Two hypotheses: (1) Forced education and the world of work is one big system of involuntary servitude with compulsory, menial, downgrading labor. Children are sentenced to school until they reach the right age, complete their probationary period and move on to the next sentence. They’re finally granted work release but if they can’t conform to the conditions of probation they are busted down and forced to start over elsewhere. (2) For society to survive we have to re-learn how to behave more like children.
I’m in search of the right way to make a meaningful contribution toward saving the world. My long-time belief is that you must tend to “people” needs or tasks won’t get done nearly as well as they could, so while ecology and environment are in the mix my priority has been the social-emotional state of the species. We’re a mess. The natural focal point is kids’ social-emotional (s-e) well-being, through the education system. But it’s got to be more than kids and education. The roots of our social issues are much deeper. A casual swim turned into a cliff dive into human development—murky! My personal passion has morphed into a big honkin’ project that targets whole-community well-being. Stay tuned.
Peter Gray is no stranger to those who are into education improvement. They’re all good, but two of his articles really grabbed me. In The Culture of Childhood: We’ve Almost Destroyed It Gray makes the case that children learn the most valuable lessons with other children, away from adults. He explains that children are biologically designed to grow up in a culture of childhood. But we’re bound and determined to go against that natural design.
In Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education, Gray likens the current education system to a compulsory prison sentence. Harsh, right? Accurate? Pretty much.
It’s much bigger than the education system, and the larger issues are daunting. Many of the social problems adults face are not just rooted in but are shared with childhood. Parenting and the education system, private sector management and organization, social norms, even government…all are impacted by the same forces that are working against our human nature.
One section of Gray’s “Culture” article is subtitled “The adult battle against cultures of childhood has been going on for centuries.” So has a brutal war against adult individuality, creativity, fulfillment and the ability to develop to our full potential. Pink Floyd had it right in Brick in the Wall, the movie excerpt is prophetically dark.
The Floyd Boys didn’t consult with me, so I don’t know for sure if it was by intent. But the song pertains to a whole lot more than kids and the education system. We’re all bricks. Docile, content, mediocre people are much easier to control. Good enough students, good enough employees, good enough soldiers, good enough citizens. But good enough isn’t good enough. We’re collectively being held back from greatness and some feel (I’m one) it’s actually become a survival of the species issue.
The war against children’s culture started in earnest with Francke’s system of compulsory schooling in Prussia, in the late 17th century, which was subsequently copied and elaborated upon throughout Europe and America. Francke wrote, in his instructions to schoolmasters: “Above all it is necessary to break the natural willfulness of the child. While the schoolmaster who seeks to make the child more learned is to be commended for cultivating the child’s intellect, he has not done enough. He has forgotten his most important task, namely that of making the will obedient.” (Gray)
In the early 20th century Frederick Taylor opened another huge skirmish line to break the human will in the exploding industry sector, with his theory of scientific management. “Taylor’s philosophy focused on the belief that making people work as hard as they could was not as efficient as optimizing the way the work was done.” (a simple exploration)
Taylor advocated breaking physical tasks down into the most basic elements possible, throwing an army of mindless man-machine laborers at the work. No thinking needed, just do the same exact task over and over and over. “The Principles of Scientific Management” was published in 1909, and Franck’s factory model of education was the perfectly efficient machine to produce ample bricks in the wall.
The attributes of a children’s culture are vital elements of human nature, not just for young people. Those attributes also have a great impact on adults in their parenting role as well as at work and in society. But they have been stifled. Who needs all that stuff since we’re destined for prison anyway?
School and Work—Life Sentence, No Chance for Parole
Here is a very brief summary of Gray’s reasoning that forced education is prison. I’m buying the whole package with one slight twist…the same issues are prevalent in the workplace and in society. It’s a scary thought: we’re born into incarceration and we die that way.
(one) Denial of liberty on the basis of age, and compulsory movement of an entire group of inmates (sorry, students) as they get older, provided they comply with the conditions of each sentencing period. Passing out of a grade, early probation for good behavior, valuing capability over tenure is rare. The system won’t allow it, isn’t geared up to process one-off exceptions.
(two) Fostering of shame on the one hand, and hubris on the other. Non-stop testing, formal and informal evaluations, observations, grading…all promote peer pressure and competition, coercion and admonishments from parents, teachers, management. Students and employees are either proud or ashamed of their performance, either self-assured or full of angst over their status.
(three) Interference with the development of cooperation and nurturance. Humans are social creatures; we are naturally wired to cooperate with and nurture others. But our competition -based system of ranking and grading works against the cooperative drive…helping others may even hurt the helper. (Gray, Forced Education). Further, age segregation eliminates opportunity for older to younger nurturing and increases bullying. The human tendency to care for and help each other is inhibited at an early age and these inhibitors’ damages continue through adulthood, into the workplace and society.
(four) Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction. Command and control management is rooted in contemporary teaching and parenting practices. Childhood, education and employment are all incredibly disempowering when teacher, parent and boss all resort to “because I said so, that’s why!” It’s easy to fall into a comfort zone: waiting for orders and blindly complying to them. Initiative is effectively squelched, leaving behind compliance, complacency, mediocrity, lost potential. A powerful lesson: ”if you do what you are told to do in school everything will work out well for you.” (Gray) By the same token if you shut up, do your job at work and obey the law you’ll keep drawing a paycheck. You may even stay out of jail.
(five) Linking of learning (and work!) with fear, loathing, and drudgery. Along with our adventurous spirit, we’ve lost our joy. Tests generate anxiety in most….threats of failure and the shame associated with failure generate enormous anxiety…a fundamental psychological principle is that anxiety inhibits learning (Gray) Anxiety also dead-ends creativity and productivity and can lead to dangerous levels of emotional and physical stress. Lesson learned: “you must do your work before you can play” (Gray) …”how can ya have any pudding if ya don’t eat yer meat?” (Floyd)… “this report is due, don’t go home until it is.” (insert-kahuna-name-here)
(six) Inhibition of critical thinking. Even though building critical thinking skills is a stated priority in education, “most students—including most ‘honors students’—learn to avoid thinking critically.” The grading system is a huge barrier as students understand the real goal at school is to get good grades. Period. They quickly learn that the way to do that is to figure out what answers the teacher wants to hear, no matter what the student thinks. Sounds a little like the workplace doesn’t it?
(seven) Reduction in diversity of skills, knowledge and ways of thinking. Only the tiniest sliver of what is really needed out there in the real world can be even touched on in school. So our logical conclusion: everyone needs to study the same thing because we don’t have the resources to do anything else. Enter “standard curriculum”. Private sector entities, especially larger ones, are driven by the same standard practice principles, making it easier to expand managers’ spans of control. The overflowing cornucopia of individuals’ unique capabilities is homogenized, distilled, compressed into uniform bricks all who have an acceptable level of competency.
The factory model is so deeply rooted in our society and economy that we’ll play hell replacing it.