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.