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

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Encore: Speaking Truth about School,

Even When It’s Not Easy

ENCORE POST! Sometimes there is a post that resonates with many people, and brings them together on the topic of education via comments. “Speaking Truth about School, Even When It’s Not Easy,” is such a post.

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.

Prison as school education

"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 receive an education in the true sense of the word.)

Sins of Forced “Education”

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, and happy education to all.

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