“Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”

George W. Bush, Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 2000

Until a few years ago I never imagined myself pursuing a career as an educator. While my father taught high school for a few years, and several other relatives have also taught in public schools, I disliked both compulsory public education and employment. So for many years I made my way as a freelance intellectual—a writer, artist, and musician.

Nearly three years ago a friend, Michael McAvoy, offered me the opportunity to help design a program at a private alternative college, and now I find myself happily employed and happily teaching. In some respects, I wasn’t adequately prepared for the job, never having taken a teacher training course. But I’ve been blessed with competent, committed colleagues and with students who come to the program ready and wanting to learn. As teaching jobs go, this must be heaven.

I’m still just starting to figure out what it might mean to teach well. Probably my biggest challenge is to reconcile my desire to convey a body of information that I’ve struggled long and hard to assemble and that I’m quite passionate about, with the actual needs and interests of students. From my perspective, it’s unimaginable that any intelligent person wouldn’t want to absorb this information as quickly and completely as possible; the most efficient methods of transfer would presumably be voluminous readings and long lectures. But students come with differing interests and learning styles, and some find that at least part of the information is depressing or that it conflicts with prior beliefs. Gradually I’m realizing the importance not just of conveying information, but of modeling and encouraging the processes of independent, critical thinking and creativity. That’s much harder than simply downloading data.

Thanks to the help and suggestions both of students and of faculty colleagues, the New College program is gradually evolving to accommodate more learning styles, and I’m slowly developing the skills necessary to help students put information together for themselves in ways that are meaningful to them.

In this month’s MuseLetter, I explore the topic of education in both philosophical and practical terms: How do children and adults learn? What are they being taught in schools? What should they be taught? And how should they be taught it? Are schools themselves part of the problem they pretend to try to solve?

theories of schooling

In a previous issue (Number 40, “Schooling: Liberation or Mind Control?”), I reviewed a wonderfully incendiary book by John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down (New Society, 1992), in which a former New York State Teacher of the Year describes the current compulsory education system as “psychopathic,” designed primarily to inculcate confusion, class position, indifference, dependency, and provisional self-esteem. I also quoted from a published interview with Gatto in which he recounted the history of public education from its origins in the nineteenth century, “when powerful interests feared a revolution among our own industrial poor.” Since then, public schooling—shaped largely by the money and design of industrialists Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan—has sought to prepare children for life in modern industrial society, either as bosses or workers, seldom as independent producers and thinkers. As I put it then, “It is our schools’ purpose to make sure not only that young people are fitted for employment, but that they regard the status of being employed as an ideal to strive for.”


Education, viewed as an unalloyed good, has also served as a means of spreading the ideology of industrial corporatism throughout the rest of the world. “Foreign aid” programs often focus on education—but education of our design. We (meaning, actually, Euro-American governmental and corporate managers) teach the children to read and write, but what they read and write about usually has little relevance to their traditional cultures or needs for subsistence. The aim is clearly to prepare the benighted children of the Third World for service in the global marketplace. A few will be trained as lawyers, accountants, and executives; a much larger group must be fitted for service as docile factory employees; while the remainder hardly need to be bothered with, except to bewilder them and to alienate them from their cultural roots sufficiently so that they will offer minimal resistance to the destruction of their ancestors’ way of life and the imposition of globalized market “discipline.” All of this provides a necessary backdrop for any clear understanding of the current debate about the future direction of public education.

The arguments within that debate are probably easiest to sort out if seen as varieties of three basic viewpoints—conservative, liberal, and radical.

The conservative vision of education has been ascendant for well over a decade now. In the recent televised debates between Al Gore and George W. Bush, the candidates talked about education, but their areas of disagreement were actually few. Both Republicans and Democrats want standardized testing and more computers in the schools. There is one difference, however: Republicans want to give school vouchers to parents, who could then shop around for the best education for their kids; Democrats say that vouchers will undermine public schools and are therefore a bad idea.

The conservative schooling agenda could be summed up as follows: The essential purpose of school is to fit young people to the needs of the capitalist industrial system. Reading, writing, arithmetic are important because they provide the basis for job skills. Schools should also teach obedience to authority, love of country, and other values that will help mold “good” workers and citizens.

The conservative agenda has always been class-based: its proponents believe that children will inevitably test for intelligence along a “bell curve,” and that the high scorers should be offered a broader and more intensive education (preparing them for managerial positions), while those falling on the middle of the curve should be given useful job training. Those at the nether end of the curve must somehow be segregated and warehoused so that they don’t hold back the achievers. For increasing numbers, this last kind of education amounts to prep school for prison.

Standardized testing is important for determining where students fall within the bell curve, but also for ensuring that particular schools and teachers are inculcating basic skills effectively. The latest twist is a proposal (embraced in some form by both candidates) to shut down schools, or fire teachers, whose students don’t measure up, and to reward “successful” schools and teachers with more funds and salary increases. Many liberal educational reformers are justifiably worried that such a policy would translate to a transfer of educational dollars from poor to rich neighborhoods.

The liberal educational agenda, somewhat bruised and battered these days, has its roots in the writings of American pragmatic philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952). Dewey criticized rote-style teaching and argued that students should be taught not how to memorize facts, but how to solve problems. For example, by working in gardens and confronting the requirements of growing plants, they would learn chemistry and biology, as well as responsibility and cooperation. Rather than training children in isolated disciplines, teachers should offer children opportunities for discovery. Students would thereby develop skills for solving the dilemmas of the larger social world. This, Dewey believed, would be the best way of preparing people to live in a democratic society—one that must constantly confront new situations.

Dewey advocated fostering critical thinking skills in students, and assisting them to develop greater self-awareness. A progressive Democrat, he believed that a functional democracy must be based on shared values, and that extreme differences of wealth and the compartmentalization of knowledge by “experts” would necessarily undermine democracy. For Dewey, the public school system was a means for realizing the Jeffersonian ideal of equality.

Dewey’s ideas for progressive education were only haphazardly implemented. Beginning in the Sputnik era, proponents of the conservative educational agenda began chipping away at the residue of his legacy and calling for more rote, skills-based teaching. Today, where they are remembered at all, Dewey’s proposals are often regarded as failed, impractical, or overly idealistic. Of his contributions to the liberal educational agenda, the one that persists most vigorously is the belief that public schools are essential to the maintenance of a set of shared democratic values within society.

The radical critique of public education begins by questioning the very premises of compulsory public education. For the radicals, what is important is learning, not socialization—which is the primary focus of both the liberal and conservative agenda; and real learning defies routinization. John Taylor Gatto, John Holt, Paul Goodman, and Ivan Illich have made essentially the same points in various ways: that children managed to learn quite successfully before the introduction of compulsory schooling, and that schooling in fact often does more harm than good to individual children. Here is Ivan Illich, from his classic book Deschooling Society (1970):

School pretends to break learning up into subject “matters,” to build into the pupil a curriculum made of these prefabricated blocks, and to gauge the results on an international scale. People who submit to the standard of others for the measure of their own personal growth soon apply the same ruler to themselves. They no longer have to be put into their place, but put themselves into their assigned slots, squeeze themselves into the niche which they have been taught to seek, and, in the very process, put their fellows into their places, too, until everybody and everything fits.

Gatto puts it even more succinctly: “School is a twelve-year jail sentence where bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned. I teach school and win awards doing it. I should know.”

The radicals agree with some of Dewey’s ideals—especially the desire for students to develop critical thinking abilities. However, they question whether Dewey, in trying to humanize the American public school system, was working against its original and inherent purposes. The basic idea of the public school was (and is) to apply the routines and discipline of factory work to learning, and thus to train armies of children for service in the industrial system. Dewey was trying to make the institution serve ends other than these, and was therefore bound to fail. The appeal of the conservative agenda is, and has always been, simply that its vision of the public schools’ purpose is closest to the historical reality. For educational radicals, therefore, the critique of schooling is inseparable from a critique of modern industrial, capitalist, corporatist society itself. If the factory system requires us to turn human beings into machines, then should we not question industrial production?

Along the way, radical educationists point out that children, in addition to being taught the hidden curriculum of fragmentation and routinization, are also taught an overt curriculum of lies and half-truths that make real citizenship problematic. Children are taught a Eurocentric rendition of world history, and a sanitized version of American history, both cleansed of any taint of class struggle. Without certain key bits of information it is virtually impossible to understand why the world is the way it is. For example, it is impossible to understand American history unless we begin by acknowledging that the country was founded on genocide and slavery, and that whatever freedoms we enjoy were won by ordinary people organizing themselves and demanding reforms. To regard Columbus as a hero (as is still commonly done in many grade schools) is to ignore the evidence of his own diaries, which clearly portray him as a mass murderer, thief, torturer, extortionist, and conscious initiator of what would grow to become the largest instance of genocide in world history. It is also helpful to know that other American “heroes” like John Adams (the second President) and John Jay (the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) opposed the very idea of democracy and believed that “those who own the country should govern it.” Of course, information like this might encourage some students to question the political and economic status quo, and that is no doubt why it is omitted. But the resulting eviscerated history curriculum is not only misleading and confusing; it is also utterly boring.

Finally, the radicals point out that if any part of the real purpose of formal schooling is to help children learn, then there are much better ways of accomplishing that goal. After recounting how compulsory schooling originated in the State of Massachusetts around 1850 amid much resistance (“the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not surrendering its children until the 1880s, when the area was seized by militia and children marched to school under guard”), Gatto tells us:

Senator Ted Kennedy’s office released a paper not too long ago claiming that prior to compulsory education the state literacy rate was ninety-eight percent, and after it the figure never exceeded ninety-one percent. Here is another curiosity to think about. The home-schooling movement has quietly grown to a size where one and a half million young people are being educated entirely by their own parents; last month the education press reported the amazing news that children schooled at home seem to be five or even ten years ahead of their formally trained peers in their ability to think.

Gatto recalls the one-room schools common to rural America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where children of all ages learned cooperatively, mostly teaching one another. This, according to the radicals, is an example of how learning could be facilitated. Instead of large, state-run bureaucracies, they say, we need small, local schools organized primarily by parents. Rather than being segregated by age, older children should learn responsibility by teaching younger kids. Rather than learning a state-mandated curriculum, students should pursue their spontaneous interests.

how we learn

It is in the discussion of the learning process that radical educational theory has made its most telling points. At the base of popular support for the very idea of schooling lies the assumption that schools help kids learn. If that assumption turns out to be unfounded, then the entire project is open to question.

The dominant educational ideology holds that children are essentially blank slates upon which teachers etch essential knowledge that has been pre-digested—that is, broken down into categories and age-specific chunks. By exposing students to a competitive regime of tests and grades, with appropriate punishments and rewards, teachers impart the values of achievement, hard work, and self-discipline. The radicals ask, Is this a realistic model of the learning process?

Education activist Alfie Kohn begins by questioning the belief that competition, punishments, and rewards are somehow essential—even helpful—to the learning process. In his classic critical study of competition, No Contest (1986), Kohn exhaustively examines our struggles to defeat one another, and shows convincingly that competition is much more culturally learned than innate, and that it predictably sabotages relationships, character, and self-esteem. Winning becomes the central goal, rather than the actual task at hand. First documenting how schools relentlessly train children to seek to better one another, he concludes that children take a single lesson away from every classroom: “other people are not partners but opponents, not potential friends but rivals.”

Rather than promoting learning, competition actually breeds anxiety, withdrawal from participation, and unethical behavior. Of course, some individuals do seem to blossom in competitive environments, but, as Kohn exhaustively documents, studies of actual performance levels in sports activities and various academic tasks show that even the “winners” tend to do worse in a hypercompetitive atmosphere. On the other hand, cooperative efforts foster both better performance and warmer feelings. Kohn describes various efforts to produce educational programs based on cooperation rather than competition, and quotes the conclusion of researchers David and Roger Johnson (Learning Together and Alone: Cooperative, Competitive, and Individualistic Learning, 1991) based on 369 studies conducted between 1898 and 1989: “That working together to achieve a common goal produces higher achievement and greater productivity than does working alone is so well confirmed by so much research that it stands as one of the strongest principles of social and organizational psychology.” Nevertheless, public schools seem to be on a relentless track toward more competition—more standardized testing, more competitive sports, more honor rolls—while cooperative learning strategies are largely ignored. “We have a word for genuine cooperative effort,” notes Kohn; “it is cheating.”

In a subsequent book, Punished By Rewards: The Trouble With Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes (1995), Kohn skewers what he calls the “pop behaviorist” legacy of psychologists Ivan Petrovich Pavlov and B. F. Skinner. In thirty years of research, according to Kohn, both punishments and rewards have been shown to be spectacularly ineffective at motivating learning. This result is rendered even more convincing by the fact that many researchers had set out to prove exactly the opposite. Studies have shown that even the social reward of praise tends to undermine intrinsic motivation and reduce performance. While both punishments and rewards can win temporary compliance, neither assists the student to develop autonomous skills in defining problems and finding solutions. Kohn suggests that, in designing educational environments, we should be looking beyond doing things to people, and instead do things with people, asking ourselves “how can we create the conditions under which our students will motivate themselves?”

The “blank slate” metaphor for early childhood development can also be traced to early, simplistic formulations of behaviorist psychology, and has been called into question by a host of researchers and theorists. Currently, it forms the tacit basis for efforts to teach children to read at ever younger ages, and to place computers in grade-school classrooms.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Swiss biologist-psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) spent forty-five years observing the growth of intelligence in hundreds of children and discovered that children’s brains and structures of knowledge develop in clear stages. These genetically programmed maturational shifts occur in all children in the same sequence at about the same age. While Piaget’s theories were and are controversial, more recent discoveries (especially the work of Herman Epstein at Brandeis University) of periodic brain-growth spurts in children—coinciding with Piaget’s developmental stages—appear to confirm those theories.

In the first four years, the child is building a basic structure of knowledge about the physical world and the concrete names of things in it. In the next four years, musical and intuitive abilities appear. Drawing on Piaget’s work, author/child development theorist Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote (in Magical Child, 1977):

At seven, the child undergoes a brain-growth spurt and a dramatic shift of logical processing. Because individuality is just becoming functional at seven, the purpose of the new logic and the new learning capacity is to gain self-sufficiency or autonomy, independence, and the ability to survive in the world.

 At about age eleven, according to Pearce, “the brain releases a chemical that dissolves all unmyelinated neural fields, removing 80 percent of the brain mass available at age six.” A new kind of logic develops, which Piaget called “formal operations,” in which words that denote qualities or states of mind—like truth, beauty, and virtue—begin to make sense. “A word can now be an intermediary between ourselves and our own thought and can allow us to look at it objectively. From this we develop a self-awareness through which we can see others’ points of view, stand in their shoes as it were.”

These developmental stages (which would require much more space to describe adequately) make perfect sense in biological, evolutionary terms. The problem comes when we attempt to force children to learn or do things before nature has prepared them for those tasks. This, according to Pearce and others, is precisely what we doing in trying to get four-year-olds to read, or expecting seven-year-olds to sit in front of computer screens solving math problems rather than learning survival skills in the natural world. Instead of honoring the child’s own pace of unfoldment, much of what is done to children now seems almost designed to thwart or undermine nature’s developmental agenda.

damaged children

But the actual situation of today’s children may actually be much worse than can be explained by a critical examination of schooling. Many kids today actually seem somehow fundamentally impaired even before they arrive at school. The perception is distressing and arguable—yet unavoidable. In informal discussions among schoolteachers, the subject is never far from the surface. I remember a particular conversation a few years ago with a cousin of mine who teaches high school in a Midwestern city: he remarked how, at age 48, he was starting to count the years and months until retirement. Why?, I asked—and he proceeded to describe his daily classroom experience of warehousing children with no interest in learning, no imaginations, and no positive images of the future. Since then I’ve heard many similar complaints from other teachers. My cousin insisted that the kids have changed. Twenty years ago, things weren’t as bad. What has happened?

In Evolution’s End (1992), Joseph Chilton Pearce offers his own detailed diagnosis, identifying four main culprits: television; synthetic hormones in foods, plastics, and industrial chemicals; hospital births; and day care.

The average child views six thousand hours of television by age five. The “electronic baby-sitter” is a medium with a dual message: one is its content (violence and the glories of the consuming lifestyle); the other is inherent in the machine itself and the experience of watching it. The child watching television is passive; her brain is flooded with externally imposed images. As Pearce puts it,

Television feeds both stimulus and response into that infant-child brain, as a single paired-effect, and therein lies the danger. Television floods the brain with a counterfeit of the response the brain is supposed to learn to make to the stimuli of words or music. As a result, much structural coupling between mind and environment is eliminated; few metaphoric images develop; few higher cortical areas of the brain are called into play; few, if any, symbolic structures develop. . . . Failing to develop imagery means having no imagination.

Pearce notes that fifty years ago, pregnancies in eleven-year-olds were grossly anomalous; today, they occur in the thousands, and menarche is commonly seen in eight-year-olds. He argues that premature sexuality in children can be traced at least in part to the addition of chemically synthesized hormones to cattle and chicken feed, beginning immediately after World War II:

The addition of hormones took place at the very time we eliminated 97 percent of breast-feeding in the United States, substituted cow’s milk or “infant formula” for mother’s milk, and began early feeding of high-protein prepared infant foods, including concentrations of eggs and various meats. . . . Indisputable evidence has been established for years now that these artificial hormones accumulate in the body, inducing premature sexuality; they are, after all, sex hormones.

Meanwhile, hospital births undercut or even destroy the initial bonding process between mother and infant. On this point Pearce is fierce:

Home birth under any circumstances is safer and more successful than hospital birth, by a six-to-one ratio. . . . Male doctors’ intellect has interfered with women’s intelligence and in effect, destroyed a major segment of their lives. . . . Medical childbirth is one of the most destructive forces to issue from the mind of man. . . .

When a generation that experienced poor mother-infant bonding grows up and has its own children by the same alienating process, then sends the kids off to day care, the result is “a rising tide of incompetence and inability to nurture and care for offspring.”

No wonder the kids can’t read or write, can’t concentrate, and don’t have positive images of their own future. And then—after we’ve robbed them of imagination and parental bonding, forced them to go to school and learn symbolic abilities for which they have not yet developed adequate neural structures, and prevented their bodily movement at precisely the age when they should be learning sensory-motor skills—if they fail to comply with the regime, what’s our answer? Why, label them hyperactive and give them Ritalin, of course!

what’s the alternative?

What’s the answer? Ultimately, the best model that we have for successful education and child-rearing is provided by the surviving gatherer-hunter peoples, who rely entirely on evolution’s inherent design for children’s development. That model is well described in Jean Liedloff’s classic book The Continuum Concept (1975)—which is still, after twenty-five years, perhaps the most inspiring single book on raising healthy infants and children.

Of course, the central question we should ask ourselves is, What do kids actually need to know? Merely to answer that they need to know how to get good jobs is (borrowing a biblical metaphor) to sell our wild biotic birthright for a mess of pottage. Children need to know how to use and care for their own bodies; they need to know how nature works and how to fit into it; they need to know about their geographical place and their cultural heritage; they need to know how to work and play together and how to make group decisions and negotiate competing priorities.

Waldorf schools—based on the visionary teachings of Rudolf Steiner, whose ideas about childhood development ran somewhat parallel to Piaget’s—are making a valuable contribution in this regard, as is the home-schooling movement. And there are dedicated reformers within the existing system working to make needed change (for anyone interested in resources along those lines, I’d recommend the book Designing & Implementing an Integrated Curriculum: A Student-Centered Approach, by Edward T. Clark, Jr.).

At New College, while we focus almost entirely on adult education, we find ourselves confronting many of the same challenges as other educators and students—though confronting them, often, in different ways. Much of our work involves unlearning attitudes, assumptions, and historical “facts” that were drilled into us in prior schooling. We foster environmental awareness, as well as writing, speaking, and critical-thinking skills. Given the context of our times, we cannot help but see education as a political and subversive process. We are preparing the soil for a very different future.

Today’s children will be growing up into an era of transition—from an energy-rich to an energy-poor environment. It will be a time of immense economic and political turmoil. They need to know that there are alternatives. And they’ll need all the help we can give them. q