I taught for
thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some
of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom.
Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as
I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers:
They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they
already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real,
not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know
much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning
more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as
bored as they were.
the common condition of schoolteachers, and anyone who has spent
time in a teachers’ lounge can vouch for the low energy, the whining,
the dispirited attitudes, to be found there. When asked why they
feel bored, the teachers tend to blame the kids, as you might expect.
Who wouldn’t get bored teaching students who are rude and interested
only in grades? If even that. Of course, teachers are themselves
products of the same twelve-year compulsory school programs that
so thoroughly bore their students, and as school personnel they
are trapped inside structures even more rigid than those imposed
upon the children. Who, then, is to blame?
We all are.
My grandfather taught me that. One afternoon when I was seven I
complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head.
He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again,
that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The obligation
to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who
didn’t know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible.
Certainty not to be trusted. That episode cured me of boredom forever,
and here and there over the years I was able to pass on the lesson
to some remarkable student. For the most part, however, I found
it futile to challenge the official notion that boredom and childishness
were the natural state of affairs in the classroom. Often I had
to defy custom, and even bend the law, to help kids break out of
struck back, of course; childish adults regularly conflate opposition
with disloyalty. I once returned from a medical leave to discover
that all evidence of my having been granted the leave had been purposely
destroyed, that my job had been terminated, and that I no longer
possessed even a teaching license. After nine months of tormented
effort I was able to retrieve the license when a school secretary
testified to witnessing the plot unfold. In the meantime my family
suffered more than I care to remember. By the time I finally retired
in 1991, 1 had more than enough reason to think of our schools – with
their long-term, cell-block-style, forced confinement of both students
and teachers – as virtual factories of childishness. Yet I honestly
could not see why they had to be that way. My own experience had
revealed to me what many other teachers must learn along the way,
too, yet keep to themselves for fear of reprisal: if we wanted to
we could easily and inexpensively jettison the old, stupid structures
and help kids take an education rather than merely receive a schooling.
We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity,
adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight –
simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing
kids to truly competent adults, and by giving each student what
autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then.
But we don’t
do that. And the more I asked why not, and persisted in thinking
about the "problem" of schooling as an engineer might,
the more I missed the point: What if there is no "problem"
with our schools? What if they are the way they are, so expensively
flying in the face of common sense and long experience in how children
learn things, not because they are doing something wrong but because
they are doing something right? Is it possible that George W. Bush
accidentally spoke the truth when he said we would "leave no
child behind"? Could it be that our schools are designed to
make sure not one of them ever really grows up?
Do we really
need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six
classes a day, five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve
years. Is this deadly routine really necessary? And if so, for what?
Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a rationale,
because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal
justification to rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number
of well-known Americans never went through the twelve-year wringer
our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right. George
Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln?
Someone taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a
school system, and not one of them was ever "graduated"
from a secondary school. Throughout most of American history, kids
generally didn’t go to high school, yet the unschooled rose to be
admirals, like Farragut; inventors, like Edison; captains of industry
like Carnegie and Rockefeller; writers, like Melville and Twain
and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead. In fact, until
pretty recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked
upon as children at all. Ariel Durant, who co-wrote an enormous,
and very good, multivolume history of the world with her husband,
Will, was happily married at fifteen, and who could reasonably claim
that Ariel Durant was an uneducated person? Unschooled, perhaps,
but not uneducated.
We have been
taught (that is, schooled) in this country to think of "success"
as synonymous with, or at least dependent upon, "schooling,"
but historically that isn’t true in either an intellectual or a
financial sense. And plenty of people throughout the world today
find a way to educate themselves without resorting to a system of
compulsory secondary schools that all too often resemble prisons.
Why, then, do Americans confuse education with just such a system?
What exactly is the purpose of our public schools?
of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into the United States
between 1905 and 1915, though it was conceived of much earlier and
pushed for throughout most of the nineteenth century. The reason
given for this enormous upheaval of family life and cultural traditions
was, roughly speaking, threefold:
1) To make
good people. 2) To make good citizens. 3) To make each person his
or her personal best. These goals are still trotted out today on
a regular basis, and most of us accept them in one form or another
as a decent definition of public education’s mission, however short
schools actually fall in achieving them. But we are dead wrong.
Compounding our error is the fact that the national literature holds
numerous and surprisingly consistent statements of compulsory schooling’s
true purpose. We have, for example, the great H. L. Mencken, who
wrote in The American Mercury for April 1924 that the aim
of public education is not
the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence.
… Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply
to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level,
to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent
and originality. That is its aim in the United States… and that
is its aim everywhere else.
Mencken’s reputation as a satirist, we might be tempted to dismiss
this passage as a bit of hyperbolic sarcasm. His article, however,
goes on to trace the template for our own educational system back
to the now vanished, though never to be forgotten, military state
of Prussia. And although he was certainly aware of the irony that
we had recently been at war with Germany, the heir to Prussian thought
and culture, Mencken was being perfectly serious here. Our educational
system really is Prussian in origin, and that really is cause for
The odd fact
of a Prussian provenance for our schools pops up again and again
once you know to look for it. William James alluded to it many times
at the turn of the century. Orestes Brownson, the hero of Christopher
Lasch’s 1991 book, The
True and Only Heaven, was publicly denouncing the Prussianization
of American schools back in the 1840s. Horace Mann’s "Seventh
Annual Report" to the Massachusetts State Board of Education
in 1843 is essentially a paean to the land of Frederick the Great
and a call for its schooling to be brought here. That Prussian culture
loomed large in America is hardly surprising, given our early association
with that utopian state. A Prussian served as Washington’s aide
during the Revolutionary War, and so many German-speaking people
had settled here by 1795 that Congress considered publishing a German-language
edition of the federal laws. But what shocks is that we should so
eagerly have adopted one of the very worst aspects of Prussian culture:
an educational system deliberately designed to produce mediocre
intellects, to hamstring the inner life, to deny students appreciable
leadership skills, and to ensure docile and incomplete citizens
in order to render the populace "manageable."
It was from
James Bryant Conant – president of Harvard for twenty years, WWI poison-gas
specialist, WWII executive on the atomic-bomb project, high commissioner
of the American zone in Germany after WWII, and truly one of the
most influential figures of the twentieth century – that I first got
wind of the real purposes of American schooling. Without Conant,
we would probably not have the same style and degree of standardized
testing that we enjoy today, nor would we be blessed with gargantuan
high schools that warehouse 2,000 to 4,000 students at a time, like
the famous Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado. Shortly after
I retired from teaching I picked up Conant’s 1959 book-length essay,
Child the Parent and the State, and was more than a little
intrigued to see him mention in passing that the modem schools we
attend were the result of a "revolution" engineered between
1905 and 1930. A revolution? He declines to elaborate, but he does
direct the curious and the uninformed to Alexander Inglis’s 1918
of Secondary Education, in which "one saw this revolution
through the eyes of a revolutionary."