Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Freedom Is Slavery

I'm rereading John Holt's great book How Children Fail (Pitman, 1964), which has been on my mind since I wrote about rewards, punishments, and competition last week. I first thought of digging it out when a friend thought that when I criticized traditional modes of schooling, I meant how poor kids schools in poor districts suffered "in our inequitable system." As I pointed out at the time, I was thinking of "good" schools, like the private elementary schools where Holt did the observations that eventually became his book.
A mother said to me not long ago, "I think you are mistaking a mistake in trying to make schoolwork so interesting for the children. After all, they are going to have to spend most of their lives doing things they don't like, and they might as well get used to it now."

Every so often the curtain of slogans and platitudes behind which most people live opens up for a second, and you get a glimpse of what they really think. This is not the first time a parent has said this to me, but it horrifies me as much as ever. What an extraordinary view of life, from one of the favored citizens of this most favored of nations? Is life nothing but drudgery, an endless list of dreary duties? Is education nothing but the process of getting children ready to do them? It was as if she had said, "My boy is going to have to spend the rest of his life as a slave, so I want you to get him used to the idea, and see to it that when he gets to be a slave, he will be a dutiful and diligent and well paid one."

... All this woman's stories about herself and her boy have the same plot: at first, he doesn't want to do something; then, she makes him do it; finally, he does it well, and maybe even enjoys it. She never tells me stories about things that her boy does well without being made to, and she seems uninterested and even irritated when I tell her such stories. The only triumphs of his that she savors are those for which she can give herself most of the credit [160-61].
If this encounter hadn't taken place fifty years ago, the mother Holt describes could almost be Karin Fuller, who wrote the Family Circle article I criticized on making kids finish everything they start, and making them earn their piddling rewards. I've run into my share of people who talk just like that mother, and people like her are a significant force against genuine reform of our school system. While it's not really a mitigation, it occurs to me that the mother was herself parroting a line she'd picked up from other parents (maybe her own), though it apparently fit well into her mind.

Holt also mentions how often schoolchildren are given misinformation.
The teacher, whose specialty, by the way, was English, had told these children that a verb is a word of action -- which is not always true. One of the words she asked was "dream." She was thinking of the noun, and apparently did not remember that "dream" can as easily be a verb. One little boy, making a pure guess, said it was a verb. Here the teacher, to be helpful, contributed one of those "explanations" that are so much more hindrance than help. She said, "But a verb has to have action; can you give me a sentence, using 'dream', that has action?" The child thought a bit, and said, "I had a dream about the Trojan War." Now it's pretty hard to get much more action than that. But the teacher told him he was wrong, and he sat silent, with an utterly baffled and frightened expression on his face. She was so busy thinking about what she wanted him to say, she was so obsessed with that right answer hidden in her mind, that she could not think about what he was really saying and thinking, could not see that his reasoning was logic and correct, and that the mistake was not his, but hers [16].
He also noticed that while children may be conditioned to be unable to think about academic matters, they become adept at reading their teachers.

I've been looking at some of the customer reviews of How Children Fail on Amazon. Quite a few of them were written by college students who were assigned the book for an education course, and it disturbs me to see how badly most of them misunderstand the book, even when they rated it highly. It also occurs to me that a lot of the problems Holt described come largely from the structure of schools, where children are expected to sit obediently in large groups and be taught by an adult standing in front of them. That's not how we learn the basic, and really much harder, things that nearly all children pick up before school: walking, language. I wouldn't say that schools are consciously designed to make children (and therefore adults) stupid, but the great scandal is that although that's exactly what they do most of the time, most adults pretend that they are supposed to educate. That's why I don't believe the mother Holt quoted in the passage above fully meant what she said; I think she was just quoting a snappy phrase she'd heard somewhere, that made her sound and feel realistic and tough-minded. After all, if people really designed schools to make children fail, they probably wouldn't succeed even at that.