The formal educational system of a nation is its most significant and influential institution, according to sociologist Elise Boulding. It is startling, then, to comprehend the degree to which the modern schooling system almost universally practiced in the United States is oppressive and unjust to its students, falling under Boulding’s definition of structural violence. Conventional schooling serves less to educate children than to produce a steady stream of docile, easily controlled adults. As former teacher John Taylor Gatto puts it, “People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.” A number of alternatives to conventional schooling have sprung up over the past century, from schools established on the principle of student-centered learning to homeschooling.
In order to understand why the conventional school system has produced such a backlash of alternatives, it is useful to examine how the modern system began. In the 1830s, Horace Mann established what he called “common schools,” places where children would be provided with five years of instruction in basic reading, writing, arithematic, and citizenship (Oakes and Lipton 3-4). Society was changing from agrarian to industrial, and the common schools were seen as a way to train future employees for industrialized work, as well as a mean of instilling “moral discipline [in the children of] working-class and immigrant families” (Mintz et al. 26). Gatto explains that a third official justification for the establishment of common schools was the intention to “make each person his or her personal best,” but that the real reason was far more sinister. Woodrow Wilson is on record as stating that the intention of public schools was to create a class system in which the elite class would receive a liberal education and a much larger working class would be trained for manual tasks (“Against Schools”). Those gaining a “liberal education” were the elite who would go on to university studies; no one else would be schooled past the age of 10 (Oakes and Lipton 3-4). In other words, public schools were established as a means of keeping the underclass in its place.
It is not surprising that an institution that was designed to produce efficient factory workers became itself a slave to the efficiency model of education, which is based on theories from the turn of the 20th century about the “scientific” management of factories for maximum efficiency. Oakes and Lipton point out the effect of this worldview on the children who were subjected to it: “As in business, the function of the efficiency movement was to produce school products (educated adults) at the lowest cost. The quality of children’s education was often of secondary importance” (8). The factory model of schooling has continued through the beginning of the 21st century, with children’s minds being regarded as empty vessels to fill, “as if the school’s job were to lay down layer after layer of bricks, build walls, and fill up the mental rooms with facts” (Oakes and Lipton 40). Cultural attitude shifts that took place because of the Depression, World War II, and the McCarthy era only reinforced the American desire for instilling morality and social discipline in children via schools (Mintz et al. 30).
Although there were a few reactions to the injustices of the conventional system before the 1960s (witness the 1921 founding of Summerhill by A. S. Neill, described later in this paper), this was the decade of widespread school reform. Actually, it would only be accurate to say that the 1960s saw widespread discussion of school reform; very little actual reform took place. Seymour Sarason, a Yale University psychologist, studied the effects of attempted school reforms in this era and concluded that, instead of changing to fit the reforms, schools very often made the “reforms” fit the existing mold of school culture (Oakes and Lipton 10). Most of the real change happened in the form of “free schools” founded by parents and teachers who were dissatisfied with the false reforms happening elsewhere; these schools were run by cooperatives and were based on the recent scientific findings by Carl Rogers and other psychologists that true education had to address the whole person, both the intellect and the emotions (Mintz et al. 30-31).
A summary of some of the problems inherent in conventional schools is provided by one progressive school on its website. The Indigo Sudbury School describes structural violence in education as including “age segregation, pre-determined externally chosen subjects of study that neither take into consideration children’s interests nor their developmental readiness, the use of fear, competition, and punishment to ensure compliance and evaluations that encourage a sense of superiority or inferiority.”
The factory-efficiency model of schooling maintains its aura of scientific infallibility to the detriment of students: “When children don’t learn well, too often blame goes to the raw material (children themselves) or the workers (teachers)” rather than the format of conventional schooling itself (Oakes and Lipton 8). The efficiency model results in an atmosphere of depersonalization, in which the individual’s needs and desires are not respected or even acknowledged. This problem is summed up by the noted psychologist Howard Gardner: “There is in the country today an enormous desire to make education uniform… and to apply the same kinds of one-dimensional metrics to all. This trend is inappropriate on scientific grounds and distasteful on ethical grounds” (Multiple Intelligences 181). Furthermore, using predetermined curricula is like putting the cart before the horse, according to Goodman: “It seems stupid to decide a priori what the young might want to know and then try to motivate them, instead of letting the initiative come from them and putting information and relevant equipment at their service” (Goodman 99).
Another significant problem in conventional schools is their reliance on the tricks of behavioral psychology to make students perform, used in schools ever since this branch of social science made its appearance on the scientific scene in the early 20th century (Oakes and Lipton 30-31). Scientists have learned a great deal in the past few decades about how the mind learns-for example, cognitive theory holds that children’s behavior undergoes true change only when they have engaged in experiental learning rather than been passive receivers of outside stimuli-but this understanding generally has not been assimilated into conventional schooling methods (34, 29). In fact, “schools rely too heavily on behavioral approaches to learning” which “do not reward thinking that leads to the real dynamics of scholarship” (33, 52). Furthermore, this kind of external motivation is not very effective at influencing complex moral behavior (45).
In contrast, intrinsic motivation leading to experiental learning is the only significant long-term influence on behavior (Rogers 153). The student should feel that he or she initiated the learning process and owns the resulting understanding. In conventional schools, students are more likely to feel that they are merely a sponge soaking up bits of information imparted by others (Oakes and Lipton 65). Rogers believed that passivity could not lead to true learning, and that self-initiation makes a difference in the student’s overall attitude about learning itself (162, 5). A distinction can be made between training (such as rote memorization and learned social responses), which can be easily influenced by behavioral approaches, and “sense making,” or trying to understand complex situations by asking how and why, which can only take place through experiential means (Oakes and Lipton 30). Goodman writes that every aspect of education should be “open to need, desire, choice, and trying out. Nothing needs to be compelled or extrinsically motivated by prizes and threats” (105).
Another injustice perpetuated by the conventional school system is its lack of respect for students, which is demonstrated in many facets of the school experience. Gatto explains that as a student, you must “surrender your will to a predestined chain of command. Rights may be granted or withheld, by authority, without appeal” (“The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher”). Students are at the mercy of teachers and administrators; Gatto compares schooling to a “twelve-year jail sentence” because of the utter lack of freedom granted to students, who are not allowed to make decisions but must “wait for a teacher to tell them what to do” (“The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher”). This robs students of not only decision-making practice but also self-worth. James Herndon, also a former teacher, describes the agony of “being bottled up for seven hours a day in a place where you decide nothing, having your success or failure depend, a hundred times a day, on the plan, invention and whimsy of someone else” (44). Self-respect is further endangered by the constant use of one-shot evaluations (such as end-of-unit tests) and standardized testing. Gatto remarks that this causes the student’s sense of worth to be entirely reliant on the judgment of outside observers (“The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher”). Students also suffer from a total lack of privacy in school: “There are no private spaces for children; there is no private time. Class changes last 300 seconds to keep promiscuous fraternization at low levels” (“The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher”).
Jonathan Kozol, writing about his experience of teaching fourth grade at a ghetto school in the 1960s, describes further examples of structural disrespect-what he calls “the standardized condescension on which the entire administration of the school is based” (52). In an informal narrative style, he tells how he was scolded for making use of a spontaneous teaching moment after bringing in copies of famous paintings to brighten up the depressing run-down classroom. A particular watercolor by Paul Klee captures the interest of the class, and he uses the opportunity to talk about artistic choices and different forms of artwork. But later he is advised by another teacher that the children cannot possibly absorb any of this or even enjoy it. He runs into a similar problem when he tries to teach some poems that are not included in the standard fourth grade curriculum; Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” cannot be taught until the sixth grade because it’s considered a sixth-grade poem (52). Kozol’s instinct, to encourage the study of whatever interested the otherwise bored and resentful students, would have been applauded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote that the student himself is the only person who can determine what the student will learn (Mintz et al. 27).
Gardner notes that another destructive feature of the conventional school is the practice of moving from class to class and subject to subject at regular intervals, which “makes the achievement of an education for understanding virtually impossible” by breaking the sense of “flow” necessary for true learning (Multiple Intelligences 197). Gatto agrees that expecting children to “turn on and off like a light switch” leads students to believe “that no work is worth finishing,” and adds: “[B]ells destroy past and future, converting every interval into a sameness” (“The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher”). Gatto feels that the end result of all these structural features of conventional education prevents any actual education from taking place and reduces his own job to that of teaching school, not teaching literature (“The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher”). It is notable that Gatto first voiced these frustrations after winning the title of New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991.
An additional critique of conventional schooling was first offered by Carl Rogers in the 1960s: significant learning only happens when subject matter is perceived as relevant by the student (158). However, he writes, “nearly every student finds that large portions of his curriculum are for him meaningless. Thus education becomes the futile attempt to learn material which has no personal meaning” (4). Lack of relevance leads to immediate boredom with the subject matter, according to Gatto, who writes that during his thirty years of teaching in conventional schools, “I became an expert in boredom… [The students] said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around” (“Against Schools”). Oakes and Lipton agree: “The typical curriculum bears little resemblance to the spontaneous, high-energy experience-gathering and problem-solving that children do so easily” (85). Boulding, too, has found that most high-school graduates feel they learned everything of importance outside of school (226).
All of the above-referenced problems combine to create a complex situation with no easy solution. Gatto offers the unyielding opinion that the current system “is deeply and profoundly anti-educational. No tinkering will fix it” (“The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher”). If the only solution is to abandon the conventional system altogether, what are its alternatives? Some answers offered by progressive educators include homeschooling, an option taken by more than two million families by Gatto’s 2003 account (“Against Schools”); different methods of education, such as the Montessori method; and the establishment of institutions with a decidely non-school atmosphere, often called “free schools” or “democratic schools.”
Homeschooling is legal in every U. S. state, although regulations pertaining to assessment and parental qualifications vary (Mintz et al. 18). Parents who homeschool can place emphasis on whatever aspect of education seems most important to them, whether it be community/family experience or book learning. Homeschooling has the advantage of relying on intrinsic motivation on the part of the student for learning to take place (19). However, parents should be careful not to rely too heavily on predetermined curricula (if they use them at all) lest the student’s experience be too much like that of students in conventional schools.
Alternative methods such as the Montessori method are another option. Maria Montessori based her teaching method on the observation that young children learn from concrete experience and direct interaction, rather than abstract concepts or demonstrations (Mintz et al. 17). Accordingly, a Montessori classroom is filled with materials calculated to appeal to certain developmental levels, with each object in the series teaching a skill that is a logical extension of the one before. Children can move around the classroom at will, working alone or with others on whatever they wish, as long as they don’t damage anything or disturb anyone. It is intended that the learning environment will reinforce the child’s independence, dignity, and intellectual growth (15).
The most interesting of the alternatives to conventional schooling is the formation of a “school” that is completely unlike other schools. This attempt has been made with largely successful results by numerous people throughout (and beyond) the English-speaking world. Because of space constraints, this paper examines only a handful of schools, including one in the United Kingdom and two in the United States.
Summerhill, established in 1921 by A. S. Neill-and today headed by Neill’s daughter, Zoe Neill Readhead-is regarded as “the best-known progressive school in the English-speaking world” (Palmer 1). Its mission is based on the principle, expressed by Neill in the early 1920s, that the child’s function is “to live his own life-not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best” (Summerhill website). This residential school is located in the UK but is an international school, with more than half of the students coming from other nations. At this writing, the school is a community of about 100 people, 90% of which are children (the rest are residential staff). Regular democratic school meetings offer students a chance to air grievances or attempt to change school rules; since every community members gets one vote, staff members are outvoted by students, making Summerhill a school effectively run by its own students. Classes are held, but they are not compulsory. Students may spend their days doing whatever they like, as long as they don’t break any rules (and if they do, other students decide their punishment at the next meeting). The school’s website explains, “Pupils at Summerhill are used to being in control of their own lives and making decisions for themselves-just as all adults do in their daily lives.”
The Sudbury Valley School was founded in 1978 in Framingham, Massachusetts (and has inspired several Sudbury offshoots in the United States and abroad since then). It, too, features a democratic school meeting, “governed on the model of a traditional New England Town Meeting,” at which students and faculty members each have one vote: “At Sudbury Valley, students share fully the responsibility for effective operation of the school and for the quality of life at school.” The school strives to provide a place where students learn to be independent, trustworthy, and responsible, believing that “freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility.” The online brochure describes a typical scene at Sudbury: “Adults and students of all ages mix freely. People can be found everywhere talking, reading and playing. … Always there are people playing happily and busily, indoors and outdoors, in all seasons and all weather. Always there are groups talking, and always there are individuals quietly reading here and there.” A former Sudbury student praises the school for providing this experience, stating that it gives the student “the gift of time” to let interests rise to the surface and develop fully, as well as “the time for reflection, for the introspection that you need to really develop your own creativity.”
Rogers writes that if society is to keep up with a rapidly changing world, we must teach our children to meet change with enthusiastic problem-solving, rather than with pat answers: “the aim of education must be to develop individuals who are open to change” (303-4). Rogers, Gatto, and many others have stated that this aim cannot be reached by way of conventional schooling. Gatto writes: “After … thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women. The solution, I think, is simple and glorious. Let them manage themselves” (“Against Schools”).
It is clear that self-management is not taught in conventional schools. Parents and teachers must find other ways to produce self-reliance, responsibility, and other valuable traits in children, whether through homeschooling, alternative methods of schooling, or enrollment in schools that break the traditional mold to allow student-centered learning.
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