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Speaking Truth about School, Even When It’s Not Easy

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Once again I find an article by Peter Gray important enough to share at Parent at the Helm. This one, in fact, was written months before Parent at the Helm existed. It came out on September 9, 2009 on and is titled “Seven Sins of Our System of Forced Education.”

Gray begins by admitting that he’s uncomfortable stating that “school is prison.” I can relate. I’ve been saying it for decades and I’m still uncomfortable; like Gray, I, too, have relatives in the teaching profession, but given that local school districts are huge job programs, that probably applies to many of us.


"The literal truth is that schools, as they generally exist in the United States and other modern countries, are prisons."

“Sometimes I find, no matter how uncomfortable it makes me and others feel, I have to speak the truth,” Gray explains. “We can use all the euphemisms we want, but the literal truth is that schools, as they generally exist in the United States and other modern countries, are prisons,” defined as any place of involuntary confinement and restriction of liberty. The prison-effect is a result of compulsory attendance laws. (In his article, Gray calls it “compulsory education,” and then “forced education,” but I disagree with that. Children are by law compelled – forced – to attend, but the powers-that-be have yet to discover how to compel children to learn, let alone become educated in the true sense of the word.)

From the backdrop of force and school-as-prison, Gray goes on to outline Seven Sins referred to in the title. As you review them, think about the current problems of the public school system, think about a connection between the problems and the sins, and think about the homeschooling experience in comparison.

Denial of liberty on the basis of age. The “most blatant of the sins of forced education,” it is wrong to deny liberty without just cause.

Fostering of shame, on the one hand, and hubris, on the other. Explaining that tests, grades, and ranking have replaced the physical punishment of days of old to “tap into and distort the human emotional systems of shame and pride to motivate” as part of forcing children to do what they may not necessarily want to do (attend to schooling). Shame “leads some to drop out psychologically.” Excessive pride from shallow accomplishments can lead to arrogance and disdain for the others and “disdainful of democratic values and processes (and this may be the worst effect of all).”

Interference with the development of cooperation and nurturance. Schools’ age segregation, extremely artificial as it’s never again repeated in a person’s social experience, also deprives kids of opportunity to learn to be caring and helpful through interaction with those younger than themselves. School is competition-based, which also goes against the natural instinct to cooperate. Help a friend in school too much, you’re cheating. Help a friend in school too much and, if you’re graded on a curve, you just hurt yourself.

Interference with the development of personal responsibility and self-direction. Compel children to sit in school, fill their time with “assignments,” and they have no time for the play and exploration that naturally prepares them to take responsibility for their own learning. “Moreover,” states Gray, “the implicit and sometimes explicit message of our forced schooling system is: ‘If you do what you are told to do in school, everything will work out well for you.’ Children who buy into that may stop taking responsibility for their own education…” I don’t think there’s any “maybe” about this.

Linking of learning with fear, loathing, and drudgery. After outlining the anxiety associated with everything from reading aloud, humiliation, and taking tests, Gray gets down to the real nitty-gritty of this sin: “The forced nature of schooling turns learning into work.” Amen. “So learning, which children biologically crave, becomes toil – something to be avoided whenever possible.”

Inhibition of critical thinking. “Truth be told, the grading system, which is the chief motivator in our system of education, is a powerful force against honest debate and critical thinking in the classroom.” In a nutshell? Kids discover their place in the pecking order of school is to get high marks on tests. To get high marks on tests you figure out what the teachers wants you to regurgitate, and you regurgitate it. Thinking – critical or not – is unnecessary and most often unwelcome in this process.

Reduction in diversity of skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking. You’re going to love this one. “The school curriculum represents a tiny subset of the skills and knowledge that are important to our society. In this day and age, nobody can learn more than a sliver of all there is to know. Why force everyone to learn the same sliver?” Gray then mentions observations of Sudbury Valley School and unschoolers: “They take new, diverse, and unpredicted paths. They develop passionate interests, work diligently to become experts in the realms that fascinate them, and then find ways of making a living by pursuing their interests.”

This seems a very good place to end. If you’ve homeschooled for any length of time, Gray hasn’t told you anything you haven’t already experienced within your home. In that case, perhaps you’ll be kind enough to share this with a parent friend or three who may never have thought in terms of there being “sins” attached to forced school attendance. You never know when something will “click,” and that friend just may thank you one day in the (hopefully) not too distance future. Thanks for reading.

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5 Responses to “Speaking Truth about School, Even When It’s Not Easy”

  1. Paula Lupo says:

    This si very interesting. I have a child who has struggled in school since day one. She has always wanted to be home schooled. I always thought I may cheat her out of her education. I need to do some research. I always thought of school as a social place, where they can learn things I know nothing about. I am now thinking this may be untrue. I even feel that the majority of the people that work in the school system are cruel & don't even like their jobs. Thanks for the info…

  2. Ben Bennett says:

    Yes, schools ARE social places. They just don't teach the socialization we assume they do. And secondly… aren't they supposed to be "academic" places? Homeschool your daughter. You'll end up regretting all the research you did that kept her in school one day longer.

    Ben -15 year homeschooling dad.

  3. @Ben – thank you.

    @Paula – Paula, I think it's important that you know you and your daughter are NOT alone. I commend your daughter for her awareness of homeschooling and being able to ask for it! When you first consider homeschooling, there's an important point to remember – there are SO many things to learn that no one – not even the classroom teacher in possession of that prized curriculum – is going to hit on everything. Now, add to that – what exactly is important for everyone to know? You won't find agreement on that anywhere! Truth be told, it takes far less time at home to provide the basics than in school. The time now freed up can be spent pursuing interests – and you will be AMAZED at what children will learn to be able to do that…they will learn whatever it takes. Now suddenly, you have a child who understands SHE is responsible for her education (not all the teachers in the school), and the natural inclination toward learning, no longer being stifled, reappears.

    I'm not saying every homeschooling day is heaven. I AM saying a BAD day of homeschooling is better than a GOOD day at school.

    Search the Net for a local homeschooling support group and talk to its members. And keep reading PARENT AT THE HELM! (g) We're here for you!

  4. Jodi K. says:

    As a former homeschooling mom, I have so many things to say on this subject, but will try to keep it brief. When I was a homeschooling mom, I really loved it! I felt it was a great chance to be the number one influence on my kids, provide them with a personalized education, and spend more time with them daily. I homeschooled for 11 years, from preschool for my oldest child until he entered 9th grade. During that time I had many successes and failures. My greatest success was the time I had with the children to teach the values and principles I thought were important, it has paid off tremendously! I believe academically we did fine, a few 'gaps' in English, but otherwise we did well. Thankfully we lived in a homeschool friendly community, we had an awesome group of friends, a wonderful co-op, and good support in the community.

    However, we did have problems. For one thing, although I believed it was okay to delay reading until the student was ready to learn, I started having issues; one son who wanted to learn to read, but could not make sense of all I tried to teach him. Another child had become such a behavior problem that we started family counseling. (we are talking beyond simple disobedience, and back-talking) We learned through testing that both of these children had learning disabilities, processing issues, etc. For two years I tried to work past those things and work with their abilities to get these two boys to where they wanted to be, and where I felt comfortable. I finally decided it was time to let somebody who was trained in teaching special needs to step in.

    At the same time we were experiencing many stresses at home, grief due to my brother who passed away and a deep depression in my husband who has bi-polar. We (I) chose to send those 2 boys to public school. Now after 2 years they are both doing so well!! The teachers have worked with me on many things, and although it is not perfect, it is working. After a year of the 2 middle boys being in public school and we were facing the possibility that I would need to work, I choose to put our oldest 2 boys and our younger son all into school.

    There are many things I don't like (HOMEWORK which take up too much family time!) But the boys /are/ getting educated. The gaps they had are filling in just fine. Granted we don't always like the rules, but they are getting consistent instruction, something I was really struggling with the last 2 years they were home due to the stresses.

    Earlier I mentioned I had some success and some failures in homeschooling. My greatest failure was the arrogant attitude I gained and witnessed in others as well. I was puffed up and full of pride about how much better I could do with the children at home, or how much more I loved mine than the public school mom. During these nearly 2 years, I have been humbled by God to see my ugly pride. I have met teachers who have grown to love and enjoy my children, I've seen one of my sons grow in confidence he wasn't feeling before entering public school. Everyone's journey is different. And although homeschooling is wonderful and a blessing, it is not the end all be all, there are pitfalls there as well. Public school is not perfect and I still have a desire to bring some of the children back home and be together homeschooling. However due to my husbands bi-polar, that may not be a possibility. I know this, God is working in me, and through me either way. My children are not forsaken, and I have been humbled and learned many things. I have been released from my judgmental attitude. Now I will find ways to voice my opinions from the 'inside' about the public school system.

    One last thing, children may not /want/ to be at school. However does that mean every time they do not want to do something we let them not do it?? As an adult there are many things I don't want to do, but if I continue not doing them I really do suffer. It's true that the education machine in America needs a tune up, overhaul etc, and maybe we do as well. But there are school districts with teachers who are not cruel, who love God and are trying to do right by the children.

  5. […] Parent At The Helm discusses the awful truth about public schools. […]

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