Down with Childhood, Part 2 of 3 – against school

Having discussed the history of our modern conception of childhood here, I’m now going to try to articulate the arguments for being against that pre-eminent institution of modern childhood, the school. I’m still not sure how fully I agree with her, but I’m going to inhabit her views like a new dress here so as to get a feel for them.

The first thing to do is clarify and qualify. I do not want to deny that never have so many resources been devoted to educating children as now are, nor that there has never been as much information made available to as many people as there now is. Nor do I want to suggest that there aren’t brilliant teachers and fantastic lessons sometimes. What I want to argue is that given this level of information and resources, the method of education, schooling, is an actively wasteful and de-informing method.

Also, Firestone doesn’t really talk about universities, which have a separate, and longer, history. But from my experience of universities it’s clear how they fit in: university is a troubled attempt to take a student who has become adapted to schooling, and undo the harm that has been caused. They thus tend to have a mixture of school-like features, and more sensible ones.

The second thing to do is remind people of a couple of facts that everyone knows but that perhaps would still benefit from being reminded of. The first is this: everyone knows that school is horrible. Everyone knows that children largely hate school and do not want to go there. Everyone knows that by and large, for most children at most times, school is unpleasant.

The other point is that similarly, everyone knows that most of the information taught in schools is forgotten. I was good at school and remember facts well, but even I can recall little but of what so much of my youthful time was sacrificed in order to teach me when I was 10. Much of what is remembered is never thought about again or never used.

There is, perhaps, an element of the ‘Big Lie’ to this: we all hate school, and yet we persuade ourselves that it must be necessary and beneficial, because to set up such a boring, frustrating, alienating institution without a good reason seems so ridiculous that it seems inconceivable. The answer is of course that nobody consciously designs oppressive institutions to be oppressive – they’re designed for what their designers have persuaded themselves are noble or at least necessary motives, and their survival is ensured by their success in meeting the needs of the (fucked up) society that they form part of.

With that out of the way, let us offer some definite arguments.Each point is to some extent a consequence of the one above. The basic starting point then is:

1) Schools separate children from adult society and from the world they are expected to learn about.

If a Martian landed on Earth and explained that they knew very little of humans and our culture and wanted to learn how to live as a human, it would surely be absurd to tell her “ok, that’s fine. We’ll send you to the moon, where we’ll build a special moon-shelter and hire some people to live there tell you things about humans. They’ll be wearing spacesuits, so they won’t look or move like humans, and in fact you relationship with them will be pretty unlike your relationship with actual humans when you eventually come back down to earth, but still, we’re sure this is the best way for you to come to understand human life.”

Segregating someone away from the world is the worst way to get them to understand the world. The organisation of ideas in our head tends to follow the organisation of experiences in our lives, so if we learn all our facts about history, science, maths, and language in a special, segregated institution, we are likely to organise them in our heads in a little box maked ‘school stuff’, rather than fitting them into the idea-world in our heads where they properly belong.

2) Schools encourage children to associate only with other children of their own age.

As well as depriving children of the single biggest educational resource – adult humans – schools segregate children further into groups entirely of their own age, thus reducing children’s ability to share information and skills with each other.

3) Schools force people to adopt a method self-evaluation that is oriented not towards the activities themselves, but towards competition with other students on pointless tasks.

If people were not organised according to age it might be possible to evaluate them in terms of absolute ability, i.e. by a frame of reference based simply in the discipline itself (e.g. Does this person have a good grasp of the current scholarship regarding the reconquista?) This would tend to generate a feeling of being involved in a meaningful activity as part of a common endeavour with others. Instead, children in school are evaluated by a frame of reference based in their age group (e.g. Did you get better than all the others in the class, did you get an ‘A’ grade appropriate to an 8-year-old). This tends to generate a feeling of being involved in a meaningless activity in competition with others. Instead of encouraging children to derive satisfaction from a pleasant and productive life, this will encourage them to derive satisfaction from beating the others.

4) Schools artificially impoverish the child’s supply of adults, restricting their access to a 30:1 ratio,  that makes meaningful dialogue difficult.

Since schools are not a part of the adult world, only a tiny fraction of adults can have be involved in educating children. As a result, children find themselves in classes of 30 being taught by a single teacher, a situation which is clearly not conducive to dialague or strong engagement. Each child can only do what 29 others can do.

5) Schools make people learn things they don’t want to learn, and stop them from learning things they want to learn, causing them to associate learning, and indeed life, with unpleasant tasks.

As a result of the above points, children do not learn what they’re ready for, what they are interested in, what they will use. They learn what someone who has never met them has decided they should learn. As a result, half the time they will either be bored by a simplistic account of what they either already know or could grasp in much more detail, or be baffled by an account that they can’t follow. The one thing they will definitely learn is how to do things that you don’t want to do, and indeed how to spend most of your time doing them.

6) Schools involve controlling and determining the dominant half of the child’s time, but in a way that shows little responsiveness to the child’s own desires.

Because of course it goes way beyond what you learn. When you learn, who you learn with, where you spend your time, when you eat, where you’re allowed to eat, what you wear, what jewelry you can have on – everything in school is decided by someone else. You get your specially cordoned-off little section of free time, and your yearly choices of which subjects to do, but the overall context is still one of being controlled. And for years and years, this is what takes up about half you waking life (including homework), and indeed the dominant half, the half that other activities tend to be structured around. You don’t need to be an anarchist to see that this daily reassertion that you are not in charge is maybe not a great thing if we want children with “self-esteem” and a “love of freedom”.

In conclusion, I offer: the Onion.

7 Responses to “Down with Childhood, Part 2 of 3 – against school”

  1. freethinker Says:

    ‘competition with other students on pointless tasks’

    to do well in a competitive exam is not the same as doing well in the real world. you only have to see the many books that teach students the right strategies for exam prep and for doing the exam itself to realize that most of the skills they learn are very specific to the context of the school.

    also, i have never been okay with how math and languages are taught at school. they are too focused on learning rules (grammar, mathematical procedures, etc) rather than application.

    but more seriously perhaps schools create dichotomies between ‘subjects’ – content areas. we have a science class and a history class and a language class, and that classification is itself a part of the social and political organization. Basil Bernstein develops a thesis on this in his book ‘Knowledge and Control’.

    some subjects can become feminized, some subjects belong to the domain of modernization, and some to the domain of traditions. economics becomes a science arbitrarily divorced from history. in Pakistani schools, those who are good at Urdu and Islamic Studies become primitive fundamentalists in the social imagination (which affects their own self-identification), and those who study English and Science become modern liberals.

  2. Lindsay Says:

    (math and science) are too focused on learning rules (grammar, mathematical procedures, etc.) rather than application.

    I actually like that; with general principles, you can derive whatever you need for any given problem, while just being taught how to solve certain kinds of problems (without also filling in the general principles, and showing how to arrive at particular applications) only prepares you for those situations you were taught to handle.

  3. Lindsay Says:

    but more seriously perhaps schools create dichotomies between ‘subjects’ – content areas. we have a science class and a history class and a language class, and that classification is itself a part of the social and political organization.

    This is definitely the case in America, too. I think it really stunts our collective ability to think about things properly when all the “subjects” are so tidily separated from one another; it teaches us to compartmentalize, when really there’s no way to divorce economics from history, or from ecology for that matter.

    Politically speaking, yes, we also have that phenomenon of different subjects taking on different political valences and demographic characteristics. In America, I think the social sciences tend to attract the most liberal graduates, while economics tends to be closely allied with business. The natural sciences, while free of religious fundamentalists (those typically go to special private colleges, like Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, or Oral Roberts University, or similar — funnily enough, while those colleges are near-universally derided for their valuing of religious orthodoxy over academic rigor, they nevertheless end up sending an awful lot of graduates on to hold national office!), are not very female-friendly. The humanities are a mixed bag; I’d hesitate to generalize about the politics of most literature, classics or history professors, but the humanities also include academic feminism and other forms of cultural criticism, as well as the ongoing effort to broaden the literary canon to include previously-silenced voices.

    You’re dead on about some subjects becoming feminized, though. And in America (though I’d be willing to bet this is also the case in Pakistan!), whenever a field becomes dominated by women, it loses a lot of prestige.

  4. kb Says:

    thank you lyndsay-only learning applications means that we need to be able to predict exactly what applications will be needed by every child. Since every life is different, that’s impossible. My essential problem with this theory is-a. many many child activists decry the practice of treating children as little adults. Depending on age, they do not have the metal, emotional or physical development for this to be a good idea. So what, exactly, is gained by pushing children into “the adult world” that they’re not prepared for? there’s more argument about this regarding teenagers than smaller children, obviously, but this post doesn’t differentiate.
    also, you should only learn what you will learn for work? no, no, a thousand times no. I can’t tell you how many times required reading sparked curiosity about a tanget in me that changed my life. Also, given how much people grow and change throughout their lives, would you really want to be committed to a career path by only learning the subjects you’ll “use” starting even younger than now? no. There is value to a breadth of learning, even if it doesn’t give you a paycheck

  5. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “you should only learn what you will learn for work? no”
    I’m not sure where you got that impression from, because I totally agree that treating learning as a sort of mundane equipping for work is horrible. But I see that as working in Firestone’s favour here: the only reason we can have this “learn some particular thing, then stop and work for the rest of your life” pattern is that we have a period at the beginning devoted only to learning, which allows us to then have a period devoted only to working (speaking very roughly). Abolishing childhood, to my mind, would mean trying to let learning and work both be life-long things, varying over time but with education considered an obvious and reasonable activity at any age.

    “many child activists decry the practice of treating children as little adults. Depending on age, they do not have the metal, emotional or physical development”

    I don’t know what Firestone would say, but I imagine it would be something like: we can take into account, and respond to, the particular needs of people at different ages, without turning that into an entire segregated category, and without assuming that everyone at the same age is likely to have the same development. Indeed, he might suggest, the overarching category of ‘child’ often serves to obscure the concrete details of what children of age X, or a specific child of age X, needs and is capable of.

    “only learning applications means that we need to be able to predict exactly what applications will be needed by every child”
    I think maybe the feeling is not so much about specificity vs. generality as about knowledge vs. skills: the general skill of being able to speak a language intelligibly and rapidly but with frequent minor errors, is perhaps more useful than knowing all the rules and tables but having to labour over each sentence when applying them.

  6. kb Says:

    “I think maybe the feeling is not so much about specificity vs. generality as about knowledge vs. skills: the general skill of being able to speak a language intelligibly and rapidly but with frequent minor errors, is perhaps more useful than knowing all the rules and tables but having to labour over each sentence when applying them.” true, and I think this is more a semantics/strategy question than anything else-I see you getting that skill by knowing the rules, which you can then apply to whatever you want, as opposed to learning sentences which may allow you to speak more quickly, but severely limits you if what you want to say isn’t common.
    and you may be right that you can respond to the developmental needs of children without creating a category of child, but I haven’t ever seen any plans to do that. what would it look like?

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “you can respond to the developmental needs of children without creating a category of child, but I haven’t ever seen any plans to do that. what would it look like?”

    Well, one thing is that if you shift the paradigm of learning away from having specialists whose whole job is to teach children, and more towards having teaching and learning as generalised, integral parts of life, then teaching can become much more personalised because you have a far greater number of potential ‘teachers’ and can have something close to one-on-one. That’s how apprenticeships generally work, that’s how the ‘education’ that your parents give you works, that’s how teaching at a lot of top universities works.

    Another issue is that the more initiative comes from the child, rather than from the setting or the instructor, the easier it is to be personalised, because you don’t have to ‘impose’ the same learning plan on everyone, you get more of a sense of where the child’s at, etc. If you want real-world examples, you’re participating in one now. I want to learn about and understand the work of Shulamith Firestone (who I hope will not mind accidentally being called a ‘he’ in my previous comment) so I read the book and then put together posts on it, which attract comments, and discussions through which both I and my commenters learn.

    Of course not everything can be on the learner’s own initiative. But I think structures can be designed to encourage that, and I don’t think the schooling structure does.

    Of course, you’d want to deal with the specifics of each different issue – the sort of maturity needed for, say, carrying out research and the sort of maturity needed for, say, using drugs/alcohol responsibly aren’t the same, and would need their own consideration. But I think the general principles of diffusing the activity of education more broadly, rather than just everyone being in a specialist institution, shifting paradigms towards an initiative-based approach, would be the best abstract guide.


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