Education With a Human Face

Previously by Jerome Kohn: When a School Gets Sick

Illuminated by the light of his PowerPoint slide, the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction proclaimed yet another "victory on the Malabar Front." Test scores were up. Was it the PSAE? PLAN? ACT? SAT?, ISAT? I do not remember. What did it matter? My mind wandered. I imagined myself in Moscow circa 1930. At the Ministry of Plate Glass Production, the commissar was crowing of our success in meeting the quota from the Five Year Plan. We produced X tons of glass far exceeding production from the previous year. All applauded vigorously. Of course to meet our quota, we had to make the panes of glass so thick and heavy that you could barely see through them, but what did it matter? No one dared bring it up. Of course, the following year, complaints about quality led the Politburo to issue a new standard. Henceforth, plate glass quotas would be set not in metric tons but in square meters. This required an entirely new approach, but we at the ministry accepted the challenge. We would now manufacture very thin, fragile panes of glass that maximized area rather than weight. These new panes would shatter in the slightest breeze, but again, what did it matter?

Our education commissars set similar arbitrary and shifting benchmarks. A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, and now Race to the Top demand that test scores rise, and rise they shall. How could they do otherwise? No one really has any idea whether the scores actually mean anything, so what does it matter? And even if the pressure we put on children to perform causes them harm, well, this is simply the price that must be paid. In the final analysis, students are only so much raw material. Often, students come out of school with good grades and high test scores but without a real education or an independent sense of direction. The most capable students often become what former Nazi Minister Albert Speer described as technically-skilled barbarians. They are fit to perform a particular task assigned to them and little else. As for the least capable, they are like the window panes coming out of the Soviet glass factory, either fragile and easily broken or dense and maladapted.

Beyond its crude and ill-considered central planning, the world of public schooling resembles the Soviet Union in other ways. The nation's schools form an educational gulag archipelago. As in Stalin's gulags, students are constantly monitored and their movement severely restricted. Students are ordered about and subject to the arbitrary authority of teachers and administrators. Permission is required even to go to the bathroom, and even this is often withheld. Unauthorized travel in the hallways will be met with a stern demand to show travel papers (i.e. a hall pass), and once in the classroom, students are told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. Speaking with fellow inmates is generally not permitted unless the conversation is authorized and relates to the mandated task, and unauthorized communication with the outside world via cell phone will result in immediate confiscation of the device with additional punishment to follow. As with any prison, fear and shame are the primary means of control and bullying and dishonesty often the only means of survival.

There is, of course, the outward appearance of democracy and due process. Schools hold elections for student government, but often the administration permits only prescreened candidates to run for office. The powers of these student councils are limited to a few trivial matters, and even these decisions are subject to veto. To provide the illusion of due process, many schools create what are called teen courts. Students that make up a teen court are hand-picked by the administration for their political reliability and work under the supervision of a dean. The court does not determine guilt or innocence but merely punishes. To get a hearing before the court, the accused must first confess. If the accused does not confess, he faces immediate and usually more severe punishment from the dean. Even Stalin would have been impressed with this arrangement.

Like our schools, the Soviet Union wasted enormous amounts of manpower and other economic resources in a blind rush to meet arbitrary quotas. As failure was not an option, the quotas were almost always met, but their achievement served political rather than economic, social or spiritual ends. Outward appearances and raw numbers were often impressive but always misleading. Behind the façade and the numbers were shoddy goods and poor service provided to an oppressed and increasingly cynical and demoralized people. It all came to a bad end.

If our schools and indeed our entire nation are not to come to a similar bad end, radical change will be necessary. First, we must reconsider what reform should look like. Public school perestroika advocated by many of today's so-called reformers will never work. The taxpayer-funded vouchers and charter school schemes now being proposed with so much fanfare lead down the same dead end road Gorbachev led the Soviet Union down. So long as government money is involved, schools will continue to serve political rather than student interests. Real reform must start with getting government completely out of the business of education. Second, we must reconsider what education should look like. Professional pedagogues assume they know what a child should know and when they should know it. They do not. I would not be so arrogant to suggest that I do, but I would suggest that each child knows. A child's natural curiosity about the world leads him on an endless journey of exploration. From their very first breath, babies relentlessly explore and make sense of their world. They teach themselves to walk and to talk without any teaching, testing or grading. Why not simply allow children to continue into adulthood on that same self-determined path? This, after all, is how children were educated for tens of thousands of years, and this changed only during the last one hundred and fifty years. A child has little chance of finding and developing his true talents and passion if not given the freedom to do so. Finally, we need to reconsider what schools should look like. Once we reject educational Stalinism and throw off the shackles of state control, we can create schools that provide young people the resources they need without restricting their freedom to make best use of them. We can relieve the pressure and stop the grading and testing, and end the rigid adherence to irrelevant and outmoded curriculum standards. Most important, we can begin trusting our children and treating them with the respect they deserve. As Goethe once said, "Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help then to become what they are capable of being." Unschooling parents and most homeschooling parents get it as do the parents who send their children to one of the several dozen Sudbury Schools around the nation. (My daughter will attend this one next year.)

Sadly, for the present, only a tiny minority of young people get this kind of libertarian-style education. Most students, teachers, and parents continue to live behind the educational iron curtain. Most people have grown accustomed to conventional schooling's absurdities and oppression and now consider them the norm. Changing this will not be easy. Libertarian education reformers must be like the 19th century abolitionists. In opposing slavery, the abolitionists had the courage to boldly swim against the tide of popular opinion. They did not compromise or equivocate or trim their sails. They endured ridicule and even persecution, but they soldiered on confident in the truth of their ideas. Those of us committed to bringing liberty even to our children in the classroom must have similar courage. We must take risks and endure the skepticism of fellow parents, teachers, friends, relatives, and perhaps even of some of our children unaccustomed to the responsibility that comes with freedom. If we can expand the range of freedom even down to our youngest citizens, there may yet be hope for the future. Why must we do this? Because it really does matter.