I claim that it is not the the critics of compulsory graded-classroom schooling that are, generally, the fear-mongers, but rather, by far, it is those who are terrified of any deviation from the established schooling norms. The argument is made in the proceeding parts.
So, say a parent wants to know how to tell a school that is trying, in the words of US Commissioner of Public Education William Torey Harris to turn your children into “automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom” from one with you and your children’s best interests at heart?
First off, ask the question: is the arrangement of the school program, school day and physical plant designed to further the education of the children or for the convenience and ends of the school? It is remarkable that we accept impositions on our children that no sane child would tolerate anywhere else, for no valid reason other than the school finds it convenient.
Second, to get you in the mood: did you ever have a roommate who, without asking, simply chose to rearrange the furniture or kitchen while you were out, then gave some variety of ‘I didn’t think you would mind’ excuse? Did you not recognize immediately that an effort to establish control or dominance was taking place? It’s not like moving the couch around is any big deal, but not asking first certainly can be.
Signs of a school where children are intended to become unthinking automata not by accident but as “the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.” (That’s Harris, again.):
1. Age segregation: In all of history, and in all other aspects of modern life (outside of kid’s athletics, which is another can of worms) healthy sane people do most things together regardless of age. Work, church, family events, just everyday life, it’s more common than not to have grandma, dad, the kids, or the old man, the young punks and the grey hairs all working, playing, rejoicing together. People, as Aristotle put it, desire to live together (“are political animals” = want to live in the city (polis) = become most fully human in relationship with other people). So, why would a school absolutely insist that children be segregated by grade? It was not always thus, and is not usual now – one-room schools, private lessons, tutoring, lectures, homilies at church, newspapers, Google, Wikipedia, Khan Academy: these are all ways we get ‘educated’ that ignore age differences completely. We can do them alone or together (people, left to their own devises, tend to do a mix of the two, in my experience).
It’s a truism that kids learn different things at different times at different speeds – everybody who knows anybody knows this is true. Yet, for reasons never explained except by an appeal to the ineffable goddess Efficiency, we condemn kids to having to try to learn in lockstep with other, very different kids. Could it be that the lesson being taught has nothing to do with academics, and everything to do with replacing natural, wholesome relationships with arbitrary, enforced conformity? You will stick to your group. Keeping up with the group is everything. The approval of the group and its manager is everything. You will fear the older groups, and hold the younger groups in contempt.
That is the lesson. Even in the relatively benign Catholic grade school I attended, where the teachers for the most part truly believed that we kids were the Image of God and worthy of unconditional love, the most socially disruptive thing were those relatively rare occasions when classes mixed. Even classes of the same age – there were two classes for each grade, so not only did every kid know their place – 2nd grade – but every 2nd grader knew if you were in Mrs. Brown’s or Sr. Scholastica’s 2nd grade, for example. Even on the playground, interaction was furtive, sometime even antagonistic. Then, around 5th grade, the cohorts were mixed for the first time – it was weird, like having strangers come to live with you and having household members move far away. The kids didn’t like it for the most part.
What’s the first question kids meeting for the first time ask each other? “What grade are you in?” Why? Why has something so arbitrary and capricious become a matter of identity?
All arguments for age-segregated graded classrooms are circular. We need to keep kids together because it’s more efficient keeping kids together by age so we can test to see if they are at grade level – and so on. One room schools with complete age mixing (and a fraction of the classroom hours we do today) consistently out-performed the ‘consolidated’ schools academically whenever results were measured – and so the education departments stopped measuring them. Academics were never the point, and in fact tend to interfere with the process of modern education.
2. Time: Does the school attempt to fill every hour with something to do? 6 hours of school, before and after school programs, homework, year-around school, sports, bands, and on and on. Fichte, the founding intellectual light of modern education, stated that one goal was to separate the child as much as possible from the parents and community in order that the state might give them a proper moral foundation (it being immoral, treasonous, even, to question the goals of the state). He wanted kids physically removed from their families for years on end – a step that has proven impractical so far in most cases (although see the KIPP schools, especially as described by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers – because the kids are ‘at risk’ and tend to come from broken homes, they can get away with Fichte’s vision in practice).
The real horror here is that, now that we’ve had 4 or 5 generations where the ideal is for both parents (when there are both parents) to work, the parents see school as day care – they don’t trust their kids to stay out of trouble, so they need them watched 10 – 12 hours a day. Thus, the popularity of – or, at least, lack of resistance to – the idea of year-around schooling and extended school hours. Millions of our ancestors got a better grasp of reading, writing and math in one room schools in a fraction of the hours. More class time has been shown over and over again to not correlate very well to learning even with the stupid and self-serving tests academics use – not that you’ll find this out from the schools.
One-room schoolers also tended to have intact families. Perhaps the modern ‘solution’ is also a cause?
3. Assumed Parental Incompetence: Does the school assume that you, the parent, are a problem that needs to be managed? In the KIPP schools, it’s clear they do.
So, since what I’ve written pretty much rules out any schools currently available that anyone is likely to have ever heard of, what’s left? Obviously, homeschooling is a good choice if you can do it. But lose the graded syllabus – that not what you want to do. As Darwin Catholic recently learned, there’s really not a lot of academic stuff kids really need in grades K-6 – if they can read and do basic math, they’ll be fine. This is the time of life kids should be playing and learning social skills – which are pretty much the same thing – not memorizing state capitals or whatever. (NOTE: Darwin Catholic has not endorsed any of my crazy ideas that I know of).
And. there are a few schools out there that eschew age segregation and lighten up on or even eliminate curricula – Sudbury schools, for example. As in all of life, no choice is problem free – as a Catholic, there are some things I want for my children that our family must supply, because school won’t or can’t. But that’s OK – nobody ever said being a dad was easy.