In his seminal 1971 text, "Deschooling Society", Ivan Illich described school as "the reproductive organ of a consumer society". I confess to some frustration with many otherwise clear thinking people who have failed to grasp this point. This essay will attempt to show that -- to quote the title of a speech by John Taylor Gatto (former New York State Teacher of year) -- "a schooling is not an education". In this entry I will explain what a schooling is and why I consider my 20+ years under professional instruction less worthy of the term 'education' than my ongoing self-directed learning.
THE BUSINESS LOGIC OF RAISING CHILDREN
Like children, fruit trees are unique, though certain generalisations are possible. As a rule, unpruned fruit trees are simply too vigorous and too unreliable for commercial growing. They do not grow uniformly and may grow so big that they bear fruit in inaccessible places. Moreover many species do not come true to seed, so the fruit of every tree are subtly different, and therefore too unpredictable for modern agribusiness.
Like schooling methods, techniques of pruning fruit trees are subject to vigorous debate and also to fashions which change, but there is a wide consensus that fruit trees should be pruned. Its near universal practice by commercial fruit growers would seem to foreclose any debate about whether pruning fruit trees is a good thing as far as increasing yield. If there were a more efficient way to grow fruit, surely the invisible hand of the market would have steered people towards it.
To grow trees in containers requires an ability to overcome the habit of trees to expand their root systems far and wide. Bonsai culture reveals the extent to which root pruning can curb these tendencies and fit some types of tree into almost any prescribed container. Grafting is a simpler technique which not only reduces vigor, but also hastens the advent of fruit production. The head of a young sapling is cut off and carefully replaced by a shoot from a mature tree. This is the preferred method for commercial production of many species, since it allows mass propagation (i.e. cloning) of profitable cultivars which do not grow predictably from seed.
Since humans do not survive decapitation, alternative methods are applied to reduce youngsters' vigor, curb their unwanted desires for unique self-expression and to break their innate resistance to confinement within a rigid social hierarchy. School is principal amongst these, indoctrinating youngsters in habits of obedience to authority and encouraging rote learning of ideas chosen by their superiors.
An education is a unique and personal accomplishment that requires sustained, spirited effort, carried out to achieve personal goals. A schooling by contrast is a mass-produced substitute. It is administered to batches of children en masse by a team of professionals for the same reason that fruit growers graft their trees - to increase predictability and increase expected yield, as measured in money terms.
A popular but mistaken sentiment is that of dedicated teachers laboring within a 'broken' system to pass their enlightenment on to the next generation. The system however, is working very much as intended - its real goals were never those of the dedicated teachers working within it. Commercially controlled media discuss details but never question the larger narrative about examinations and qualifications paving the way to a better future. While education is an essential step towards realising one's personal goals, the idea about qualifications being poor childrens' path out of social privation are largely a 20th century fiction, since only last century were hierarchies of qualifications erected to bar access to so many social roles. Schooling was not, originally, a government project. It was spawned by a social elite composed primarily of rich American industrialists. Some insight into their motives can be gleaned from the first mission statement of Rockefeller’s General Education Board (1906):
"In our dreams...people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands. The present educational conventions [intellectual and character education] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk. We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have ample supply. The task we set before ourselves is very simple...we will organize children...and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way."
The rise of mass production required an epochal shift from small farming to paid employment. The American populace, far less 'dumbed down' than they are today, understood and resisted forced schooling.
"The history of compulsory-attendance legislation in the states has been much the same everywhere, and everywhere laws have been enacted only after overcoming strenuous opposition."
With school attendance mandatory, the stage was set to foreclose socially significant roles to all but the most qualified few. Focussing on academia in particular, Jeff Schmidt's ''Disciplined Minds'', brilliantly documents the hidden political role of professionalisation; professional training makes candidates less creative and more conservative, while filtering out most of those candidates whose interests cannot be sufficiently aligned to those of the establishment. The result is that positions towards the top of hierarchies are occupied by the most indoctrinated. Professional training and university are in many senses just continuations of school.
Gatto's masterful Underground History of American Education, details the findings of his 9 years of research into the program to import mass compulsion schooling from Prussia. He draws heavily on primary sources which have vanished down the memory hole. Gatto explains that self-interest was complemented by other beliefs such as social Darwinism in motivating the imposition of mass compulsion schooling on American youth.
The taming of coal and then oil in the 19th century meant that mass production had become technically feasible - if only a labor force could be mobilised. Forced schooling was a project to break the traditional American bent towards an independent livelihood by schooling the youth of America into obedience to the man. As Woodrow Wilson once explained:
"We want one class to have a liberal education. We want another class, a very much larger class of necessity, to forgo the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks."
In Deschooling Society, Illich describes how Westernised 'education' has served Western commercial interests around the world by undermining local value systems and instituting a globalised hierarchy whose leaders have a consumerist outlook and are culturally attuned to what is expected of them by capital. In the global south little attention is paid to the true purposes of mass schooling, which has generally been imported wholesale along with other western social and technological innovations. As in US, discussion revolves around how to school.
As Noam Chomsky and others have noted, ensuring vigorous public debate on a topic is an effective way to set the agenda and define the limits of what is thinkable. The contents of curricula are discussed ad nauseam, but the value of having a curriculum is beyond question. The method and frequency of examinations is debatable, the need for them is not.
Alfie Kohn has stated that no evidence exists that increasing the amount of homework children do improves their overall academic performance, although as Gatto emphasises, it takes away from the time available to kids with which to fashion a unique self. A lot of research has been carried out into the correlation of children's performance on standardised tests with their success in the real world, but no significant correlations have been found over and above correlation with the passing of examinations. Although people have the evidence of their own lives, most - as Illich says in Deschooling Society - have been schooled "to confuse process and substance". How important to your everyday life is what you learnt in school, university or professional training? If you left with a certificate, how useful was that document as opposed to the learning it is supposed to represent?
To attribute the modern childishness of adults merely to an excess of advertising and pop culture is to mistake a symptom for a cause. One generation is only exposed to such memes because their parents' generation was successfully seduced into creating them. The burgeoning of consumerism and ensuing trivialization of life has been a multi-generational process, for which Gatto coined the phrase 'dumbing down'. It has been ongoing since the project of forced schooling successfully broke the American tradition of independent livelihoods by conditioning youngsters to obey the dictates of professional strangers.
The prohibition of child labor was an essential step to institutionalising forced schooling, by depriving the young of alternative vocations. Compassion for youngsters in exploitative employment should not be allowed to eclipse the observation that child labor laws foreclose avenues to young people which are certainly more productive and often also more educational than schooling.
Cubberley's Public Education in the United States contains a section entitled "A New Lengthening of the Period of Dependence" in which he explains that "the coming of the factory system" necessitated the extension of childhood by replacing the local education and training of community farm life by an institutional system of schooling. He writes:
"It has come to be desirable that children should not engage in productive labor. On the contrary, all recent thinking...[is] opposed to their doing so. Both the interests of organized labor and the interests of the nation have set against child labor."
As mass production took off in US, the rich industrialists began to be haunted by the fear of 'overproduction', that the greater efficiency of mass production might put an end to their business by allow everyone's needs to be satisfied. If such fears seem quaint today, this is a measure of the extraordinary effectiveness of the efforts made to stoke insatiable demands, made not only by advertising and by planned obsolescence, but by the institutions with the most direct influence over the psyche of the next generation - schools.
WHAT A SCHOOLING IS
The question of which options for self-development forced schooling forecloses is an important one, but beyond the scope of this essay. Let us focus instead on the results of the process of forced schooling. I suspect that the basic routine of school attendance, classrooms, teachers, raising hands etc. is all too familiar to most readers, but reflection on how it has shapes personality may not be.
My experience as an art teacher to children of all ages has taught me that almost all children aged 5 or less draw with alacrity. After attending school, this proportion drops rapidly so that by the age of 9 or 10, almost none are interested in drawing, and those that do are shy, and often seemed to need my encouragement and affirmation. When I ask my adult students what they learnt in schools, it is a rare student indeed who looks back in anger at years spent in primary school. Nevertheless, it is very uncommon for people to credit it with imparting any substantial knowledge. A typical reply is that school was a place to make friends. Why is such an essentially unproductive institution so close to so many people's hearts? Some of the answer may be found in my treatise on Bangladeshi English essay books. Below is one such essay from a Bangladesh Essay book, which primary age Bangladeshi children are taught to memorise:
My Idea Of A Good Teacher
A good teacher is the person who is committed to work for building his nation. I know a good teacher named Mr. N. Haq. His is B.A. B-Ed. He is fond of his young children. An ideal or good teacher is fond of his young learners and helpful to them in making their lesson interesting and preparing their house work. He always keeps them busy in the class and helps them enjoying playful games too. He or she advises them to follow the foot prints of the great men. Teaching is a noble and honourable profession and he lives ideal lives.
While its indoctrination is more subtle nowadays, the US school system still seeks to make good citizens of its inmates. How could it succeed in its aim to prepare children for life in adult society if it did not impart values of deference to class, credentials, love of schools/country/institutional authority? John Taylor Gatto's 'Hidden Curriculum' highlights 7 major lessons which, whatever the intentions of teachers or headmasters, the school system teaches children:
- Confusion - Schools are run by tightly interlocked bureaucracies beset with vested interests. Administrative ease predominates, ensuring minimal heed is paid either to the internal logic of the subjects taught or to connections between different subjects, to say nothing of the subjects' implications to real life.
- Class Position - The first thing children are taught in primary school is to stay where they are put, and in secondary school to go where they're supposed to go and to be there one time. Segregation by age, so important in school, occurs nowhere else in society. Many schools post tables of performance and afford privileges to those at the top.
- Indifference - Interest cannot be turned on and off like a tap, not by oneself and far less by others. Most teachers' well-meaning efforts to 'motivate' their students actually undermine the children's ability to connect with their own internal motivation.
- Emotional Dependency - In first grade, children transfer their emotional attachment to their parents to their class teacher. Youngsters' competition for teachers' attention is palpable as they stretch up their hands to be the first to answer, a compulsion that transcends matters intellectual.
- Intellectual Dependency - Children are schooled to wait for teachers to tell them what to do and how to do it, and then to measure the quality of their work according to marks handed down from above.
- Provisional Self-Esteem - Oh, the power of two lines arranged as a cross, as opposed to a tick! Schools use dozens of behavioral techniques from gold stars to detentions to try to equate virtue with official approval.
- You Can’t Hide - US schools in particular seem to be pushing these boundaries, integrating close with medical, police and other institutions, even encouraging children to reporting their parents' activity.
The clamor for more 'rigorous' standardised testing and national curricula are tactics to try to 'teacherproof' the system. The linking of teacher pay or school funding to standardised results are part of the same process, exerting a chilling effect on would be dissidents while undercutting the humane and altruistic motivations of teachers and administrators by heightening competition.
Many of the parents of children I teach seem to lack either the inclination and/or ability to try to understand how school affects their children. Some of them appear to have abdicated responsibility for their children's intellectual development, perhaps out of misplaced deference to teachers' professionalism.
One of the most common questions even from my own parents, who did have a deep understanding of my performance in school (and both of whom had teaching experience), was how well I did in tests - referring to my class position. The deleterious effect of such a zero-sum criterion on teamwork and cooperative habits would be obvious if it were not so all pervasive. If adults struggle to understand the wider effects of reinforcing the urge to compete, how then can children escape from this framework, and learn that there are other definitions of success than beating people, even definitions which are self-assigned, standards to which people can hold themselves, rather than relying on the ubiquitous powers-that-be to impose their judgement?
One day I came into class and found a mistake in the chemical equation left on the board from a previous lesson. I pointed this out to the children, telling them not to learn what the chemistry teacher had written, since it was wrong. While not disputing the chemistry, one boy stated that he would learn the mistake, since the teacher would mark that as correct. I asked the rest of the class whether it was better to learn a mistake and be marked right or learn a falsehood and be marked correct. A show of hands revealed them to be fairly evenly split on the point. To put it another way, for half the class, an arbitrary mark of approval by a professional stranger which would soon be forgotten was sufficient justification for them to memorise rubbish. They confused process and substance; self-validated knowledge relevant to the real word had been subordinated to an other-validated test mark, valid only inside the school system.
Marks from teacher are tokens of approval from authority, and the emotional attachment which youngsters form to them is transferred to the salary that the boss will give them outside the school gates (indeed, sometimes even inside -- some US schools are paying children for exam results). Capitalism would not work if a generation of children pursued their own interests, rather than those assigned to them. That time is coming, but it is not yet here.
Many of the 9/11 truth movement are demanding a new investigation into the events of that day, stating that the original investigation was a whitewash. Assuming that the first investigation (only reluctantly instigated, and which prompted some resignations in disgust) was indeed a whitewash, what sense does it make to ask for a reinvestigation? Their scepticism -- and the widely held belief that 9/11 was an 'inside job' -- shows that the 9/11 truth movement contains a high degree of government scepticism. How then can we understand their naive belief that a second investigation would come to a different conclusion? This seems to me to spring from the habit training that tells people to 'put their hand up and tell teacher' if they see wrong doing. If you see an injustice, tell the authorities. Seen from the purpose of character formation, the rituals of school make a lot more sense - if they weren't bizarre, it would be harder to distinguish the self- from the authority- directed.
was a Japanese pioneer of no-till agriculture, who raised his fruit trees without pruning. Some of his earliest experiments proved that, once a regime of pruning is begun, trees may require regular pruning for a lifetime if they are not to get sick. The kernel of his philosophy was that nature doesn't make mistakes. Trees grow the way they grow for a reason. Initially, he met failure - by not pruning cultivated trees, but over the course of a lifetime, he developed seeds and practices which allowed nature to bloom on his farm like no other farm on earth.
Under capitalism, the universal measure of efficiency is money. Although by the end of his life, Fukuoka's methods were successful even in these terms, this was a biproduct of his philosophy, not the main goal. Instead, he saw trees not merely as means to the end of fruit production, but as intrinsically valuable. To the mind trained on expediency, it may be counterintuitive that the overall desire to recreate a whole, natural ecosystem can lead to superior yields.
Money is rapidly being hyperinflated away, and within the lifetimes of most readers of this article may become worth nothing at all. With money, will go other centralised systems such as law, politics and the military. The only point of certainty about this change is that it will be uncertain. In such times, youthful energy and creativity, a willingness to question existing realities will be invaluable. It therefore seems to me that habit training children to obedience is as short term as destroying the soil by use of oil based chemicals.
In the school where I teach, children learn from books which contain details of MS-DOS and 3.5" floppy disks. Their economics text books tell them that "hundreds of people" were killed in the Bhopal chemical leak. Whether by accident or design, children will continue to learn such junk under any system which assumes that they need to be told what to learn. I recommend instead that children should decide for themselves what to learn. If it's academic knowledge they seek, there is ample on the internet and the fact that so much of it is of dubious origin would be good preparation for life, far better than the blind faith they are encouraged to have in school text books.
Many children would probably be much more interested in the world outside the classroom, resorting to academic learning only when it was needed to achieve some success in a particular real world activity. Left to themselves, it is remarkable what children can achieve. Not every child is going to build their own nuclear reactor, but we would undoubtedly see a lot more interesting ideas if we abandoned the program of trying to prune children's intelligences to fit the stultifying social roles available for them.
Since its introduction from 1850-1901, US school has by and large succeeded in its stated goal of preparing children for life in US society. Even as technology has expanded people's options, the last century and a half have seen a dramatic shrinking of personal autonomy and cultural diversity, as a money-centric, self interested, superficial consumerism has burgeoned not just US, but worldwide. Is this process reversible? An increasingly coercive US state would like you to think not, and that you must abandon your offspring to the professional management of a bunch of strangers certified to engineer their ideas and attitudes to serve the existing order.
Personally, I see no future for the ecocidal consumer monoculture and its Ponzi scheme finance system already creaking under the bloated egos of the psychopaths who administer it, so I choose instead to do my best to help my students prepare themselves for a radically different future.
Robin Upton is a teacher, gift economy advocate and economic dissident. He hosts the weekly radio show, Unwelcome Guests, which has produced the following audiobooks related to this essay: