Schools Are Not Places of Education
Schooling has essentially, though probably not intentionally, become the efficient warehousing of children in a way convenient to society at the expense of many teachers, virtually all students (with a certain kind of exception(1)), and at great opportunity costs for society itself. It is not that there are no "effective" schools in the sense of turning out students who can go on to function in various careers and social roles; it is that even the schools that are effective in this way, are effective at great costs to students and at great opportunity costs to society. Many (young) people could learn far more that would be far more useful to them and to society if education were different. The ever increasing number of years children are required to attend school, basically doing assignments that have no meaning to them and little relevance to socially useful work, serves to postpone children's maturation rather than giving them more opportunity to learn and to develop discerning judgment. Children learn to read and write by the fifth or sixth grade, but are not given the opportunities to hone or apply those skills in either useful or interesting areas. Instead the best students simply become good at doing things which are primarily only useful and rewarded in school itself.
Schools have taken on a life of their own that has little to do with the needs of society, children, or the adults those children will become. The worst students who are forced to stay in school, do so as prisoners remain in jail, developing all the same sorts of unhealthy and unproductive, or even destructive attitudes and characteristics. The best students end their senior years in high school, and often their senior years in college, unable to grow anything, make anything, build anything, or repair anything unless they learned to do those things outside of school. They have little understanding of human nature or its higher potentials. They cannot even imagine, let alone appreciate, the potential non-material richness of life or the capacity of the human spirit. They cannot analyze situations or problems into components from which they can draw insights. They cannot discover, or even see when it is pointed out to them, lessons for their own lives in history, literature, or science. They cannot discover lessons even in their own circumstances because they have not learned to see their circumstances objectively. They cannot compare their circumstances with those of other cultures or times. They cannot make appropriate, useful distinctions. For the most part they cannot think about anything in other than a superficial or mechanical way. At best they can write useless papers or do useless projects in ways no one cares about, on topics that have no excitement or meaning for anyone, including themselves.
College teachers and employers alike are unhappy with the quality and the level of immaturity of students that K-12 schools produce. I don't believe that is because schools don't have the resources to do what they want to do with students -- though they often do not have the resources they need or would like - but it is because they do, and want to do, the wrong things with children. If schools had greater resources and more time with students, they would, I think, produce even less educated students in greater quantities - better "schooled", but less educated. Schools are not places that inspire children to want to learn and think while giving them the tools and opportunities to do so; they are not places that give children meaningful responsibility in order to produce conscientious, mature adults and citizens. They are places where obedient children learn to do what they are told or learn to do what teachers will reward, and where independent or defiant children learn to (further) despise mere authority and often to confuse it with deserved leadership.
Basically students are taught facts they will forget before they ever become useful, except on exams, to themselves or anyone. Much of the subject matter in schools is of no significance to adults, and the school subject matter which might be of use and interest to adults, is not taught in a way that is very meaningful or helpful to children. Students are taught grammar and trivialized rules of composition, instead of being taught how to communicate clearly and effectively, which is a very different thing. While grammar and composition are important elements of clear and effective writing and speaking, they are not substitutes for them, and they are often not tools for achieving them. Superficial thinking about trivial topics, or about trivialized aspects of important topics, is what is fostered in schools, rather than deeper reflection about significant elements in life. Science and math, literature and social studies are taught in ways which have little meaning or relevance to students, often by teachers who aren't particularly expert in that subject matter content area, or anything else other than what is the latest pedagogical fashion; students are basically graded on how well they can remember mere statements of ideas rather than being encouraged to create, discover, understand, or appreciate those ideas. And just memorizing statements (see "Understanding, Shallow Thinking, and Schools" http://www.garlikov.com/teaching/Understanding.html), which is difficult and time-consuming for most students, tends to preclude their trying to understand them or analyze them for significance or meaningfulness.
Teachers and administrators tend to view and treat students as irresponsible underachievers, and that often becomes a self-fulfilling state of affairs.
A better way ....
(1) One kind of situation that strikes me as strange, yet, I think, typifies a mistaken public perspective about school, is that in which a young person has the opportunity to leave school for an extremely lucrative career (say, as an athlete in a popular sport, or as an actor, model, or whatever) and a great many people advise against his/her leaving school to pursue the career. If a college football player can sign a pro contract for $5 million his junior year, what would be the point of playing one more year and risking injury in order to get a college degree that he could always earn instead during the off-season or after his football career is over? Of course, he might learn something really personally or socially useful and interesting in college, but something worth risking $5 million for, that he couldn't or wouldn't learn later? Or even learn outside of college? I would think not! It seems arbitrary and misguided to me to say that education is important to provide people until they reach a certain age, but not afterward; or to say that it is important for people to be in school (regardless of anything else they might do(2)) up until a certain age, but not after that. Of course it is better that people learn things earlier rather than later in their lives, so that they have longer to make use of what they have learned, but some things are more meaningful and more useful when learned later in life, after some experience has been gained; and some people blossom later than others, or blossom intellectually later than others. It simply seems to me counter-productive in regard to personal, citizenship, and professional results to make people be in school who are getting nothing out of it, while not paying for adults to become educated when they are finally ready just because they are older than 18 or 22.
Morever the conventional view assumes that attaining a degree, or serving time sitting in a classroom, is necessary and sufficient to attain knowledge and wisdom, which is arguably not so. Many people with quite good grades have not much wisdom; and there are many wise people who did not do well in school, sometimes even brilliant people. Einstein, Edison, Churchill can always serve as examples of the latter. There is nothing about being in school that guarantees, or even makes likely, wisdom. And there is nothing about not being in school that guarantees, or even makes likely, a failure to attain wisdom.
Yet much of school is spent, and thus often wasted, on people who are not interested in what is being taught to them because it is neither inherently interesting to them nor relevant to their lives, as they see them, at the time. And, while it would be better to make school subjects be more interestingly taught and more apparently relevant to life, that is not a goal schools tend to seek, nor is it a goal they could likely achieve for any but the most academically curious or stimulated children under anything like current conditions even if they sought it. I think much could be done to make worthwhile learning more interesting, but even if all that were done, I still think there would be many children still not interested in school subjects, at least not while they are young.
(2) There is another curious thing about the public perspective. A student who does not learn subject matter and who thus gets poor grades is considered a failure, but no adult is judged by how much he learned in K-12 or even K-undergrad school, nor by how much of it s/he remembers. And most adults know or remember quite little of what they were (tried to be) taught. If what is taught is of little consequence later, why is it of any consequence at the time? Is it somehow more important to know state capitals or the parts of speech when you are 12 than when you are 30, 40, or 50? Is it more important to know the anatomy of a frog or the reactions in the Krebs Cycle at age 16 than at age 43? To know the more abstruse theorems of geometry, or the names of the characters in Hamlet or Macbeth?
All this being said, the point is not that schools ought to be abandoned, but that "schooling" -- especially as it is practiced now -- is neither synonymous with education nor as important as education and significant learning. And, for many individuals, schooling often even stifles their interest in learning, and sometimes their education. Schools often (try to) teach very specific material in the name of education, but which turns out to be material that is not significant from a personal, a professional, or a citizenship perspective. My references above to Hamlet, Macbeth, the Krebs Cycle, geometry, state capitals, etc. were not meant to disparage understanding great literature, cellular biology, math, or civics. These are all potentially wonderful, interesting, and useful things to know or to be exposed to, as are many other things that schools do not teach. The problem is that schooling generally trivializes literature as a certain format on a set of note cards - characters, settings, plot, etc. It trivializes math as a certain set of propositions or as solving certain kinds of problems under time constraint conditions. It trivializes biology as the memorization of a set of names of anatomical parts or chemical molecules that don't mean anything to students other than that they can say or write them when asked. The important significance and wonder of most subjects is almost always reduced to the trivial listing of a number of facts that have no excitement and that students merely mechanically memorize if they learn them at all.
All that being said, what I think would be better is the following:
1) academic subjects need to be taught in ways that bring them more to life for as many students as possible. (This will require a way of looking at subject matter and teaching that is quite foreign to most teachers, even many who think they teach quite meaningful material now, but who don't teach it in ways that actually end up being meaningful to students.)
2) they should be offered to students when the students are able to appreciate and learn from them. For some this will be when they are younger; others, when they are older.
3) children who have access to educational opportunities outside of school that are better for THEM, should be allowed to take advantage of those opportunities even if that means not going to school full time or even at all. Currently there are few opportunities for children to apprentice or work in most businesses, and child labor laws even prevent it.(3) Many adults would not want children or young teens in their places of business, or older teens in other than the most menial sorts of work. While apprenticeships and similar opportunities used to be common, it currently would be some time before significant numbers of opportunities could and would again be open to teens and others.
The purpose of child labor laws, of course, is to prevent children from being forced to work or to earn a living, or extra income for their parents - particularly working in terrible conditions. The problem is that the laws as they currently stand don't distinguish between work that is a good opportunity for a child to learn and mature, and work that is stifling and laborious without much benefit. And the determining factor is often merely whether the child is paid or not, so that children can be forced to do deferential, laborious, unrewarding work (in some cases in not very good physical working conditions) with little liberty for no money (as in school), but are not permitted to do light, educating, enjoyable, maturing, work that fosters responsibility and dependability if they also earn money doing it.
The overriding emphasis should be on producing the best educational opportunities for people, whether in or out of schools, where what is being learned is likely to lead to better personal, social (citizenship), and professional (job) knowledge and understanding.
1. There are some students who have such dismal home lives in certain ways, that school is an emotional or physical haven for them and/or the only place where they are exposed to normal information and training about rudimentary hygiene, nutrition, social skills, etc. School may be the only source of physical and emotional comfort, and nutrition. It is, of course, important that students have such havens and such training; and it is a good thing for schools to provide this if nowhere else does, but that is not the main function of schools, and that can occur even in schools with the worst academic programs or in places that have nothing to do with academics at all. The fact that a school provides shelter and comfort to a child who would not otherwise have it is important, but it does not excuse the school, as a school, from providing the proper academic education as well; nor does it serve as a substitute for it.
Sometimes students also meet teachers or others in school who inspire
them to great adult achievement, even if academics is weak in the school.
This too, is a good thing, of course, but it is an incidental aspect of
schooling, and works in the same way that exposure to people anywhere works,
whether it is an association with a maid, a gardener, the tv repairman,
a nurse or pediatrician, a cousin or distant relative, an army sergeant,
or even a prison guard. That there might be some inspirational prison guards
or drill sergeants would not make prisons or boot camps good places to
send everyone for an education. The same is true for schools; an occasional
inspirational teacher (particularly ones inspirational in areas outside
of academic subjects) does not necessarily make schools the best places
for children to be for an education. (Return to text.)
2. The current exception to this is the military
recruiting which touts that young people can "be all that they can be"
while earning money for college and/or learning skills that employers want.
In the 1960's, the Peace Corps was considered by some to be a worthwhile
endeavor for which to postpone school and the pursuit of a college degree.
3. Child labor laws are themselves curious. They
permit children's being made to sit, often silently, at a desk in a school
for six or seven hours a day (with sparse exercise, break, or bathroom
'privileges', and, in some schools, when they have lunch, they must still
sit quietly and in assigned seats or with specified groups) and then being
given homework assignments that take another two, three, or five hours
a day, sometimes having to be done after athletic, band, or choir practice
that itself takes a few hours. But they prevent a 14 year old from doing
light work part time in an office where they might observe professionals
at work and be given ever increasing responsibilities as they learn more
and more of how a particular business operates. My older daughter learned
to type at age 4, and by age 14 she was clocked above 100 words a minute,
but when a friend of mine offered to give her a part time summer job typing
and filing a few hours a few day's a week in the city magistrate's office
where she might learn about the justice system as she went along, that
would have been illegal; yet, her doing the same work in the school office,
or in the Girl Scout's office, or the church office as an unpaid volunteer,
was perfectly legal, and even encouraged by the offering of "citizenship
points" or service badges, etc. (Return to text.)
Reset June 21, 2000