who know that fundamental challenge to entrenched authority is futile. We have a society in which the majority of people are prepared to accept injustices as something about which they can do nothing, The forces of injustice could not ask for a more pleasing situation.
At school, abstract knowledge and learning is glorified. The world that we can see with our eyes, and touch with our hands, is never regarded as important as the abstract ideas that can be used to manipulate that world. The natural world is understood only insofar as we can exploit it. A study of the world forests, for example, falls under the topic of “natural resources.” Forests are to be understood insofar as they contribute to the material benefits that humans want to extract from them. So children grow alienated from the natural world and comfortable with the profound ecological damage worked by our industrial society.
The defenders of the public system suggest that school will be changed for the better when progressive forces are in charge of society. Such a development is rationally logical, yet practically impossible. Progressive forces will not come to power so long as regressive schools are turning out the overwhelming majority of citizens. Given our present school system, the forces of injustice can quite happily sit back and relax, knowing that their opposition has been cut off at the knees.
We need an education revolution, and we need it in order for any progressive transformation in our governments to take place. As progressives, we need to establish a broad network of schools with a radically new mode of operation that will turn out a new kind of adult citizen. It will require tremendous commitment and sacrifice and work. The great irony is that it is conservative forces that are championing charter schools when it should be progressive voices that are establishing independent, community-based schools as agents of transformation.
You may say that this cannot be done, that such a project is beyond our resources, that we are powerless to change the fundamentals of the education system. I would just ask you: where did you get that idea?