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School is Out

Just finished reading an ebook – actually, more of a long essay, but the price is right – by Ron Harrington, a retired Oklahoma school teacher.  It is called, “Instead of School.

While people in my end of the political pool tend to be against the public school system – and rabidly so! – Harrington goes quite a bit beyond that.  He comes out strongly against schools of any kind – public, private, religious.

His reasoning is very sound.  I will explain it in my own way.

Imagine to yourself going to visit friends with teenage children.  You sit at their table, parents and two or three teenagers.  You marvel at how adult these kids are, how mature, well-behaved, polite, and engaged.  You remember them as screaming toddlers, obviously long in the past.  You wish there were more kids like these sitting in front of you.

A normal reaction, because most of our experience with kids is not in small groups, it is with large groups.  You have seen them in schools and sporting events.  You have seen a dozen or more cruising the mall together, amongst other groups of a dozen.  You have shared movie theaters and pizza parlors with them.  They are all misbehaved, shouting, shoving, causing damage, snatching merchandise off the shelves, throwing popcorn at the screen.  It is all very horrid and nothing like your friends’ teenagers, with whom you enjoyed a lovely evening.

But the truth, as ever, is sad, because those wonderful teenagers would likely be – and probably sometimes are – exactly the same as the mall kids, when they are hangin’  with their homies (if I got that phrase right).  The social dynamics of children are such that they egg each other on, constantly, whipping each other up and daring each other to higher and higher flights of youthful abandon.  In a Rebel-without-a-cause manner, they most respect the most disrespectful.  They create and inhabit a world of chaos, seemingly without a choice.

This is something we all really know, both in our heads and in our hearts.  Yet, we insist on gathering kids together in large groups – not for a couple of hours at the mall, but for seven hours a day, five days a week – and then try to teach them things.  This is full and complete madness.  The kids persist in being kids and very little learning actually happens.

When you have buildings full of hundreds of kids, control is not an option.  From the point of student safety and staff liability, control will always have to be the first priority.  And the long-held holy grail of individualized instruction to meet the needs of the individual student, will always fall afoul of both the need to control and the need to measure results.  For more on this, read Harrington.

He is quite clear that, while private and religious schools tend to do a better job at educating children – more selective with fewer restrictions – that they do, in the end, suffer from the same problems and, as a consequence, are not able to educate children to their true abilities.

Here is a thought for you:  set the Way-Back Machine to colonial America.  Or Europe during the same period.  Where in any of this period do you ever see large groups of children together with only a couple of adults in charge?  Or even without adults?  Pretty much never.  When not at home, kids are out with their family.  Maybe they are out with a couple of neighbor kids.  Mostly, when not at home, they are in church or helping their parents shop or attending festivals.  In all these cases, except playing with neighbors, they are with large swaths of adults and distinctly in the minority.  If I am to believe Mark Twain, the only time they are likely to get in trouble is when playing with other kids – or in school, because Twain saw the beginning of the school revolution.

I mention all that because, if you talk about doing away with public schools or just schools, one of the first arguments you will hear is about socialization.  It seems, one of the only lessons that is taught well in schools is the supposed value of schools to society.  Children need to be taught, we are told, to socialize with other children.


Why is socializing with children a required life skill?  Where did we get this idea?  Why teach a savage how to act with other savages?  Isn’t the point of childhood to learn how to be an adult?  Today, all kids really worry about is how to get along with other kids, trying to fit in, trying to be cool.  Screw the textbook!  I need those new jeans!  And all of what they do and truly care about becomes useless to them the day after graduation.  If they graduate.

Harrington’s solution, which he details brilliantly, is to return to the time-honored tradition, used throughout the history of civilization, of tutorial.  That is, mostly self-study, with a tutor meeting the student one-on-one a couple of hours a week.  Certainly, modern technology should be able to improve on the Lincoln-reading-by-candlelight model by quite a bit.  Real individual education at a fraction of the cost, in an atmosphere that actually rewards learning.

Yes, kids will still have the opportunity to meet with other kids in groups: sports, scouts, 4H, church.  But they would also have the opportunity to meet with adults.  A girl wants to learn how to quilt, she joins a quilting group, learning the skills in a cross-generational manner and, in the process, learning how to socialize with adults – a far more useful life-skill.  Apprenticeship would probably come back into vogue, a great way to learn a career and an even better way to learn that you don’t want that career, before you have years invested in training.

Of course, you know all the reasons that this can never be allowed to happen.  There are teachers unions and party politics and subsidized day-care for working parents.  There is the whole equal access to education thing.  There is the phony heroics and idolatry of high school sports.  There is the school as the de facto town square thing.  And socialization.  Don’t forget socialization.

In the end, the schools were only ever good at one thing: training a couple of generations of factory workers.  Absent the overt need for highly-regimented workers, the schools lose most of their arguments.  Meanwhile, year after year, kids are living through a hellish Lord of the Flies environment, which gives them very little in the way of life skills and from which some of them never fully recover.  It out and out wastes over a decade of their lives.

Yet we all grew up with it.  It all seems normal to us.  How do we solve the agonizing problem of the schools when people, at most, think they are simply being badly run and are not the cause of the problem in the first place.

I am not seeing a solution here, but I think I am going to widen my criticism of public schools to a criticism of schools in general, as opposed to actual education.  Maybe we should make Lord of the Flies required reading.

Oh.  Wait.


Categories: Pet Peeves, Trends
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