IS THE SCHOOL SYSTEM OBSOLETE?
Wrong Purposes and Philosophy Mean Wrong Functions & Practices
Buckminster Fuller Meets the Schooling Mentality
Early in the 1980s, a year or two before his death, I was talking privately with Buckminster Fuller, the great philosopher, mathematician, inventor, and genius-at-large. After he had lectured in a college in upstate New York, we talked about the gravity of the nuclear arms race. Suddenly he said, "Excuse me, please wait--I've promised to speak to the school children across the street." He soon returned, red-faced and fuming. "Can you believe this?" he said to me. "They cut me off! Said they had to 'change classes,' so I had to stop my presentation!"
In his mid-eighties, the Genius of the Geodesic Dome had held the school children fascinated by filling the blackboard with the dazzling math formulas he had earlier shown us. He was assuring them that any one of them could do it too, when the school principal appeared, announcing "The show's over--no more time," and ordered the children to go to next "period" class. The bell had rung, the administrator salivated.
An exception? Wrong! The same kind of blind, wooden-headed compulsive system-think I have seen repeated hundreds of times since I taught my first public school classes in the Fifties. [Let me say here that this is not a new interest of mine. I taught Philosophy of Education and Sociology of Education at the State University of New York, explaining to future school people why and how the system works. --NL]
Tragically, there is now an army of former teachers who were once fine, honorable, talented, unselfish and dedicated class-room teachers who were fired for being "too creative," or who resigned in despair, having repeatedly rolled the Sisyphisian boulder up the "down" staircases of schooling's intransigent stupidity, only to see it roll down again.
What is needed is a fundamental and massive radical change in philosophy, in underlying premises, values, and approach, not just switching policies, more spending, more programs, "better" methods, and more government control.
But that can never, never happen.
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE SCHOOL SYSTEM?
1600s: Schooling began in America soon after the Pilgrims landed a) so children could read the Bible; b) to provide future professionals with basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. For the preparation of clergy, lawyers, physicians, and political leaders, Harvard was founded in 1636, only 16 years (16 years!) after the landing of the Pilgrims. Such a feat for a colonial culture is still unmatched in all of human history.
1700s: Because he saw that a democratic system required "an informed citizenry," Jefferson surveyed the state of Virginia and designed its school system with an elementary school within walking distance and a secondary school within riding distance from every home. His crowning and proudest achievement was the designing and founding of the University of Virginia, a project which he helped build in his eighties.
1800s: For the developing Industrial Revolution it was thought a good idea for children to get used to following routines and schedules, and obeying the commands of "superiors," a behavior in much demand by the powerful factory owners. Also, the influx of millions of immigrants increased the role of school as "a great melting pot" in indoctrinating "Americanism" into the children fresh off the boats.
By mid-century, a Massachusetts lawyer and politician named Horace Mann had designed a schooling system to function as (in his words) "instruments of the scientific management of a mass population." The plan was borrowed chiefly from the German gymnasium system that organized life and reality into categories: this is history, this is mathematics, this is chemistry.... Not remotely "child centered," it was a scheme made for the convenience of schoolmasters (and factory managers) in scheduling classes and work, evaluating performance, and controlling efficiently the workers.
About 100 years ago school was made compulsory by law, mainly to prevent the children from taking jobs (at low wages) that were needed by the adult workforce. To quiet protesting farmers, provision was made for the farm kids to help with crops, thus the "summer vacation" was invented.
It should be noted that forced schooling was not always accepted without resistance. In Barnstable, Mass., crowds of angry parents with pitchforks marched on town hall to protest compulsory schooling laws, saying they were already teaching their kids to read and write. It got ugly, troops were called in, and the children were marched to the schoolhouse under guard. It was "for their own good," the government officials said.
Thus did political coercion backed by military force act as midwife at the birth of public schooling. The federal government kept out of the fray because it was understood that the Constitution, since it deliberately avoided mention of education, made schooling, if any, the business of the individual states.
Wrong Philosophy [Please forgive oversimplification.]
Schools have muddled through with a philosophical mishmash of Perennialism ("a child is a twig--bend it in the way it should grow"), Essentialism ("knowledge is matter/content, therefore fill the child's head with it"), and Progressivism ("learn by doing; all of life is a learning, socializing process").
The first became obsolete even before the century opened, the second was clearly inadequate by WWII, and John Dewey's Progressivism was only superficially understood, was partially and sporadically attempted, and was never fully practiced. After years of efforts, the Progressivism Association finally abandoned the attempt by declaring victory and disbanding.
A schoolteacher once told me, "Dewey? Progressivism? Oh, that's where a pupil, passing or not, simply progresses from one grade to the next."
Startled, I asked, "Do you know there are school children in Europe who fight over who is the best philosopher, Sartre, Kierkegaard or Nietzsche?"
And she said, "Kirk who?"
With a patchwork philosophy, purposes become blurred. It leaves a political structure that prevents meaningful learning from taking place. Any notion of meeting the children's needs is replaced with the needs of parents, school people, and government being served by the children.
Nothing really educational can take place unless its center and guiding principles are the natural interests and talents of the individual child. A body of knowledge, imposed by adults, requires that the children suppress their natural eagerness to learn by their own direction and pace, that which is of interest to them. Insistence on replacing that natural drive for learning with school curricula and enforced submission to system authority kills the will to learn.
Given unwilling learners, the job of teaching becomes one of "motivating." Refrain: "These kids just don't want to learn!" As always, the children are blamed; "Something's wrong with the children and it's our job to fix it." (And a determined President says, "No child will be left behind."
Not all children will swallow the sugar pill or the "motivation" medicine, so compulsory attendance must be enforced by truancy officers. What is ignored is the children's inborn, natural need to learn about the world, and it is as strong as the need for food. The school works like the landscape foreman who was chopping out a lovely birch tree outside my classroom window. "Why are you destroying that beautiful tree?" I called to him.
"Because we didn't put it there," he said, with finality. He was another Procrustes (see below).
In helping a child develop his/her natural interests and talents, no established curriculum can be imposed. Further, by making school attendance compulsory by law, no curriculum has any chance of being swallowed, much less digested. No learning worthy of the name can take place by force. With mandatory attendance in an authoritarian setting, no matter how benign, there is always the underlying fear of punishment by a teacher in loco parentis.
The Essentialist thinking goes thus: There is a certain "body of knowledge" that must be imparted to each generation, things they must know before they qualify for admission to the adult world as good citizens and self-supporting "contributors to society."
As we all know, this does not happen. Schools simply do not produce good citizens and self-reliant individuals. If they become that, they do it on their own, and only if they survive the mind-numbing 14-year initiation. Any serious participation in society is prevented until the much-feared and distrusted childhood years are safely past. Hence, what is left is thinly disguised incarceration--at times benign, often times brutal--that causes systematic destruction of self-esteem, self-respect, and the creative spirit.
In summary, without the firm guidance of a child-centered educational philosophy and serious commitment to it, the function, the practices, and the methods are decided by whoever has the most political influence. Given the indoctrination and values of the state-paid employees who run it, the touted noble aims of academic learning and sane socialization are but a vain and illusion-ridden hope. Until the education mega-business places the meeting of the child's needs--physical, mental, emotional--first and paramount, only indoctrination can take place. No amount of "motivation" or "innovative methods" will help so long as the child is denied the right to direct his or her own learning.
We need a whole 'nother paradigm.
WRONG FUNCTIONS AND WRONG PRACTICES
The Myth of Procrustes:
In the ancient city of Attica lived the legendary Procrustes, a huge mythological ogre who stationed himself beside his hut by a well-traveled road. Here he invited in passersby for direction, instruction, and improvement "for their own good."
Procrustes had preconceived ideas on how everyone should "measure up," how they must "fit in," and woe be to anyone who failed to conform. In his zeal to change everyone to fit his "ideal," he measured them on his iron bed; if they were too short, he attached chains and stretched them to fit. If they were too long for his bed, he simply chopped off the excess with his axe. Procrustes valued uniformity, conformity, and submission to authority, regardless of the cost in pain to his captives.
Because he was uncompromising (he was a "hard grader" with "high standards," they said), parents brought their children to him in droves. "He's no permissive liberal Spock-minded wimp," they said. "He's a disciplinarian, and his discipline works. My kids will never be the same." Which, of course, was very true.
He was admired for his "tough love" and professional dedication to the good of society. The fact that many children were crippled with separated vertebrae, or had to crawl about on stubs, was dismissed--even by the victims themselves--as the necessary price for "fitting in" the scheme of things. Children were brought to admire the deformed but "successful leaders," who lived in grand homes among the "best people." Indeed, status was symbolized by the severity of one's deformities.
Some few of the youth were smart enough and quick enough to skip out and save themselves. But they were frowned upon as " losers," and Procrustes spoke of this "small percentage" with a shrug. "You can't win 'em all," he said. "The quitters slip through the cracks." They would "come to no good," he warned, and will become burdens to the tax-paying "normal products" who survived his forming--and deforming.The function of schooling is threefold: To police, to baby-sit, and to break spirit. It does these so successfully that no reform is ever seriously attempted.1. The school system functions as an arm of the government, a fact that is obvious in its thinly-disguised efforts to bend children to meet the needs and demands of the established political institutions--local, state and federal.
Erik Erikson, psychiatrist, author of Identity CrisisA. In recent history the big power grab came following Sputnik in 1957 ("The Russians made us do it.") The government spokesman and designated reformer was a full-blown (but rather tiny) admiral of the U.S. Navy, Hyman Rickover. Freedom and "permissive progressivism" was thrown out the window, to be replaced by iron, grim "discipline" and "back-to-basics" curricula. "The Russians are ahead of us!" was the cry, "and the blame is on the schools for not producing scientists." In a "crisis," there is no place for pampering, liberal-minded, child-centered schools. Progressivism and freedom doesn't work, so throw it out and imitate the enemy.2. As the biggest business in corporate America: schooling is a super-corporation that involves one-fourth of the nation. It controls the day-to-day lives of millions with school bus schedules, homework (for parents too), vacation time, school supplies, buying and enforcing dress codes, including school uniforms. Schooling supports in excess of one-fourth of the national economy with its army of children, a massive chunk of the GNP indeed.
We hear the same refrain from Washington now, in spring 2001. As I write this, another power grab, one even more insidious, is being launched by the Bush II administration "for our own good."
B. Teachers and administrators are employees of the government, and as such are agents of the State. For all the pretenses of professionalism, tenure protection and "academic freedom," school people must conform to state thinking patterns and watch what they say, or they will soon find themselves bagging groceries at Safeway. It's a political position, as surely as was Harry Truman's under Boss Pendergast. Academic freedom is a myth, tenure notwithstanding, as many thousands of ex-teachers can attest.
C. School is a child-finishing factory: the building is called a "plant," the materials are "processed," the graduates are "products" bearing diplomas that are "marketable." They could as well be furniture, except that these "products" are also enthusiastic consumers and reproduce themselves. While many very human and conscientious teachers struggle valiantly for the children, they work in an inhuman system that is soul-destroying for both teachers and pupils.
D. The school is a quasi-military institution. Dr. B. Schling, psychiatrist, describes it as "a psychopathic institution"--that is, having no conscience, no ethics remotely human (witness the widespread practice of corporal punishment), which serves not the best interests of the child, or the parents, or society.
Note that the high school "product" requires only eight weeks of boot camp to make an infantry soldier of him or her. The schools are monolithic models of authoritarianism, increasingly requiring school uniforms. At this writing, the First Lady is recruiting military retirees for service as schoolteachers and administrators.
E. As an authoritarian political/quasi-military system, it's in the business of suppression. There is only one curriculum: Obedience. It is enforced by a hundred means, including shame, ridicule, isolation, and expulsion. When those fail to produce conformity and subservience, 23 states beat the children with wooden paddles.
In America's War Against Children during the past 20 years, the "losers" have shot back on the beaches of 27 schools. Yet no one has any idea what causes youthful violence. From media, political leaders and pulpits, after every school shooting in the past two decades, has come the question: "Why? Why?" No one has the faintest clue.
Schools provide millions of jobs from building contractors to custodians, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers. Teachers, administrators and nurses, are expensive, as are textbooks, sports equipment and buses. The list is without end. A recent addition: armed police guards to shoot down the revenge-seeking "rejects."
There is so much consumptive commercialism that even small children are obliged to lug huge backpacks to carry the stuff: the school supply bill is staggering, and "back-to-school" shopping for clothes and supplies rivals the Christmas mania.
The Children's Army travels on Daddy's wallet. Mommy goes to work to help pay for it, hugely increasing tax revenues, and the Child Care Industry is born.
3. The function of the school system is, in its role as babysitter to the nation, to keep youth occupied and under the control and supervision of government employees. Where there is no "lesson" to be learned, there is busywork, seatwork, workbook work, and stare-at-the-wall detention. As obedience schools they function similar to the kennel clubs: Follow all commands promptly and without complaint, for your masters know best. "Come. Sit. Beg. Fetch. Speak. Roll over. Stay. And be quiet... No." The incivility, humiliation, and general punitive methods inherent in the school system, the endless punishments result in life-long emotional scars. But above all is the terrible price paid in corporal punishment, the spankings and beatings by paddling that 23 states grimly persist in, in the delusion that it is "discipline." According to EPOCH-USA (End Physical Punishment of Children), in the 1997-98 school year, over 365,000 U.S. children were physically assaulted by school personnel, some armed with wooden paddles or other instruments.
4. Triage: a primary function of schools. This sorts children into three categories or status roles: Leaders, Followers, and Losers. The message to the child is clear: "Make a contribution to society (on our terms)," or get tossed on the human trash heap. This ugliness is at work in the schoolyard as well as the classroom in the form of bullying, ostracizing, and in the cliques and sub-groups of popular students, jocks, geeks, dorks, and outcasts. These are the social dynamics that pushed Keybold and Harris and others to the edge, resulting in the killings at Columbine and elsewhere.
The Hammerharp Variations
Because we enjoyed music so much, I was looking for a way to provide Henry and Russell opportunities to create their own. And truth to tell, I missed my years-long interest and enjoyment of playing jazz piano. At a local auction I bid $5 on an old upright piano and got it.
The instrument hadn't been touched in years, and was clearly a victim of neglect, having been left by an open window exposed to the vicissitudes of weathering. With neighbor help we got the heavy thing into the farmhouse and into a dining room corner. The boys could hardly be more excited.
Nothing worked. The ivory fell off the keys and to the floor. No matter--the key mechanism was frozen in anyway. We had a "musical instrument" that made not a sound. So we began dismantling--always the boys' default approach when something didn't work. To our joy, beneath that shabby exterior laid a beautiful and magnificent work of art: the strings and soundboard, with its colorful felt pads and fascinating key mechanism.
After removing the hammers we began striking the strings manually. This led to experimenting with a variety of soft and hard objects that produced different sound qualities, and soon we were plucking the strings harp-like as well. We were back to zither, harp, and harpsichord-like sounds, and there seemed to be endless variations.
Within a few days the boys began staging "concerts" for the family. Kitchen chairs were arranged facing what they now dubbed the "hammerharp." Performances by these pre-school boys were awesome. Even today a tape recording of a spontaneous Russell concert sounds to me as exquisitely conceived and performed as one by the modern composer, Karel Husa.
Select Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15