Is It Too Late For School?
James Nathan Post
Can the American school system be fixed? No. Its problems are fundamental. Public school is now a mandatory term of incarceration in a state institution, under armed guard with physical and mental duress. While being presented technical skills and historical indoctrination, students are subject to behavioral regimentation to enforce the primary datum of the syllabus, that is, the rightness of obedience to the authority of the institutions of state. Those who do not easily conform may be placed on mood-altering medication. Practiced by other governments, placing youth in mandatory conditioning camps and using force, drugs, and propaganda to get them to follow the leader is commonly called brainwashing.
Measures our legislators direct toward reform are well motivated, but frankly appear to me like well-wishing sorcerers' spells for sunshine uttered into the teeth of a storm. Though worthy, they do not address the true root causes of breakdown in the American education system. Nor can they, because so much of the truth is politically unspeakable, and the solutions far outside the range of options given within the existing structures. Since I enjoy the advantage of being neither an educated authority nor holder of office, I am able to express what observations may occur to me without risking more than making a fool of myself. It is my hope that from considering these viewpoints, someone may gain something of use.
To begin with, no solution can be made until we become honest about the purpose of public education. When attendance behind locked doors is mandatory, dress and behavior codes rigidly enforced to impose a uniform puritanical image, and safety concerns motivate penal-science methods of security and discipline, it becomes difficult to accept the rhetoric that public education is a benefit program operated at taxpayers expense for the good of the children. Every teacher, administrator, and security officer on every campus will quickly affirm (with hand on heart and eyes glazed over) that the formal education, intellectual development, and personal growth of each individual student is the sole purpose of the entire system. For all of their desire or belief, it is simply not true.
I believe it not indictment but observation to say the school system is strongly influenced by such other motivations as "Robotizing," that is, turning children into employable "worker units" trained to fill certain roles in other industry. Whether seen as socialist horror or as generation-transcending perpetuation of productive order, it is clear no industrial society can long perpetuate itself without instilling in the young the skill, discipline, and reward-motivation which enable them to be used in structured service by industry. This fact supports a certain logic that children are in some measure the property of the industrial state, "raw material" without which it cannot function. It is my personal libertarian opinion that educated free people engaged in professions they honor, proud members of guilds and unions, will not have to be forced by government troops to teach their children the ways of honest employment and hard work.
Likewise, schools in fact perform a certain "Toilet training," that is, teaching basic rules of social behavior: punctuality, civility, respect, cleanliness, obedience, conformity, and taboo. Though some might argue these are matters which should be instilled in the home, it is clear our society does not consist only of families who know and practice these principles. If, however, in the name of these behavioral concerns, the schools in actual practice impose the same "safety and security" modalities used in correctional institutions, then the basic rules of social behavior the children actually learn will be those of the prison, and not of the voluntarily cooperative democratic free country we keep telling those school children they are growing up in.
Schools are responsible for keeping employable youth out of the labor market, yet off the streets, that is, for "Warehousing" them. Without such protective incarceration, adolescents would probably be a far more visible part of society as they work out the issues that naturally matter to them: self-discovery, pecking order, sexual stature, and the formation of protective alliances. Whether correctly or not, the school system rigidly inhibits all of these motivations.
Another consideration that has nothing to do with the children is the school system's role as an organ of "working welfare"in which a huge number of people are employed at public expense serving the children as a social-services "Client group." Like the prison system, schools employ large numbers whose jobs and mortgaged lives depend on maintaining the status quo. Having identified school children as a client group, the children become clients of other agencies also. Their well-being becomes motivation for further expansion of government power, more government jobs, and greater revenue flows. Among such programs are medical services (for refusing which, parents can lose children to other agencies), and the ever-more-efficacious drug abuse interdiction services by which suspiciously profiled students come to the helpful attention of various counselors and other inquisitive persons acting in authority for their good.
Each of these influences brings its own problems, which may be destructive to the child, to the process of education, or to the society at large. The most destructive, it seems to me, certainly include the self-appointed moral police, drug warriors protecting the children from self-abuse, and self-righteous zealots protecting them from knowledge of and opportunity to sin. With them are the illusion bound Pollyannas who believe enforcing ignorance in the name of defending innocence is better for youth than helping them gain access to all of the truth, and the wisdom to use their right to make their own decisions about it. None can be held more accountable than parents willing to demand schools not only educate their children, but teach them basic social skills they do not give them at home -- that is, to raise the children for them. The unfortunate result of government's willingness not only to do exactly that, but also to indoctrinate them thoroughly in obedience to the nationalist myth, is that the parent who objects to the system's judgements quickly finds he has no authority to place his own chosen values before those of the school in the upbringing of his child, from the most deeply committed Pentecostal puritan to the most libertine Libertarian.
The first fundamental change which would be necessary to "fix" the school system is that public school must not be mandatory, but an opportunity available to all, to take or leave, without regard to age or station. There should be no compulsion to attend public school, or any other school in order to gain mandatory state-approved credentials of education. The notion that every child must be industrially skilled and drilled in the history and doctrine of the state, even if by criminalizing the parent, is not a policy befitting any nation associating itself with the word freedom. If attendance in some government-regulated school is mandatory upon punishment by incarceration, and imposing that "benefit" is enforced by the techniques of high security and correctional behavorism, then by any name, the school is a prison.
The next most important change is to eliminate the concept of age-determined or time-determined progress. The public education system should be open from its most elementary classes to anyone of any age or background for whom the level of the subject matter is relevant. An illiterate adult of thirty, or an immigrant seeking citizenship, should be able to take second-grade reading in the public school if that is his level of need. A twelve-year-old able to meaningfully address hieroglyphic should be admitted to any class of her intellectual peers. The key to progress must be mastery of the subject, at any level. That means not only do we dispense with forced age-grouping, we make progression totally dependent on ability to demonstrate 100% fluency with 100% of the syllabus. No sliding by with your age group with C's indicating you learned half of the subject. When you have all the answers, you pass, whether it takes you six weeks or six years. Nobody says you have to pass to get another birthday or a job, but until you get it all, you can't take the next course in the program. Though classes might have members of many ages and social backgrounds, with very different intellectual abilities, they would have in common that they were all at the same level with respect to the subject.
Students should view their schools as sanctuaries where their personal differences and habits are not held against them, and not as forced stage sets where they must rigidly perform the actions of the characters assigned to them, under punitive stress. In the history of America, nothing has been more destructive to the nation than our own War On Drugs, which has caused to citizens, to our legal rights, our business practices, our communities, our foreign policy, and to the trust between citizens and the state, many times more damage than the effects of all the drugs this persecution is intended to prohibit. Even so, perhaps the most destructive effects are yet to be seen, the long-term results of anti-drug measures in the public school. Nothing more quickly arouses the willingness of the fearful sheep to surrender power and their rights to the sheepdogs than the cry to "protect the innocent children." More and more, our public schools are finding it "necessary" to conduct the activities associated with zero-tolerance enforcement of morality, security, and safety programs using the science and the modalities of penal institutions. School safety program designers are trained in police science. High schools are fenced camps, subject to restrictions enforced by uniformed police. Though use of "obscene language" to an officer is a statutory crime, armed campus safety officers may sieze, arrest, and intimately search any dirty-mouth perp who speaks ill to authority. Though the school's demand for parent conference is mandatory as a legal summons, the system of campus discipline does not include an office called "student defense counsel" and the Dean's decision is not negotiable, but is a summary prosecution to which the parent has no appeal.
Whether this policy is "right"or not, there are inescapable consequences of raising our children in a prison-like environment. If they are treated like prisoners, even for their own good, they will learn to think like prisoners, and to see themselves as prisoners. It apparently eludes the entire power structure of our national school system that if you operate schools like prisons, it does not matter what is taught in the classroom. The lessons learned will be the lessons of life in the joint. Those are clearly observable. If one is to have any privacy, it must be sneaked. To survive the coercion of the inmates, one must learn to say nothing, or lie. To survive the coercion of the administration, one must learn to snitch, that is, to tell on other inmates (which betrayal is a major motive for mayhem). To survive at all, one must belong to an "organized mutually-protective group" which are almost always racial. Whether dealing with other cons or their keepers, the bottom line is violence, the fist, the boot, club, knife, and gun, or ultimately the electric chair. You sneak, snitch, lie, join a gang, hate authority, and submit or dominate through force. No one raised in such an environment can be expected to become a successful part of a functioning democracy governing responsible free citizens.
It is not possible to teach a bird to fly with safety guaranteed. If it were so, then God would give birds parachutes. I wrote that like a joke, but I fear some bird-loving do-goodie will be moved to petition his senator to retrofit every American eaglet with a parachute before it attempts the potentially-fatal act of flying. Since it will take several fiscal years to design and implement the fail-safe Federal feather-chutes, someone will surely point out that the technology to protect the fledglings is already available. We have only to send out Federal Forest Rangers to put safety cages around all the nests. There was a time when School Safety Programs were conducted by the School Nurse, not by the police. It is not possible to teach a bird to fly in a cage. Those who will not be broken will destroy the cage if they must to get out, or they will destroy themselves against its bars. Those who accept their cages at best can only walk, and must be fed by agents of other government programs. Students "educated" in such an environment must ultimately make a choice between the only options offered by the architects of the penal state. Each must become one of the guards, one of the cons, or one of the outlaws.
The Drug War use of penal security in schools is only one of its fatal flaws. Another is federal requirements based on demographic academic statistics. Funding statistics have become the primary concern of administrators, which has led to breakdown of standards of academic excellence. Affirmative-action labor policies have further made the academic part of the education experience meaningless to the working-class student, at least with respect to his future employment. In areas like the Southwest, many students come from uneducated Spanish-speaking homes, and their resulting poor English skills place them far behind their non-Hispanic age peers. Opting as usual for the PC-posturing solution, the system has accommodated them by reducing standards for all, and by providing stereotypic special classes to those isolated as "culturally disadvantaged." Unfortunately, neither tactic enables the Spanish-home student to succeed in classes (or jobs) conducted in English. Since little Spanish is taught in our schools, most who come from uneducated Spanish speaking families learn only conversational vernacular. These people are not bilingual. They are illiterate in two languages. Since many jobs correctly require employees to speak the local Spanish, and in keeping with the policy of affirmative action, many such people become employed, but are technically unable to read and conform to the complicated government documents which define their job duties. When such data and communication intensive jobs as the Motor Vehicle Department, Social Services, and lower-level school administration are staffed by bi-illiterate people, who is served by this refusal to confront the politically unspeakable truth?
Conservatives are right: Liberal forced equality ideology has gutted education by eliminating direct competition in academics and reducing standards to avoid creation of politically sensitive demographically identifiable low-performance statistical groups. Liberals are right: Conservatives' reactionary return to spankings-and-sermons drill training will produce graduates who are expert only in the arts of living in a penal system, either as dour pious guards or repressed rebels. That is, both are wrong.
It appears to me several factors contribute significantly to the current deplorable state. Unfortunately, these are not matters which can be solved by funding another special group program, nor by purchasing airport-security equipment for schools. They are consequences of very fundamental traditional assumptions, and of unassailable political postures. These include:
When the use of our vast wealth and power produces social disorder in our schools and inferior graduates, it seems clear we are deceiving ourselves as to our priorities. I am reminded of a cathedral wherein the priests bicker over which icons are to be polished best, while the congregation fight and fornicate in spiritual poverty. Liberals and Conservatives each think schools should be legislatively tailored to their own politic. Lawyers litigating school issues think the system should be designed in the courts. Christians want power to conform the syllabus to Scripture, or payoff vouchers to make their catechisms into government funded schools. Unions want power to make schools a controlled marketplace for labor. Parents want schools to instill values and discipline they themselves have not. Society wants uncontrolled children off the streets, if not in school, in jail. I presume corrective measures lie far outside what is politically possible. However, I believe if the following five factors were made sine qua non, the quality of our graduates in all subjects would rise in a spectacular manner:
- age bloc-based, rather than performance based progress through the system.
- denial of the system to persons not the "correct age" for classes.
- grade-based, rather than completion-based passage through the syllabus.
- failure to establish uniform evaluation standards of students.
- failure to determine promotion of teachers by genuine competition for excellence.
- system evaluation by demographic bloc statistics, not performance of individuals.
- mandating bloc-equal outcome, rather than offering equal individual opportunity.
- lowering standards to accommodate age-progression of low-performance groups.
- failure to utilize senior students as tutors of juniors.
- negative peer stature for academic excellence (vs. idolizing of athletes).
- money, demographics and sports, not academic prowess, being keys to college.
- failure of Constitutional protection against sectarian religious control of syllabus.
- failure to defend historical truth from censorship for "political correctness".
- emphasis on school as employer of labor, with lip service to student product.
- lack of "stick", an effective stress factor for non-destructive control.
- lack of "carrot", a meaningful reward for personal academic excellence.
- penal techniques to impose conformity, in absence of "stick" or "carrot" motivation.
When what is needed is a fleet of speedboats, there lies no solution in re-designing the battleship. Sooner or later the superstructure will become larger than the hull can
support, and it will turn belly up. In these times of man's greatest affluence, and greatest intellectual accomplishment, we should sink the ponderous galley of state we call public education, and give to each student his own sail, and access to the wind.
- ++ the ability to speak, read, and write the English language fluently.
- ++ the ability to apply and skillfully perform Arithmetic without mechanical aid.
- ++ the ability to conduct research, that is, to organize and perform self-teaching.
- ++ the discipline to concentrate on an assigned task, and to punctually follow a schedule.
- ++ the desire to excel in fair competition for meaningful reward.