At some level of their consciousness, everyone who has ever been to school knows that it is prison. How could they not know? But people rationalize it by saying (not usually in these words) that children need this particular kind of prison and may even like it if the prison is run well. If children don't like school, according to this rationalization, it's not because school is prison, but is because the wardens are not kind enough, or amusing enough, or smart enough to keep the children's minds occupied appropriately.
But anyone who knows anything about children and who allows himself or herself to think honestly should be able to see through this rationalization. Children, like all human beings, crave freedom. They hate to have their freedom restricted. To a large extent they use their freedom precisely to educate themselves. They are biologically prepared to do that. That's what many of my previous posts have been about (for an overview, see my July 16, 2008, post). Children explore and play, freely, in ways designed to learn about the physical and social world in which they are developing. In school they are told they must stop following their interests and, instead, do just what the teacher is telling them they must do. That is why they don't like school.
I agree with just about everything he writes. And yet ...
Here's my reply to his article:
Like Mark [who wrote the one reply before mine], I didn't personally experience school in such a negative way. I liked going to school. I especially liked learning math, which was not something anyone I knew did outside of school. I also liked being in an environment that was predictable. My parents were loving and alcoholic (still are) - there was the gift of lots of freedom at our house, along with the trauma of being screamed at sometimes for little or no reason. School was calm, and had its routines.
I objected to some of those routines. I stood up for the pledge, so I wouldn't be punished, but I thought about every word, and decided which parts I would choose not to recite. I got out whatever book we were currently working from, but I put another book inside, to read at my own pace. I was terribly embarrassed when I was called on while my mind was far away, but that didn't stop me. My addiction to reading got me through school still thinking. (I also recognize that I was damaged by school. I love to sing, but for years I thought I couldn't sing. I knew I sang badly when I was young, and music class didn't teach me to sing better, it just made me embarrassed. Math class probably functions that way for many kids.)
Like Mark I used to think, "Just give me harder classes, and get me away from bozos who don't want to learn." But as a teacher, I've seen that many of the students who act up in class are very smart, and do want to learn, but feel the same inner demand for freedom that made me read my own books. That particular strategy just doesn't work for them.
If school weren't required for every child, rigorous classes could kick out anyone not playing by the rules. (In karate class, for example, which most kids join freely, disrupters will be asked to leave.) But because school is a requirement for all children, that's not possible.
Peter, I love what you write, and I want to agree with all of it, but I think you're oversimplifying some parts of this. School is not the only thing wrong with our modern society, and we can't throw out schooling without changing other things first (or maybe at the same time). Parents living in difficult urban areas will tell you their kids are much better off in school than on the streets. Many people who come from low socio-economic situations will tell you that education is their hope for their children's escape. Many children, already damaged by coercive parenting and homes where thinking for yourself is considered dangerous, would use the freedom they crave in self-destructive ways.
I love math and I want to share that love. So I teach. Mainly I teach at college level, so the students are not coerced in the same ways you describe.* But they feel coerced still, and bring much of their baggage from their K-12 years with them.
If you've read Deborah Meier's book, The Power of Their Ideas, I'd like to know what you think of it. She created a school in Harlem that was (and is) part of the public schools, but works in a way that is much more respectful of each child. But it's not at all like the Sudbury schools. When I heard her speak (years ago), she was quite clear that kids were not in charge. She compared her school to a family. I think there must be contradictions even at her school, but it at least addresses the issue of class. I'd love to read a conversation between the two of you.
* The Kaplan's have performed some real magic. In their math circles, they've created a non-coercive environment where they get to work together with the children, doing some deep mathematics.