Blog: March 25, 2018

A Blog is an opinion rather than an article. While CSM teaches through its articles and books, the CSM Blogs are efforts by CSM consultants to struggle with difficult ideas in Christian education and move to some kind of clarity. Please read any CSM Blog in that light.

Children Have to Go to School; Adults Choose To

It always occurred to me as a child / adolescent that I had no choice but to go to school. I forgot that elementary truth as an adult until a couple of years ago when I became consumed with finding out why a useful education (whatever that means) had to be so miserable for the children enduring it. I interviewed and continue to interview teenagers who see school as an obstacle race, and I interview parents who tell me that their children – not at college/university – are enjoying learning for the first time for a long time. There are, of course, many reasons why children don’t much like school. There seems to be general agreement that it is not a very pleasant process, even if it is full of very pleasant adults. In 2009, Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist, even wrote a book called: Why Don’t Students Like School?

One of the key reasons that they don’t much like school is that it is compulsory. John Taylor Gatto writes in “Dumbing Us Down” (2002): “It is the great triumph of compulsory government monopoly mass schooling that among even the best of my fellow teachers, and among even the best of my students’ parents, only a small number can imagine a different way to do things” (p.11).

Compulsory education is not new. Martin Luther wrote in An die Ratsherren aller Städte deutschen Landes (1524) that every town in Germany should establish schools and mandate education so that everyone could read the Bible. In 1592, compulsory education for boys and girls was first established by the German Duchy Palatinate-Zweibrucken (thank you Wikipedia). In the States, compulsory education was first established in Massachusetts in 1852. For the next 50 years, it spread across all states until it was nationwide in 1918. What happens if you don’t go to school?

Most answers on the net immediately talk about ‘not learning’ as if school was the only way to learn. As Mark Twain said: “I have never let school interfere with my education”. But dig a little deeper and we find something much more somber. One account reports: T.W. was a 13-year-old middle school student. According to court documents, he was jailed twice without the benefit of legal counsel. Back in court in February 2009 after pleading guilty, T.W. was jailed overnight directly because his school reported he had accumulated more unexcused absences….But Rivkin argued in a case he brought in Tennessee that there was nothing in T.W.’s or the other plaintiffs’ files proving in writing, as required by state regulation, that they’d agreed to waive the right to defense. Debbie Jones, T.W.’s mom and a day care worker, said she feels the court’s treatment of her son made his problems worse. Jones said T.W. loved school as a young boy. “I couldn’t pay him to stay home when he was sick,” she said. But at 13, he became reclusive and struggled with classroom learning. He pretended to board his school bus and hid out instead. “He said he felt smothered at school,” Jones said. For all the punitive treatment he received, T.W. never graduated. ( In 2010, over 30,000 children were charged with truancy. In fact, if you are absent for more than 10 unexcused absences, you are likely in many states to be referred to the District Attorney’s office.

In other words, if you don’t go to school, the state has the right to put you in court where you are not guaranteed counsel, to put you in shackles, and send you to a detention center. It has the right to contact Children’s Services and potentially remove you from your family. In Canada, the family can be fined up to $1,000 and the student jailed for up to 30 days. Those are very very big sticks!

On the other hand, every adult that goes to the same school chooses to. No-one compels those adults to seek employment at the school, whether a teacher, administrator, support staff, bus driver or any other position. Those adults are typically highly motivated to help the children in the school and often make great efforts to ensure that each child is served. That is a good thing.

But all that good will is not even close to balancing the compulsion of the child. Notice that this is not the typical kind of law that compels a negative. Don’t steal. Don’t shoplift. Don’t be found with drugs. Don’t speed. Don’t go through a stop sign. Don’t bully. This is a law that compels an action – go and do something, something that results in a lot of other compulsions: dress codes, codes of conduct, curriculum expectations, graduation requirements, testing to determine worthiness and whether you will be allowed to do this or that, behavioral rules in the corridor, classroom rules, doing assignments rules, homework compulsions, don’t hand it in compulsions – all with extreme consequences for non-compliance. A zero for homework not handed in can mean it is impossible to achieve an A. Non-conformist behavior can result in suspension or even expulsion, not necessarily for terrible crimes. Suspension from what you are compelled to do. Classroom ‘rudeness’ can result in being forced out of the classroom you are compelled to go to.

The implications of this are pretty staggering. Children and adolescents understand perfectly the dangerous game they are engaged in. It is why they learn how to ‘do’ school, figure out what the teachers want and give it to them, smile politely and become the editor of the school newspaper even though there is no journalistic freedom but it’s good for the resume. The desire of the adults to control what the children and adolescents do is extreme – one Superintendent recently vowed to suspend every student who left school for the 17 minute protest about gun violence in schools. I confess that early in my administrative career, I also was pretty committed to control. Schools even hire people whose job is student discipline. My son went to a school where there was a permanent policeman on duty – a Middle School at that! So the students conform and they play the system understanding that the system is rigged against them.

There are a variety of conclusions or thoughts that one might derive from this fascinating educational experiment that we have been working with for 100 years now. 2018 is the centenary of compulsory education in the USA. The first is to remember that it is an experiment. The second is to recognize that the issue is not whether there should be education, but that if it is compulsory, what are some corollaries that might follow. I suggest some below and I can imagine that readers may well have strong opinions about this too. So, given that the state compels, I think it is worth considering that schools should be obligated to:

  • Trust, not fear, children and adolescents (it is interesting that many educational fear mongers were childless: Plato in The Republic, Augustine in The City of God, Calvin in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Hobbes in Leviathan, and Rousseau was an absentee and neglectful father of Emile)
  • Involve children and adolescents in the governance of “their” schools (it is both surprising and illogical that institutions dedicated to preparing children to live in society provide them with no experience in democratic values and practices)
  • Provide curriculum that responds to children’s and adolescent’s interests (why does it make ‘sense’ to teach curricula that we know is tedious, unfitted to the way human beings actually learn – not all at the same time, at the same pace, in the same way, with the same material – and of a volume that results in anxiety and dishonesty?)
  • Encourage students to use the skills we teach them in the schools in which they live (what is the point of teaching critical thinking, curiosity, questioning when, at the same time, we refuse to allow them to exercise those skills in the most powerful way possible, in their own lives at school?)
  • Do what we tell our students they should do – act with integrity, courage, and conviction (isn’t it embarrassing to listen to ourselves speak as we justify the cruel things we inflict on children as things we are ‘forced’ to do because we would otherwise be less successful as businesses, or our parents wouldn’t like us, or we might stick out from our peer schools? The answer to that question, by the way, is yes.)

Having a system of education where the state compels attendance at a school should give us pause for thought and result in a deep responsibility therefore for the school where the children arrive. I have little (not no) doubt that we are well-meaning and committed educators. But we know it’s not working exceptionally well and one of the root causes is the fact that it is compelled. We can mitigate that, however, through embracing the five points above and moving our schools into places where compulsion doesn’t seem as nearly as obvious as it does now.

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