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.