Parenting Without Punishing

Chapter 14


"School Is A Place Where Children Learn To Be Stupid" - John Holt


Compulsory schooling's reason for existence is to induct children by force of law into an authoritarian, repressive system to serve the purposes of local, state, and federal governments. The ostensible justification is found in high-flown rhetoric: "For their own good", "We are serving future generations", and now, "No child shall be left behind", as if a wonderful vehicle is being provided that will deliver children into Successland and happiness. But more and more it becomes clear that the school system does not - it cannot - meet the needs of the children. Because it serves, instead, political and economic ends - for which the children serve as the means.

The education bill recently passed by the U.S. Congress - the most flagrant power grab of the nation's school system in its history - leaves no more doubt. It passed overwhelming-ly, amid resounding applause from both liberals and conservatives. No congressperson seems to recognize the inevitable consequences.

When the veils of illusion are dropped, compulsory schooling can be seen for what it is: large-scale incarceration of 64 million school children for the crime of being children. It is the cynical exploitation of that vast population who are denied the rights and means to defend themselves. We must ask: How can we pretend this is a free society? How can children grow up understanding what freedom means?

What Does The System Aim To Do?

While the children are compelled into service by the government, the teachers are selected for their loyalty to it. Since their jobs depend on subservience to authority, and their teaching the most common values of the community, little creativity or originality can survive the screening. As a general rule, any enlightened thinking, even intelligent thinking, provokes fear and hostility among parents and the general citizenry, and creativity at any meaningful level is suspect if not taboo. The academic freedom that once affording protection is now a myth, the mere mention of which provokes cynical laughter in faculty rooms of public schools and teachers' colleges. Employees of the State must conform to the dictates of the State and it's description of reality; tenure protects no one.

It is not a comforting thought that the children of the U. S. are incarcerated in a quasi-suppressive system to be indoctrination in values decided upon and enforced by under-educated school boards, inadequately-educated teachers, and ignorant, anti-freedom administrators. It takes much research and investigation to understand this. Those who doubt are invited to visit a teachers' college on the day Masters' Comprehensive Examinations are being given. They will find the hall full of physical education majors and football coaches making their second and third attempts at a passing grade. They aspire to secure positions as "tough" school principals. These corporal punishment-prone "disciplinarians" will be appointed as "bosses" over professional teachers and bullies over children. Cowardly school boards will hire them by the thousands. That is only one reason why the public school functions, in many respects, as a fear-ridden prison system for America's children. Although they broke no law, they must do their time.

What Are The Methods Used?

What means are employed to bend children to the service of government? Seduction, deception, and brute force. That is to say, whatever it takes. The bottom line - for teachers as well as pupils - is to follow instructions as orders, do not do what is forbidden, and do not question authority. The pretense is that teaching is a profession, but the reality is that respect for teachers as professionals is nearly non-existent.

While the rhetoric and pretense is reading, math and science, the fundamental curriculum is obedience to authority. In suburban schools the sham (and shame) is easier to maintain, but in inner city schools attempts to disguise the imprisonment have long been abandoned. Except for a few brave souls in highly-publicized attempts at civilizing native children, long before the days of "Blackboard Jungle" the inner city schools have been a prison system against which children waged war. It had its beginnings well before World War II.

All this has, of course, it historic roots. The U. S. largely adapted its school system from the model of the German gymnasium, and based on the writings of the early German psychologists of the 19th C. In his "Essay on the Education and Instruction of Children, (1848), J. Sulzer, who had enormous influence in shaping U. S. schools, wrote, "Obedience is so important that all education is actually nothing other than learning how to obey." (Begin, he wrote, in the second and third year of age the "strict obedience to parents and superiors, and a trusting acceptance of all they do.")

More recently, novelist Kurt Vonnegut told of his meeting with Heinrich Bolle, the German author who won the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature, and whose writings explored the causes and consequences of Nazism. "What," Vonnegut asked him, "is the most damning and damaging feature of the German character?"

Bolle thought for a moment and answered in one word: "Obedience." That dedication, that reverence for authority, formed the essential ingredient that made possible World War II, the Holocaust, and the killing of over 50 million men, women and children.

So the most important lessons to be learned in schools are (1) do as you're told; (2) pretend that you know; (3) conceal your ignorance and weaknesses; (4) become as invisible as possible to keep from getting hurt. For most, this means faking your way, not asking questions the teacher cannot answer, telling authorities what they want to hear, and deceiving and conniving to avoid failure and punishment. For the more physical and mentally active, (the undefeated), it means fighting boredom by creating a career in rebellion, mayhem, violence and chaos until the 13-year sentence is completed. That is, skills useful for survival in the street.

Obedience is enforced by a range of penalties limited only by the authorities' imagination, including detention, humiliation before peers, expulsion, and physical assault. In 23 states, disobedience is punishable by physical attack, including battering with wooden paddles and other weapons. During school year '97-'98: there occurred in U. S. public schools more than 400,000 paddle-batterings of children. (EPOCH-USA)

And then there is the widespread and rapidly-growing use of the drug method of control. U. S. children now consume 90% of the world's supply of Ritalin. In most schools the main function of the school nurse is the daily dispensing of drugs to keep children from rising up in rightful protest against what is being done to them: bodily beatings, mind-rape, and robbing of their birth-right to think with a free mind.

What Does It Do To The Children?

1. Denies their basic rights, their freedom; rendering them powerless, impotent

2. Undermines self-esteem by constant correction and punishment; bullies, demeans, and humiliates.

3. Damages self-worth with competition (few winners, many losers)

4. Stunts socialization by limiting association with other ages; social deprivation by limiting to age group, achievement and intelligence level, and other segregation

5. Penalizes individuality by enforcing conformity

6. Suppresses creative expression, critical thinking

7 Destroys, systematically, the spirit, spontaneity, and joy that is natural to every child

8. Discourages self-reliance by requiring dependence on authority and peers

9. Retards maturation, responsibility

10. Prevents most contact with the real world by providing only fake, contrived experiences, manufactured and pre-digested. Life is lived in 45-minute "periods"; reality is divided into "subjects"

11. Induces drugged, zombie-like distance from authentic being and genuine relationships; makes for intellectual stupor, TV commercial-length attention span.

12 Penalizes authenticity of being; fosters self-alienation, a profound loneliness, a constant feeling of isolation, hence, non-commitment to human standard of values, empathy, genuine human feelings

13. Undermines character development: models dishonesty and deceit, lying, cheating, while hypocritically punishing the same

14. Stupifies by using carrot/stick conditioning that destroys the mind, instead of developing thinking ability

15. Limits growth by controls, including intimidation, bullying, ridicule, ostracism, expulsion, beatings, drugs (Ritalin, uppers, downers), peer pressure and parent pressure.


In practice, the school system actually prevents learning from taking place.

Significant worthwhile learning cannot happen in a climate of coercion and fear, and where subject matter and learning pace are determined in the state capitol. Schools simply do not function to help children follow their natural interests and inclinations, and whatever little is learned there is soon forgotten That schools are the foremost impediments to genuine learning is a fact that more than a million parents have discovered, and have removed their children from school to provide instruction at home.

Schools, run as they are by authoritarian methods, cannot prepare the young for participation in a democratic society. Being denied decision-making power, they are deprived of experience in handling meaningful responsibility. Socialization is stunted through age grouping, limiting association to those peers whose birthdays are within six months of their own. Self-esteem is systematically damaged with the reward-and-punishment treatment inflicted at all ages and levels, resulting in the self-alienation that is the sickness of the modern age.

Because learning cannot take place when under threat of punishment, testing, peer and teacher ridicule, and failure, school becomes essentially a place where children are kept in custody while they "do their time." But it is even worse than that. Profound boredom and appalling incivility benumbs the mind of the child and dulls sensitivity and all that makes him or her human. What's left is frustration, anxiety, self-loathing, depression, and rage.

John Holt, author of How Children Learn, described it this way: "School is a place where children learn to be stupid."


1. President Bush's education reform plan calls for tripling spending on education in the coming five years. But the federal government provides only 6 percent of the education funds accessible to local school districts, to be spent "as they see fit".

He giveth, yet he taketh away. The price to local districts for that miniscule, inadequate "gift" is no less than their decision-making power. In a word, Freedom. The new Bush plan specifies that the schools must administer tests "on a regular basis" to measure "how individual students are performing". This information on the children will be gathered and tabulated "to rate school and district performance". The Bush government does the rating, of course. Any schools showing generally low scores (deemed "deficient") would be threatened with the loss of their federal funds. Copious "guidelines" on what "corrections" schools must make to meet Washington's requirements are sure to come.

"Faith-based" intrusions, (in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state,) are in. But vouchers, a chief argument during campaign promises to "overhaul the education system" - are out. They presumably could have been used for attendance in private schools, or even for home schooling.

Far too much has been demanded of the school system, so much that management problems dwarf even the social service system. Schools serve as transmitters of middle class values such as consumerism, status seeking, competition, violence, and exclusivity. There is the myth of official certification to have faith in despite contrary evidence, as well as the politics of authoritarianism, and the "discipline" of militarism. In short, schools teach an extremely narrow and shallow orientation in how society works, while perpetuating its shortcomings: class hatred, racial prejudice, hypocrisy, lying, cheating, bullying the weakest, shameless greed, and many forms of violence. No way is GW's reform going to change that, even with the help of Congress and his bully pulpit.

The competitive mindset and rat race lifestyle is hardly avoidable in a setting that encourages aggression, where courses are required, where attendance is mandatory, and testing in step-by-step grade levels is never-ending. Above all, schools are so fashioned as to not disturb the most conservative, the most fear-filled and the most under-educated elements of society. It is not surprising that those are the very qualities that characterize many school boards and school personnel.

2. Whenever the authorities feel the kids are enjoying too much freedom, there is another call for "BACK TO BASICS!".- and another school reform campaign is launched. Again the headlines read, "The schools are failing! Back to the basics! The kids can't read, can't write! Reform the schools!" Freedom didn't work, so "out with Progressivism, out with the frills, in with the discipline!" There have been dozens of such reforms in my memory, nearly identical in rhetoric, since the 1940s: More reading, writing, arithmetic! More testing! Fail the kids! Make them work! Make them repeat (the teaching that didn't take the first year)!

1947 - Max Rafferty's book, "Suffer Little Children", called for "back-to-basics reforms" in the right-wing style and tone of communist-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy. The Pasadena, CA school system fired its famous school superintendent for his progressive programs.

1954 - The ultra-conservative Council For Basic Education supported the election of school boards and throwing out progressive school superintendents, and publicized its demands for harsher "discipline", and heavy infliction of the 3 R's.

1957 - The Soviet Union put Sputnik into orbit, so the schools were blamed for "losing the race" against communism. The nation awoke to learn that schools were on the front line in the Cold War. An admiral named Rickover, small of stature but big of mouth, recommended to Congress a national testing program in "the basics", and a general regimentation of schools.

1958 - National Emergency Defense Education Act made it clear that the schools were to serve the national defense "in this time of crisis".

1963 - School Mathematics Study Group

1964 - Elementary Science Study ...

1965 - Title One for disadvantaged ...

1968 to present: Repeated spasms of school reforms occurring every few years, ever more shrill in the demand for "basics", ever more expensive for the taxpayers who remain furious because the children can't read, can't add a row of figures, and never heard of Inchon, much less the Marshall Plan. They know they're being cheated but still believe schools can work, given enough money and "discipline".

But where are the great results of those 54 years of school reforms, the billions of dollars spent to improve reading, writing, arithmetic, social studies, and science? Watch Jay Leno's "Jay-walking" features on the Tonight Show, and see high school graduates' attempts to place WWII in the correct decade, or guess the name of Abe Lincoln's assassin.

This "school reform" of President Bush's is supposed to resolve a "crisis" that has lasted over five decades. Regardless of his repeated denial about "not running the schools from Washington", this most flagrant power grab in public school history threatens the most serious blow ever to the children and to generations to come. There is no possibility of the harm ever being undone.


First: Helpful educational changes cannot take place from the top down. In Arizona, as in other states, statewide standardized testing was adopted as the "answer" to improving schools. Problem: the test-givers could not pass their own test. The politicians who voted for it couldn't pass it. The general public, including parents - couldn't pass it. That fact was promptly made a non-problem by simply brushing it aside and denying it.

They forced the impossible tests on the kids anyway. Presently the pass-scores are being lowered, and testing schedules extended year after year. Now President Bush wants similar tests administered on a nationally scale. Only brain-deadening control - certainly not education - can result by political decree. Learning, as distinguished from indoctrination, must begin - and be controlled by - the learner him/herself.

Second: It is the Law of Bureaucracy that the only way to change a bureaucracy is to replace it with a bigger bureaucracy. And that is precisely what is happening with Pres. Bush's education plan. It is a Machiavellian attempt to gain and keep control of the minds of U.S. children, and by extension the population.

Third: He must compete with the counter-culture with its drugs, the youth culture with its rock and folk music, the right wing militia with its cold, dead soul, and wacko religious movements with their manic-depressive trance theology. All of the above have made, in the past 50 years, inroads into every level of the education system from day care to graduate schools, from custodians to college presidents. No reform from Washington can change the system to meet the educational needs of children. Such change can only make the school experience more oppressive, more exploitive, more Kafkaesque, and more destructive of children's minds, emotions, and spirit.

Fourth: Schools are already successful in their fundamental purposes, so no one wants real change. The children are supervised all day while the parents work and earn more money. The economy thrives from the production, the government revels in the excess in taxes, the children become consumer-oriented in recreational shopping, having been dulled to ignore how their minds were being raped.

Some professional educators have long ago placed their hopes in the school system's very inefficiency. The greatest harm may be averted, they believe, so long as the schools fall short of their real purposes. Teachers by the tens of thousands are home schooling. To these people, the prospect of the Bush Plan is most alarming.


1. Little is taught; much less is learned; what is learned is not retained; what little is retained must be unlearned before any meaningful education can take place. School PREVENTS authentic learning experiences from happening.

2. Children are bored, insulted, humiliated, bullied, beaten, drugged and brainwashed. Nearly 400,000 children were beaten with paddles in 1997-98 school year, 81,373 of them beaten in Texas schools alone, far exceeding any other state - (from Office for Civil Rights).

3. School is a place where "socialization" often means developing survival skills to escape violent victimization. Survey: 56% of kids feel unsafe in school; 57% feel adults don't do enough to prevent violence. (NBC News). In the past 20 years, 59 children and teachers have been killed in schools, 124 wounded by gunshot. Most of the shooters were victims of teasing, isolation, punishment, low self-esteem; none felt they had access to an understanding adult they could talk to. All of the shootings were, therefore, preventable.

4. Schools serve the purposes, not of the 64 million children in U.S. schools, but of government agencies, military "requirements", global corporations, and endless institutions whose existence depends on exploiting the young.

5. Already a prison with armed guards policing the halls, schools can soon be expected to assign the guards to enforcing "discipline" to "free the teachers to teach".

6. Bored by mind-numbing routine regimentation and spirit-killing "lessons", those who protest the ignominy by acting out their frustration are labeled "victims" of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). These presently number 20% of school kids. The number taking Ritalin (to make them more "easily controllable") is "alarmingly high".

7. Learning cannot take place where fear and threats are pervasive: fear of ridicule, attacks on esteem, demeaning treatment, the constant fear of failure in a dozen varieties, and violence from paddlings by administrators to beatings by schoolyard bullies. For millions of children, school is a dreaded and dreadful place, a daily nightmare. Worse, they must pretend that school is "okay", otherwise parents, friends and teachers may think they are "abnormal" - the worst fear of all, since it would invite harassment, bullying, ostracism as a "weirdo", and the lowest-rank in the pecking order.

8. Anyone who is educated has had to go through an unlearning process, a de-programming, to free themselves from school-imposed mind-warp. But built into the programming is the belief that the indoctrination itself is the education process.

9. Individual identity is undermined. School uniforms are required to gain greater control. Its purpose is to have the pupil identify him or herself as a unit in a training organization, not as an individual. The question all children ask, Who am I? is then answered, "A unit in an organization, with no identity other than a piece of the System, a machine component.

10. Bush's "education overhaul" scheme - by tripling spending on schooling in next 5 years - is a flagrant take-over of the U.S. school system by the federal government. He says, "I believe in local control of schools. We should not and we will not run public schools from Washington, D. C." But it is a lie. He's doing exactly that with his education reform.

"I see public schools as burning buildings - and I'll try to save every child I can." - John Holt

Continuing Narrative: Growing Garden

We found a discarded rain gutter and filled it with topsoil, and on our sunny enclosed south porch in early spring we began with planting many kinds of seeds. We wanted to discover which ones we could later transplant: tomatoes, carrots, onions, cabbage, summer squash, sweet corn, beets, lettuce, radishes, peas, bush beans. That was the first year. We found that root crops did not transplant well, but had better results with lettuce, tomatoes, bush beans, peas, cabbage, and squash. The others we seeded directly into the ground.

We made a commitment to the organic method from the outset. No chemical "farming" for us. Instead we collected "cow patties" from the pasture and planted them first. The question was raised: How long could we extend the harvest seasons for each vegetable? Experiments with timed plantings taught us that plants had minds and agendas all their own. Alternating row plantings of peas and beans, lettuce and radishes, carrots and beets, were moderately successful. But in the end each variety matured generally according to its season, regardless of its planting time.

The weeds and the bugs presented interesting challenges, but we persisted in eschewing chemical fertilizers and pesticides and picked slugs and cabbage worms by hand. At harvest time, preserving extra produce opened up a whole new adventure for us. Into the scalded Mason jars went string beans, sweet corn, bush beans, and, of course, tomatoes. It was a proud moment when we lined up the colorful quart jars on the cellar shelves. It was with even more pleasure that we opened, in mid-winter, a jar of garden vegetables that we, together, had raised, then preserved, ourselves.

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