Forced schooling was perfect for the times, but the times were not perfect.
During the 19th century the elitist hive mind was buzzing with such questionable memes like Social Darwinism and Scientific Management. The first one gave moral justification to overt racism by dressing it up in scientific garb. The second made factories incredibly efficient by making people incredibly inhuman. Both had an enormous impact on society.
The writer par excellence on the troubled history of forced schooling (and what to do about it) is John Taylor Gatto. In classics like The Underground History of American Education and Dumbing Us Down, he details who did what, when and where, why it was done and how it continues to influence daily life. To briefly summarize:
Schools were designed by Horace Mann and Barnard Sears and Harper of the University of Chicago and Thorndyke of Columbia Teachers College and some other men to be instruments of the scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended to produce through the application of formulae, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.
As Gatto writes:
That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and dependent behavior.
All these reinforced behaviors might benefit a highly centralized management system but do little for the individual outside of providing the safety of a regular paycheck (which, yes, is important). Placing that aside though, what does it do the mental life of the human being? The dignity of the individual?
It assaults it, a hell-of-a-lot.
During our most impressionable years — the Jesuits were fond of saying something like “give us a child until 7 and we have him for life”; schools extended that time frame up to 17-18! — children are conditioned to uncritically obey external authorities, thus making their self esteem entirely dependent on external rewards (the grading system morphs into the employee of the month system).
The problem is that when self-evaluation isn’t taken seriously it wounds a nascent sense of self by making it wholly dependent upon the praise or hate of others. A healthier, more secure sense of self would mirror the words of Ben Jonson when he wrote “thy praise or dispraise is to me is alike; one doth not stroke me, nor the other strike.”
School becomes a place where dis-empowerment is the main source of power. A place where teachers, administrators, and grading rubrics determine the value of the 12-to-15 thousand hours spent inside stuffy rooms. It might seem crazy, but shouldn’t YOU have some say in the value of that??
IT’S A LOT OF HOURS
If “time is money” as they say, is this a good investment? Opportunity costs??
Unfortunately not, for most of the hours of the day and days of the week are spent being told what to learn by distant organizations (filtered down through school committees and individual teachers) that have never met you.
And what is it that you learn?
You learn to follow one unspoken law: the prohibition on wander. There is no time and little motivation to think about or sit with the implications of slavery or colonialism because you know that in five minutes a bell will ring and everyone will get up to physically leave this one room and walk down a right-angle hallway to another room where some disconnected area of knowledge will get briefly examined.
Nothing fits together. Every little subject is compartmentalized into its own little box and sealed up tight so the implications won’t spill out. The arms of meaning are cut off so they can’t extend outwards, grab the other subjects, and pull them into some comprehensive overview of what’s goin’ on.
That type of understanding takes time, takes a little meandering and an awareness of the bigger picture. However, the bigger picture can’t emerge when you’re stuck an inch from the painting doing paint-by-number busywork. With everything so beautiful planned, the beauty of the unplanned can never pierce through, so day-dreaming and reflection are banned alongside any knowledge beyond regurgitation.
THREE KEY DIFFERENCES
Schooling is a forced activity carried out under physical and existential threat (detention, time-outs, and “not getting a good job”) and toward a goal that an outer authority controls. It leads to provisional self esteem.
… and …
Education is a spontaneous activity carried out with curiosity and inner direction toward a goal that an inner authority controls. It leads to unconditional self esteem.
Schooling is anti-wander (“Where’s your hall-pass!!”) and teaches you what to think.
… and …
Education is wander-ful and teaches you how to think.
Schooling is a closed system that ends with a piece of paper.
… and …
Education is an open system that ends in experience — if it ends at all.
So the critique doesn’t apply to all students, it doesn’t apply to all schools, nor does it apply to all teachers, but it does apply to the system-as-a-whole. This super-organism is one hungry beast and it has been chomping away at the minds of youth (and the adults those youths become) for far too long.
It is true that things have changed dramatically since the heyday of the Factory, since the age when wealthy business interests needed a steady flow of “stunted” workers, since the age when that stunting would be done through forced schooling by way of a mass shifting in people’s thinking, emotions, and behavior toward the predictable docility necessary for the factory environment. Despite that change, the idea that we should house the most impressionable among us in ugly buildings with intense regimentation for 12+ years, is still startlingly popular.
If the demand for factory workers isn’t as high as it was 100 – 150 years ago, why follow through with a system meant to produce that? Is it simply laziness and incompetence (this thing has been around for too long) or is it something more nefarious (cigar smokin’ elitists in a shadowy room)?
Most likely it’s an a mixture of both, but that’s too big of an issue to explore in a tiny blog post. Whatever the motivation, we end up with one conclusion, a conclusion summed up by Mark Twain many years ago when he said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”
Neither should you.
EDUCATION – A WAY OUT
Like most English words “education” grew out of Latin roots — “educare” means to “draw out.” What is being drawn out? What’s the fruit of the tree?
The thing being drawn out through this process of education is an intelligence assumed to dwell uniquely within each person — something the Greeks called “Genius” and the Romans called “Daimon”. Education is meant to cultivate this intelligence and expand it through proper use of the right tools.
What are these tools?
At an Oxford gathering in 1947, the novelist and translator Dorothy Sayers delivered a speech called The Lost Tools of Learning. She said:
if we are to produce a society of educated people, fitted to preserve their intellectual freedom amid the complex pressures of our modern society, we must turn back the wheel of progress some four or five hundred years, to the point at which education began to lose sight of its true object, towards the end of the Middle Ages.
Sayers calls this a “progressive retrogression” and sees it as more of “a revision of an error” than a romantic desire to go back in time to the Middle Ages, a time that was fraught with troubles in itself.
Education at that time starting by teaching students how to think NOT what to think. It acquainted one with how the mind worked before using it to work; introduced students to the tools of learning before introducing them to subjects that could be learned.
This method is called the Trivium (or the “Three Roads/Ways” in Latin) and was composed of three subjects: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. These three tools could bring into being mental constructions of immense knowledge, understanding and (hopefully) wisdom regarding any number of subjects.
Grammar teaches how to gather and memorize bits of data without judgement by focusing on who, what, when, and where. This leads to knowledge. Or as Sister Miriam Joseph puts it, far more succinctly: “the art of inventing symbols and combining them to express thoughts.”
Logic teaches how to form non-contradictory statements by focusing on why. The reasons behind who, what, when and where. This leads to understanding. Or as Sister Mariam puts it, far more succinctly: “the art of thinking.”
Rhetoric teaches how to communicate those statements effectively by focusing on how. The process by which the understanding of who, what, when and where comes about. This is wisdom. Or as Sister Mariam puts in, far more succinctly: “the art of communicating thought from one mind to another, the adaptation of language to circumstance.”
This Art of Learning was taught in a systematic way. First it was Grammar, until a certain age and proficiency was reached, then Logic, and then Rhetoric. It was indispensable. First you need an understanding of how to make maps, then you can start exploring.
In the Medieval system, the exploration began with The Quadrivium (or the “Four Roads/Ways” in Latin) and, not surprisingly, has four parts. Taken from triviumeducation.com (a vital resource) they are as follows:
Arithmetic was the study of number in itself, as a pure abstraction.
Geometry was the study of number in space.
Music was the study of number in time.
Astronomy was the study of number in space and time.
The three arts of the Trivium + the four arts of the Quadrivium = the Seven Liberal Arts. This curriculum of learning gave one a comprehensive view of reality/life as well as the tools to delve deeper into whatever interests were drawing out your Genius/Daimon.
Schooling and education are two entirely different things. Whereas schooling seems to be an attempt to smother one in murky scribbles, education is an attempt to clearly draw out something. In moving toward a purposeful education, one needs to unlearn the purpose schooling draws you into.
Or at least take it with a grain of salt (iodized or otherwise). Yes, you obviously need a job in order to live — or at least many people do; well you need the material stuff the job provides but you don’t really need the job per se — but once you gather the funds to live, then you need a life: an active and growing mental ecosystem.
If life is about growth, about pulling out the immense potential of the tiny seed that grows into the oak, the the Liberal Arts education described above can draw out of you that unique intelligence that makes a life worth living. (Cue the sappy music)