I’m passionate about education and schooling. I believe that the day you stop learning is the day you start dying. So I just had to respond when Seth Godin posed the question on his blog, “What is School for?” I began asking this question myself seven years ago when we had our first child.
In our western society it is expected almost without exception that everyone goes to school. After all, that is what our modern, civilised society is built on, right?
However, there is one simple question that my father taught me to ask that resonates through my life. It relates significantly to schooling, and that is “Why?”
Nobody seems to want to ask, “Why do we send our kids to school? How will it benefit them, us and society?”
I’m thankful that such a high profile person as Seth decided to raise the topic. He says,
Seems like a simple question, but given how much time and money we spend on it, it has a wide range of answers, many unexplored, some contradictory. I have a few thoughts about education, how we use it to market ourselves and compete, and I realized that without a common place to start, it’s hard to figure out what to do.
So, Seth’s starting list of ideas for the purpose of school follows. I have responded here with my thoughts on each proposed benefit. My responses relate to what school is, not what it could be.
1. Become an informed citizen
What is an informed citizen? What are they informed about? Politics, business, economics, finance, celebrity, the weather? I can’t say, but I’m not sure how isolating groups of 20-30 kids in a classroom with one adult produces informed citizens.
I find the current economic situation fascinating and I like to be able to talk about it at a deep level. I took economics in high school, but not at university. I have a friend studying in his third year of university at Monash here in Melbourne. He was recently telling me how boring his economics class is. I could not believe it!
I said, “How on earth could economics be boring right now? We are in one of the most amazing economic upheavals in history! This is your future, it’s happening all around you and it’s playing out in terms of economics.” He stared at me blankly.
Does school really create informed citizens? I profer that it creates disconnected citizens.
2. Be able to read for pleasure
I believe that this is actually the key to becoming an informed citizen: The desire to read – not only stories or fiction – for pleasure.
This is coupled with the desire for true self directed learning which is completely stifled by about the first year of schooling.
3. Be trained in the rudimentary skills necessary for employment
We need people to work the machines for the factory, right? We need people to manage the people who work the machines, right?
This is industrial age thinking, hang on… We don’t have any industry any more. It all comes from China. Well, at least they could make use of it.
The skills I think are necesary for meaningful employment are:
- Reading, writing, arithmetic
- Problem solving skills
I don’t believe that school is really the best environment for learning any of these things.
4. Do well on standardized tests
This is one of the key functions of schooling today, although it’s not quite expressed correctly. Few will do well on standardized tests, many will be average, and others must fail.
It must be this way so that society can be graded (I think of grading wool for quality here) into the smart, the average and the dumb. We need people raw material of all grades to support our society. How else would we have people to work those assembly lines?
When were you last judged on your test scores? When were you even asked about them?
To quote best selling author and school teacher John Holt, “Are we trying to turn out intelligent people or test takers?”
Real intelligence can’t be tested in a half hour on paper. To really know someone’s intelligence you must know them.
If parents need a test result to know how smart their kids are, then they don’t know their kids.
5. Homogenize society, at least a bit
Adopting each others best elements seems like a good idea. But do we really want such an alike society?
Schools in many countries (including Australia) have moved to stop Muslim girls from wearing their traditional headscarves. The drive to homogenise is incredibly strong in schools. It is so strong that it has well and truly become intolerance. In some cases, this intolerance actually violates human rights such as freedom of religion.
Homogenisation is a dangerous pursuit that leads to intolerance… I say celebrate the differences.
6. Pasteurize out the dangerous ideas
Like these ones? American debt based consumerism is about to die. Western lifestyles are unsustainable. The planet may be warming due to dangerous consumption. Oil will run out. Testing school children is evil!
7. Give kids something to do while parents work
With the industrial age, fathers needed to leave their families to work in the factory. Today, mothers often also need to go to work in the big corporate factory.
With the way our society generally runs, there is a need for large scale child care. School provides that.
The phenomenon of latchkey kids is undoubtedly interlinked with so many youth social issues. Do we still need mass babysitting in the information age? I know I don’t! My wife and I both work from home.
8. Teach future citizens how to conform
Here we come to another key lesson of the schooling. Stand in line. Wait your turn.
Everyone needs to know how do get along with others and when to rock the boat. Leaders know when to do this, but they didn’t learn it in school.
9. Teach future consumers how to desire
Pacified yet wanting and dissatisfied.
10. Build a social fabric
School champions individualism. Cooperation and teamwork are called cheating. What kind of social fabric does this create? It’s certainly not a cohesive one.
In fact, I attribute the opposite to school: Social breakdown.
One of the key lessons of standardised testing and schooling is that in order to achieve, you must step over, beat and destroy others.
In my third grade class, I was told by my teacher to choose other friends since my good friend David was not as smart as me. She suggested that he would hold me back. What kind of fabric is that? It aint silk!
11. Create leaders who help us compete on a world stage
I wonder how many potential leaders are destroyed in the school system? How many smart people tell themselves that they are dumb because they were graded that way on standardised tests?
The drive for leaders is in the now. Leadership is about passion, drive and urgency. For a true leader, it must be done and done now.
School on the other ha
is disconnected from time and reality. Bells ring every forty minutes to ensure that you can never really follow anything long enough to be passionate about it.
12. Generate future scientists who will advance medicine and technology
Undoubtedly vocational training is a key component of advancing medicine, science and technology. We just need to cut out the padding and get people there faster so that they can achieve more.
13. Learn for the sake of learning
14. Help people become interesting and productive
A pacified, busy society turns a blind eye to the small and the large atrocities that are a daily part of our western lives. The consumer machine doesn’t work without a pacified society feeding it.
15. Defang the proletariat
Governments created forced schooling with the intention of breaking family bonds to ensure that uneducated parents did not pass on their lower class ways.
Here in Australia, schooling was instituted from colonisation to ensure that the children of convicts did not become convicts themselves. Of course, parents today are educated and mostly non-convict.
So is this still relevant? Is this classist society of workers and capitalist bourgeoisies really what we want? I thought democracy was supposed to close the gap. Perhaps I need to brush up on political theory.
Keeping the proletariat addicted to their weekly pay check, spending everything each week on consumer items that they don’t *really* use, want or need seems a bit like a sinister intent. Is that the intent of schooling?
16. Establish a floor below which a typical person is unlikely to fall
Again, the real purpose of schooling is to ensure a steady supply of “human capital” above and below the floor. The people in the trailer park went to school too.
Is it their failing or is it a failing of the school that keeps them there? Perhaps it’s just meant to be that way.
17. Find and celebrate prodigies, geniuses and the gifted
Are they so few and far between? I started playing guitar at 30. People sometimes say that I have the gift of music, and of course that they do not. I don’t think I have a gift, but I think that if it is, it was stifled by school music classes. I can’t express how much I detested them!
I wonder how many gifts are buried by school. I’ve always loved music, so perhaps my gift was buried at school.
Take for example Roy Best, the talented Australian tenor who was discovered as a motor mechanic at 40. He is now a recognised professional, but why wasn’t he discovered earlier? The Age newspaper explains:
At high school, Best’s passion for singing waned after relentless teasing about his singing voice. Many years passed before he grew into a new tenor voice. "At the age of 15 or 16 you are growing and going through puberty and you have issues about your own standing in the world. I rejected the singing thing and pretended my voice had broken. It killed my singing for a long time," he says with a hint of sadness.
Could this have been avoided? How many geniuses are killed off by schooling?
18. Make sure kids learn to exercise, eat right and avoid common health problems
Should this be the responsibility of the great synthetic parent known as school? When I read this, I can’t help but think of another farming analogy: The milking machine.
19. Teach future citizens to obey authority
Obedience is important, no doubt. Well placed, it can be a key to success, or at least trouble avoidance. Choose who to obey poorly and you end up average, boring and maybe dangerous.
20. Teach future employees to do the same
You have to know when to obey. Misplaced obedience can be horrific. Think: Enron, Worldcom, HIH (Australia), Investment Banking, WWII Holocaust, War etc.
Obedience is good, but authority must be questioned and it must stack up against criticism and dissent. School teaches unquestioning obedience. How else can you control a class of 30 kids?
21. Increase appreciation for art and culture
Could an institution really do this?
22. Teach creativity and problem solving
What school actually teaches through the drive for testing is right answer getting. Think about this, how much time was spent in the following activities in school":
- Reviewing the right answers from the test?
- Reviewing the wrong answers for the test?
- Finding out where you went wrong?
- Allowing you to truly understand what you didn’t know?
The typical maths class for instance goes like this:
- Teacher explains the theory
- You work through the exercises
- Teacher tells you what’s on the test
- You take the test
- You get your grade
- You review the right answers.
Where is the creative problem solving? Parrots could do this. It’s not creative, it’s boring.
Creativity is about exploration. Problem solving takes time. There simply isn’t time in school for it because the “curriculum” gets in the way.
23. Minimize public spelling mistakes
I was the only male student in our senior high school English class that passed. There were at least ten other guys who did not pass… How well do you think they can spell? I can’t, but fortunately I have this computer to do it for me!
24. Increase emotional intelligence
Some say that school gives kids the opportunity to socialise and create life long connections. Learning about relationships is obviously a big part of developing your emotional intelligence.
But how many of your school friends are you still close with? How many do you keep in touch with? How many do you really care about?
Shouldn’t you be given the opportunity to make connections with people apart from those your own age? Do you only associate with people your own age now?
How many older people do you have a relationship with? Do you volunteer and look after the elderly? Do you mentor the young?
School, being a synthesised social environment teaches a timeless present. The young and the old are not your concern. You are not part of the community in any way when you’re locked away in school. Hardly a lesson in tolerance or emotional intelligence.
Oh, and how exactly does being humiliated, belittled, bullied, graded and scared increase your emotional intelligence?
25. Decrease crime by teaching civics and ethics
Many uneducated people were dispatched to Australia on convict ships in the 1700’s for stealing bread. They stole for their lives.
Today, people steal to get ahead, to feed an addiction or just because they’re bored. Addicted, bored people who don’t care about others are a recipe for crime. Interestingly there’s more of it around than ever. There’s also more schooling than ever, and the masses are demanding more! Coincidence?
26. Increase understanding of a life well lived
What is a life well lived? How many billionaires or celebrities could say that they have lived life well? How many of the proletariat could too?
27. Make sure the sports teams have enough players
I’m all for this one, I love playing and watching sport. But i wonder, does it relate to point 15? How different are we from the ancient Romans
with their arenas and games?
So what is school for?
I think one thing is for sure, the current purpose of forced schooling is not what people think it is.
So much of it is irrelevant that when you start to ask the question “why?”, significant cracks start to appear.
School is in trouble. The education that we need for the information age doesn’t live there.
The learning that you need now starts within you. It doesn’t live in an institution.