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Learning at its Best

Youth Rights, Dignity, and the Anti-Democratic Values of Public Schooling

As students, we are told that we are being made into an “informed citizenry” capable of maintaining a vibrant democracy. Indeed, we are told that we must give up most of our constitutional rights in the name of achieving this goal. We are compelled to attend an institution where our every action, from speaking, to moving, to going to the bathroom is strictly controlled by an authority figure. We have no right to due process in this institution, the word of the school authorities is final, and in fact our meager protestations of any wrongful accusation are often called “disrespectful” and used as another justification for punishment. We are also limited in our freedom of speech and of assembly, we cannot leave class to assemble and petition our government and the Supreme Court has explicitly prohibited any speech that would disrupt the educational process. Most of the first 18 years of our lives are fundamentally shaped by a process in which we have absolutely no say. This seems explicitly nonsensical. Should we give up our democratic rights in the name of preserving democracy? Does an institution which has power over countless individuals without giving them any representation or say in how this institution is run really the best preparation for a democratic society? Rather than creating an informed citizenry capable of engaging in the democratic process, compulsory education creates apathy, harms our ability to engage in real education, and actively harms democracy.

Is it surprising that we do not care about what we are taught in our classes? Is it surprising that we are not interested in learning? When someone has been forced to do something against their will for so many years there is bound to be some resentment. More than that, there is bound to be some resistance. The disengagement from school and learning is not some inherent quality of the adolescent; it is a very natural defense mechanism against control. Can you imagine someone saying, “I know I have no real choice in how I spend the majority of my time, and I couldn’t be more happy or grateful!” Disengagement is the only way to stay sane under a system of compulsory education. When most of our daily lives are controlled by others, the only way we can still be free is by not granting them respect or legitimacy. If we are able to say to ourselves, “None of this really matters. I may have to go to school, but at least I am free to hate it,” then the constant condescension from teachers can be shrugged off, and the lack of respect from school officials can be ignored.

The idea that human beings are naturally apathetic and have to be forcibly educated in order to be informed about the world around them is absolutely ludicrous. Were Plato’s ideas the product of an education system? Even Albert Einstein felt that schooling was hindering rather than helping his education. His younger sister said that during his adolescence “the style of teaching in most subjects was repugnant to him.” he also rebelled against “the systematic training in the worship of authority.” (Qtd. in “Einstein as a Student” by Dudley Herschbach). Of course, this is very clear to these so called “naturally apathetic” adolescents. If we were able to determine what we wanted to learn and asked people with more experience to help us learn it, we would be able to pursue our natural curiosity and desire to learn. An example of just such an education in practice was described in a March 14 story in the New York Times:

I recently followed a group of eight public high school students, aged 15 to 17, in western Massachusetts as they designed and ran their own school within a school. They represented the usual range: two were close to dropping out before they started the project, while others were honors students. They named their school the Independent Project….they were responsible for monitoring one another’s work and giving one another feedback. There were no grades. (find full article here)

The experiment was highly successful. The students were able to rekindle their love of learning and worked on several projects in academic areas that they were interested in. Of course, it is incredible that I am even having to cite evidence to prove this point, we are well aware that we are not apathetic zombies. We are free thinking human beings who aspire to freedom just as much as any adult under an undemocratic system. The real result of compulsory education seems to be to accustom young people from early childhood to arbitrary authority and a fundamental lack of democratic ideals. Not only that, it is also highly selective about what it chooses to teach. As Carol Black says in her essay Occupy Your Brain:

While your kids are very busy toiling over algebra and chemistry, international trade agreements are being forged and currencies are being manipulated by entities that most Americans don’t even know the names of, much less the inner workings of.  Kids are compelled to solve quadratic equations and write essays on Shakespeare, and they graduate without understanding how to calculate the interest on credit card debt or decode a mortgage agreement.  They learn an old fable called “How a Bill Becomes Law,” while corporate lobbyists draft legislation that will pollute their air and water, deny them health care and unemployment benefits, and put barely tested drugs on the market and genetically modified organisms in their food system. (Find full article here)

The public education system not only hinders our ability to be members of a democracy by accustoming us to unjustified authority, it also seeks to mask the undemocratic nature of society at large through the education which it forces us to ingest.  The public education system is part and parcel to many of the unjust systems criticized by the occupy movement.

Of course, against such a pervasive structure of oppression we are confronted with the problem of how to escape, how to be free. I believe the answer is simple–just leave, or better yet, take control of the school. Imagine a world where you can spend your time learning about what you love. Imagine a world where you invite adults to teach you. Imagine a world where you have the inalienable rights of a human being. This world can never be achieved as long as our education is dictated by a state hierarchy and their corporate partners. It is possible to drop out of school and teach yourself, in fact a realistic way that you can go about doing this can be found in books and magazines dedicated to the un-schooling movement such as The Teenage Liberation Handbook (pdf here). It is possible to determine your own education by dropping out and adopting an un-schooled or home schooled approach. However, more than just escaping the public school system we need to break it down. In the name of dignity, democracy, and real education high school students need a movement on the scale of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. We are free human beings; we should demand the right to teach ourselves.



13 thoughts on “Youth Rights, Dignity, and the Anti-Democratic Values of Public Schooling

  1. Thank you…this is something I have been saying since I was invited to the Coop. The K-12 education system, more so the 6-12 portion has become so distracted with bathroom policies,”sexual harassment” and drug control systems that they have literally drifted away from providing education. However, people see nothing wrong with this, they have become complacent to the ideology that if a child goes to school, gets to take Honors or AP courses and gets good grades the child is smart and that smartness is due to his complacency with the insane hierarchy of schooling. Once they see those few students like that then they start to think that all students should be just as complacent and well performing because something that was developed 200 years ago works “just fine” and the idea that things are not fine is just some conspiracy theory that has been shoved down our throats.

    Posted by Jabreel Chisley | January 26, 2012, 2:50 am
  2. Hear, hear! There are teachers out there who believe what you believe and are doing everything we can from within the system to tear down these walls, but I firmly believe that (to crib Orwell) change must come from the students. Students need to stand up, organise, say that enough is enough, and demand change.

    Posted by alanthefriesen | January 26, 2012, 2:40 pm
  3. I think schools should be based on the Sudbury model, where the students are free to learn what they want, with whom they want, mixing different ages together, so the young children can learn from the older children and teens, who can learn from adults there to help them, rather than police them.

    Posted by Silver Fang | January 26, 2012, 6:33 pm
  4. Awesome post! I totally agree with you. I am a High School student and have been working for the past years to reinvent the High School experience. My mentor and I developed Global Civ which is an independent learning hub that specializes in place-based, challenged-based, and experiential learning. Definitely support your work! Check me out at: and follow me @global_civ.

    Posted by Global Civ (@Global_Civ) | January 26, 2012, 10:49 pm
  5. Let the Coöp know how we can help, either here or on the Google Group.

    With you,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | January 27, 2012, 10:47 am
  6. I feel like there are three different issues here, all with very different (but related) roots:

    1) Behavior management: Based on my limited experience, I would agree that behavior management is a huge part of the problem in education (as I’ve noted several times). And like any set of laws (which really are just behavioral rules), it’s unfortunate when people’s freedoms are restricted because of the few who abuse them. (And like any set of laws, there are many in power to enforce those rules that abuse their positions.) But I don’t think that’s an inherent tenant of the school system: control of behavior. It’s just an unfortunate result of the many many other issues we have in American schooling, much of which are cultural.

    2) Compulsory Education: Again, I’ll agree that there’s little attention given to the issue of whether compulsory education makes sense. Movement towards compulsory education started a while back, powered by political and religious movements that felt that it was necessary for the citizenry to be able to read and write in order to be able to interpret and understand the law and religious texts, contributing to shared values in society. Consumer interests in education sort of sneaked in over time later, eventually helping to evolve American education into what it is today. So we can agree that today’s education system has a very different cultural “purpose” today, one that makes much of it seem unnecessary. But at the same time, I don’t know enough about child development and such to say when a child should be allowed to decide not to go to school. Let’s note that kids can leave school at 16 (for now, at least). After that point, getting your diploma is (increasingly) a cultural necessity.

    3) Curricular Content: So there are two different issues I pulled out here: progressive education and passion-driven education. The first is a debate that’s been going on forever. But I don’t know really what that has to do with democracy within education. It’s definitely an issue I’d love to see addressed more, though. The second issue, however, I’ve only seen come up more recently. Here, as I’ve mentioned before, is just another manifestation of the conflict between societal interests and consumer interests in education, or more broadly, meritocracy and national interests verses individual benefits. This isn’t meant to be defeatist and say that it’s indomitable. But we have to pay it some attention before we start condemning a system that is just built upon American society.

    In general, the article felt a lot like “school is boring and useless, it has too much control over our lives, and thus we should just do it ourselves.” And I can agree that it has a lot of those issues. But I don’t think that solution adequately addresses the problems in education upon which these issues have grown throughout history. Even with a youth-controlled education system, I don’t see any of these issues changing at the root level. Even if you lower or remove the school leaving age, for example, you end up with a whole mess of other issues that you now have to deal with, most prominently the increase of the uneducated in society (which has debatable effects) and more concretely, a likely heavy increase of youth in a workforce that is stretched as it is.

    Basic point if you don’t want to read all of that: Interesting piece. Definitely hits a lot of issues. Doesn’t seem to address causes of those issues, though. Not convinced solution would mitigate those causes. But still, very interesting.

    Posted by Richard Blissett | January 29, 2012, 12:44 am
    • Very good comment and it makes a lot of sense from the perspective that you are writing from, which seems to be, and correct me if I’m wrong, that school should be about preparing young people to be successful in our society. I definitely admit that true democratic control of any institution is probably not a very good idea coming from this perspective, because it might very well end up with an uneducated populous incapable of any form of financial security and success. Of course, I would argue that this perspective is fundamentally flawed. Our schools should not be based on helping the youth successfully insert themselves into a capitalist society; instead we should use education as a means to transform our society to one based on the true democratic principles of freedom and equality. So yes, my perspective on education would result in young people being disconnected from our current society and not invested in success. In my opinion, this would be the best possible outcome.
      Now to answer some of your more specific points.

      1) Behavior management IS an inherent tenant of the public school system. I get most of this argument from Foucault who looked at the common genealogies of the numerous institutions of control in our society (prisons, schools, factories, etc.). He argued that the emergence of these institutions was indicative of a new way that power was exercised over the population which he termed disciplinary power. Here he is on this question:

      [disciplinary power] does not link forces together in order to reduce them; it seeks to bind them together in such a way as to multiply and use them. Instead of bending all its subjects into a single uniform mass, it separates, analyses, differentiates, carries its procedures of decomposition to the point of necessary and sufficient single units. It ‘trains’ the moving, confused, useless multitudes of bodies and forces into a multiplicity of individual elements – small, separate cells, organic autonomies, genetic identities and continuities, combinatory segments. Discipline ‘makes’ individuals; it is the specific technique of a power that regards individuals both as objects and as instruments of its exercise (Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), p 170).

      And this is exactly the case with the school. The goal is to create the next generation of a smoothly functioning society. Its fundamental purposing is harnessing the numerous free flowing forces of young bodies and minds and bending them to the will of state and capitalist power.

      2) Actually, compulsory education in the United States began with the forced education of Native Americans, and later other immigrant populations that needed to be assimilated into American culture. From day one compulsory education has been about the destruction of other cultures and other ways of life in the name of preserving the power of the United States. On the question of when young people should be allowed to leave school: They shouldn’t be forced to go to school in the first place. Of course there may always be an inherent power relationship between adults and very young children, but many young children even want to go to school because of peer relationships etc. I certainly agree that some sort of place of learning for young children would be a good idea, I don’t know enough to say what exactly what that should look like either. However, I do strongly believe that the second an individual wants to stop going to school they should be allowed to leave. Anything short of that will just lead to the alienation and apathy which I talked about in my essay and will likely have some ulterior motive such as created upholding the interests of capital and the state.

      3) The reason that curricular content is intertwined with the undemocratic aspects of education is because it is part of the same project of disciplinary power. I just included this argument as an illustration of how not only the method of instruction but also the content often serves the interests of those in power.

      I hope that the above comment clarified where I was coming from and addressed some of the concerns you had with my line of argument.

      Let me just sum up by being very clear on my central point: School is based on serving the interests of state and capitalist power and shaping the minds and bodies of the youth to be subservient to these powers. Only by destroying the fundamental power relationships of education where the students are molded into docile subjects by those in power can we have any hope of having meaningful learning, or on a larger scale, a truly free, equal, and just society. Student control of education is the first step toward fighting some of the largest systems of oppression in our society.

      Posted by defitzwater | January 29, 2012, 6:17 pm
      • Beautiful, Dylan. As another note, the U.S. population was highly literate before schooling was made compulsory, through a wide variety of voluntary forms of learning. (that’s why Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” not exactly an easy read, was a best-seller.) Here’s Stanford education prof David F. Larabee (hardly a radical) on the topic:

        “To understand the nature of the common school movement, we need to establish first what it was not trying to do. It was not an effort to persuade Americans to see education as important…. education was already playing a prominent role in American life… It was not an effort to raise the literacy rate, which was already nearly universal in New England and elevated in the rest of the country. Instead, its central aim was to channel the existing school enrollments in every community into a single, publicly governed community school.”

        Foucault can take it from there.

        Posted by Carol Black | March 1, 2012, 4:04 pm
  7. Reblogged this on kookiekelley and commented:
    I’m posting on my blog, and sharing with everyone I know. Thank you for your opinion!

    Posted by kookiekelley | March 29, 2012, 11:13 am
  8. Good post.

    If one does business with crooks and gets cheated, is it any surprise? As you suggest, there is the option to “just leave.” The corporate university is obsolete: see:

    High-quality, inexpensive audio/video college lectures are an alternative. See, e.g., ‘How to give yourself a (superior) college education for free’:

    Posted by John Uebersax | March 29, 2012, 2:02 pm


  1. Pingback: Youth Rights, Dignity, and the Anti-Democratic Values of Public Schooling (My Response) - January 26, 2012

  2. Pingback: The End of School: Five Pieces on Youth Power and Restructured Learning | RADICAL FAGGOT - January 28, 2012

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