by Gennady Stolyarov II
An MP3 audio file of this article, read by the author, is available for download.
With so many state governments’ budgets now under severe strain, there are serious discussions throughout the country about whether or not to cut state funding to public education – an expenditure that, in some states, consumes more than half the budget. Unfortunately, because of extensive resistance by teachers’ unions and other parties with a vested interest in the status quo, fundamental changes to the system will be fought every step of the way. At the same time, however, it is useful to acknowledge that public schools do not just do a suboptimal job at educating the young: much in the environment of the public school is directly contrary to genuine education.
As someone who has survived nine years of US public schooling (I completed some of my earlier education in Belarus), I can confidently say that there is no lack of trying to achieve "educational goals" in the public schools. Indeed, some of the teachers there are genuinely competent and interested in the advancement of their students. It is just that virtually all the incentives are wrong – even when one puts aside issues such as the criteria for teacher evaluation and compensation. The very environment of a public school brings with it severe consequences – some unintended, others intended perhaps in part – that turn it into the virtual antithesis of true education.
I have written elsewhere about the pervasive bullying and the stultifying culture of teenage conformity for which public schools become a breeding ground. There I also discussed how the structure of public schools fosters teaching to the lowest common denominator and the suppression of student curiosity.
But there are other, more explicit policy decisions that plague the public schools in our time. The notions of "school spirit" and "discipline" are so deeply intertwined with American public education today that they would probably survive even deep budget cuts. Having directly seen some of their effects, I now hope to educate the public regarding them.
There is hardly a public school in the United States that does not spend tremendous amounts of money, time, and force cultivating the completely absurd and deleterious notion of school spirit – largely aimed at convincing students to "support" the school by attending vast and numerous athletic events and purchasing merchandise containing the school mascot. Alas, if it were only that limited in scope!
In reality, school spirit becomes an outlet for some of the most primitive and vicious kinds of tribalism and, indeed, a breeding ground for the kinds of sentiments that, in an adult, might morph into jingoism and xenophobia. The notion of school spirit quite prominently and crudely creates a clear distinction between "us" in school x and "them" in school y. "We" are urged to beat, smash, crush, bring down, (insert other destructive verbs at your discretion) "them" at the next athletic event or other extracurricular competition.
The high school I attended (call it X South) had a sister school (call it X North). On an almost daily basis, I heard derogatory comments made in my school about "those Northies" being stupid, arrogant, and much, much worse. Never mind that a mere three miles or so separated the two schools, and the students of one school were often the neighbors of the students of the other. But the irrational treatment of "the other" paled in comparison to the verbal abuse heaped on anyone who dared to question the collectivist notion of school spirit altogether.
The school often enforced loyalty to itself by mandating attendance at athletic pep rallies. I recall an occasion when my school’s volleyball team qualified for the state tournament, and the entire school was herded into the gymnasium in order to witness and partake in mindless cheering and banner waving. I was quite baffled at the double standard inherent in all this, of course. The math team and the debate team – on each of which I participated – went to the state tournament every year and even won quite frequently, but nobody ever gave those teams pep rallies; they were only given occasional recognition by the school’s public address system in the morning.
And yet, as far as genuine education goes, preparing for the math and debate tournaments actually involved some rigorous learning and high standards. It is not that I actually wanted pep rallies for the math and debate teams; rather, this double standard illustrates the entirely misplaced priorities of many schools like mine.
Indeed, the very notion of school spirit goes against the spirit of education: it is noisy, rowdy, primal, focused on fanfare rather than substance, and aimed at energizing the crowd rather than cultivating the faculties of the individual. It is perfect for inculcating unconditional worship of mythic and contrived "higher causes" but not for teaching anyone anything worth knowing. It even corrupts athletics by associating what could be activities aimed primarily at physical self-improvement with the mob mentality and its attendant problems.
In this respect – though in very few others – even the old Soviet educational system was a step in the direction of freedom compared to the American system. In the USSR, athletics were largely separate from public schools – aside from the occasional, basic physical education lesson. Most athletic activities were performed in government-run sport societies dedicated, in part, to training "masters of sports" to represent the Soviet Union in international competitions. Membership in the sport societies was voluntary and considered quite prestigious, as it offered high-performing athletes the option to escape the USSR’s mass poverty through a government-approved channel.
While government control of the athletic system was extreme in the USSR, and the penalties for athletes who underperformed were draconian, the system did have a side benefit of largely separating athleticism and schooling. The effect of this separation was a greater orientation of the schools toward academics – highly propaganda-loaded academics, of course.
This is no justification for emulating the Soviet Union. However, in the United States, there is no reason why private sport societies could not emerge to fulfill the athletic desires of every segment of the population. Considering the enormous amount of currently existing private options for engaging in sports, it is bizarre that public schools today hold on so tightly to their athletic programs. In the meantime, school spirit serves to create a captive audience for activities that should be left to the devices of the free market.
Discipline in today’s public schools, though not as draconian as it used to be, still serves to turn the schools into de facto prison facilities rather than educational centers. Although the days of corporal punishment are largely gone and detentions have become akin to restricted study halls, there are still enormous constraints on the mobility and autonomy of students.
In my elementary school, virtually all movement of students from one room to another was only allowed when the entire class was arranged by the teacher into a single-file line. Imagine the enormous deadweight loss of time and energy that this entails – and the sheer, mind-stultifying waste inflicted on intelligent and thoughtful students while they are being arranged into arbitrary formations instead of directing themselves toward learning and independent interaction with the world.
In my middle school, the formations were relaxed, but one still had to have a written note from a teacher in order to be in the halls outside the five-minute passing periods between classes. My high school had a system of restricted areas, where one could not be without written permission except during passing periods. During lunch periods and other free periods, students were required to remain in the open areas, such as the crowded cafeterias, the library, and a few of the adjoining hallways.
There were not many places to sit and either study or engage in leisure reading, so the more clever students began to figure out which halls leading into the restricted areas were being monitored and at what times. For me, one of the most pleasant experiences during the school day consisted in covertly entering a restricted area with a book or essay and a compact, easily concealable lunch. I would sit, alone, for forty-five minutes at a time, near a large semi-circular bay window on the second floor and, while enjoying the view, would perform the kind of self-education for which public schools leave precious little time.
At the same time, I would eat my lunch, which was also against school rules. The prohibition on food in classrooms and hallways – even if no littering or negative externalities were involved – was particularly baffling to me. Even about half the teachers ignored it. How can any human being learn autonomy, initiative, and personal responsibility when the decision of when, where, and whether he may eat his own food is not his to make?
Some of the most severe restrictions at my high school were imposed with regard to students entering or leaving the building. There were no metal detectors there, fortunately, but there was the heinous offense of not signing in if one was called out of an early class by a parent and then arrived later during the day. The offense was often committed by no fault of the student.