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Why Children Don’t Matter in Schools

Yes, I know we all love children and that they are the reason for schools. And yes, I also know that we spend all and sometimes more than all our strength on behalf of the children in our schools. And this is not a rant about the iniquities of the modern or post-modern age – this problem has been with us ever since the industrial revolution demanded that we treat children as objects rather than subjects. We have to ask some hard questions about our practice, about our thinking, about our motivation, about our objectives.

Let’s start with that industrial revolution thought. The question of subject and object is central to the conversation. Why did we have public education growing in the 19th century and eventually displacing private education and home schooling? Because society / industrialists needed workers with very particular skills, and with very particular lack of skills. Before that, education (typically a liberal arts education) was intended to broaden the mind and develop character. It was designed for the leaders of society aka rich people. If you were not rich, you were home-schooled with the kinds of skills that were useful to your family of which you were a key part, necessary to the family economy and necessary to the extended family web of interdependency.

Public education took home schooling and industrialized it in the 19th century while paying little to no attention to the family. Rich people still went to private schools – as they do today – and gained a liberal arts education designed to develop the leaders of the nation. Two World Wars and a broadening definition of human as well as an increasing need for those who were not destined for monotone occupations, a tendency that has accelerated in the last decade with the rise of machine intelligence, meant that public schools wanted to be more like private schools.

However, we merely replaced one tyranny for another. In place of the industrialists, we put in place the financiers and lawyers and doctors and technicians all of whom demanded their pound of flesh and whined like crazy when they didn’t get it. You can see it in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review. University professors bemoaning the lack of “education” resulting in poorly trained students coming their way with ideas above their station. Industry leaders bemoaning the impracticality and shoddiness of the preparation students have as they enter their industries. They want another kind of product.

We compensate by pouring down tests on our children. Entry tests, competency tests, IQ tests, ERB tests, College Board and IB tests, all designed to commoditize the child and ensure a common product.

What’s amazing and wonderful is how effectively our children have fought back. They have resisted being made an object and demanded to be a subject with value in their own right. Some have passed the tests and become part of the machinery of commercialism. Many have obdurately failed the tests, not gone to school, tried a whole bunch of options that seemed more humane such as charter and magnet and democratic and homeschool and private.

What’s not wonderful at all is the sheer waste that this process has engendered. Back in the 1960s, John Holt observed the following in Why Children Fail: “Most children learn more when they are out of school than when they are in. When children who normally go to school get sick or hurt and can’t go, the schools send tutors to their homes so that they won’t fall behind in their work…..from two to three hours a week. It is enough; the children keep up with their classmates and even go ahead for now they have time to read all they want and their reading and other work is not endlessly interrupted by the time-wasting routines of school. (p.240)” I observed the same in my time in schools. Students who were absent for months for all kinds of reasons would return and fit right back in where they had left off. I would say to my colleagues – what did we do in that time? My own children attended a school for three years where the owner stated without any evident sense of hyperbole that it took 2.5 years to cover the K-12 curriculum and that the biggest problem at her school was what to do with the other 9.5 years.

Far from Tiger Moms being right and hammering away at their ‘object’ children in order for them to fit into a societal definition of success, our schools should rethink the subject/object conundrum. Why are children kindergarten geniuses in creativity and virtual dunces by the time they are adults? Why do most children read for fun at home when they are 9 but almost 75% don’t when they are 13 – a question that has been asked since 1984 and has consistently gone down for both age levels? Denise Clark Pope asked in 2003 in her book How we are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out Materialistic and Miseducated Students: “We need to ask … if the model of competition and corruption revealed in the portraits here – the grade traps and balancing acts that oblige students to become school robots or chameleons and to give up personal desires for authenticity and engagement in the name of grades and future success – represents the kind of education we would choose for our own sons and daughters?” She had come to this conclusion by following five students for a year. Why has the amount of free time for children declined by 10 hours a week since the 70s? Why do 98% of college students today say they cheated at high school compared with 20% in the 1940s?

Children have not become more evil. They are not, contrary to current myth, fixated and inseparable from their phones. They have certainly become more narcissistic. They have also certainly become less motivated as they go through school. Is there a connection?

I believe we have to make children matter in schools. I believe we should treat children as subjects, not objects. I don’t believe it’s an either or between the Tiger Mom and the permissive liberal. They are both wrong because both have the wrong outcome in mind. Children want to be useful, they want to learn, they want to have meaningful personal relationships (far more than they want to text), they want to have purpose in life, they want to have dreams and reach at least one of them, they want to have families (though not necessarily like the one they’re in), and they want to have hope. We sell them public relations test scores, the dream of making money, the usefulness of a career (for which we will also give you a test!), relationships that end in ‘good marks’ and ‘being prepared for the next level’.

We can do better.

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