November 21, 2014


‘Is Our Children Learning?’
By: Marine Veteran Dan Restivo

 Are children failing school, or is school failing them? In the midst of constant talks of education reform, that is the question that should be asked. The American education system fails to truly teach most children. Historically, our education system was not designed to produce self-reliant individuals, but rather subordinate workers. The cause and effect of a rigid curriculum and forced education on children is detrimental to the creative mind and is no way to successfully educating (sic) children.

In the beginning, at age six, children are forced to learn a preset curriculum at the same rate as others their age. If they are behind or ahead of the curriculum, they are either left behind or leave school interests behind due to boredom. At first, most young children can’t wait to go to school ‘like the big kids’, but then anxiety, fear, anticipation, boredom, and a lack of motivation sets in. Worldwide, America ranks number 2 in percentage of students who are bored, with 61 percent. Only Ireland is higher, with 67 percent, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The United States also ranks in at number 7 for longest duration of compulsory education on the OECD listings. So, that’s twelve years of boredom for 61 percent of the population.

Furthermore, the 49% minority of students, who are not bored or disinterested with school, aren’t doing particularly well either. “American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science compared to students in 30 industrialized countries.” (Broad Foundation). Our current government’s solution to these educational shortcomings is usually a bigger budget. "Fixing our schools will cost some money," Obama said. (AOL News). When you compare America’s spending per primary school student by country to thirty of the most industrialized nations (see chart below), America has the fourth highest at $6043.00 per student (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development).

So, statistically the American education system is receiving more money, yet teaching less. Despite what congressmen may say, America has never stopped ‘investing’ in education, at least as far as records show.

In 1987 researchers William J. Fowler, Jr. and Herbert J. Walberg, studied the correlation between the amount spent on education per student and their achievement scores in New Jersey schools. They found that although the affluence levels of school districts compared somewhat with the achievement (rich kids typically outperformed poor kids), actual spending per pupil was not linked to achievement. (Cato Institute). William J. Fowler concluded, "It is not the level of expenditures that counts in learning," they remarked, "but what teachers do. Several thousand studies in educational psychology show that some techniques work much more powerfully and consistently than others, and do not necessarily cost more money." (William J. Fowler, as quoted by Cato Institute).

In comparison, “…from the 1929-30 school year, the first on which comprehensive data are available, to the 1986-87 school year, total real expenditures per pupil in American public schools rose by 500 percent.(2) More recently, total real expenditures shot up from $2,229 per pupil in 1965-66 to $4,206 per pupil 20 years later, an 89 percent hike. Keep in mind that this increase was after inflation, meaning that actual buying power available to schools almost doubled during that period. Real spending in the 1980s, during all the Reagan-era cuts we hear so much about, actually grew at a faster rate--21 percent between 1981-82 and 1986-87--than in the previous decade, when it increased by "only" 16 percent.” (Cato Institute). Statistically, America spends 31 percent more per student than other countries worldwide, yet the U.S. still ranks near bottom in math, science, and reading. (Cato Institute). So, increasing the educational budget may not help without a complete educational reform.

In contrast, how is it that some of the brightest minds in the world have failed horribly in school, while those who have attended the finest schools sometimes cannot even form sentences, their own ideas, or even opinions? Former U.S. President and Yale graduate, George W. Bush during a speech in South Carolina said, “Rarely is the questioned asked: Is our children learning?” (George W. Bush, Florence, S.C., Jan. 11). That statement alone hurts the mind, and it came from the mouth of a Yale graduate who excelled in his school work. Meanwhile, geniuses like: Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, Charles Darwin, and Thomas Edison all were ‘failures’ in the eyes’ of their teachers. Albert Einstein’s teachers believed he was mentally handicapped and he was eventually expelled from school, only to form his own theory instead of accepting others. In Thomas Edison’s early years, he was told he “was too stupid to learn anything…”, but clearly he saw the light. In Charles Darwin’s biography, he wrote, "I was considered by all my masters and my father, a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect.", but clearly he evolved. With that said, it is self evident that the system is failing to recognize intelligence or failing to adapt to the needs of different students.

There is, however, one thing American schools are successful in; producing standardized workers, just not thinkers. (Erica Goldson). John Taylor Gatto, a retired school teacher and activist critical of compulsory schooling, stated:

“We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the capacity for surprising insight simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by introducing kids into truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or she needs in order to take a risk every now and then. But we don't do that. Between these cinderblock walls, we are all expected to be the same. We are trained to ace every standardized test, and those who deviate and see light through a different lens are worthless to the scheme of public education, and therefore viewed with contempt.” (Gatto). 

Students who learn to do well in school are those who have mastered test taking skills and ‘the system’. With grades as their motivating factor, they cram in tons of facts the night before a test and spew them out on the test hoping for an ‘A’. These students are the equivalent of ‘yes men’ of the modern blue collar workforce. They do what they are told, exactly as they are told. They are driven by motivational forces such as, getting into a good college, pleasing their teachers, or pleasing their parents. They are not driven by a passion or inspired to learn, as they ought to be. They are just motivated to get good grades and to please their masters. As Valedictorian Erica Goldson put it:

…I am in a world guided by fear, a world suppressing the uniqueness that lies inside each of us, a world where we can either acquiesce to the inhuman nonsense of corporatism and materialism or insist on change. We are not enlivened by an educational system that clandestinely sets us up for jobs that could be automated, for work that need not be done, for enslavement without fervency for meaningful achievement. We have no choice in life when money is our motivational force. Our motivational force ought to be passion, but this is lost from the moment we step into a system that trains us, rather than inspires us.” (Erica Goldson).

In contrast, some may say, “Well if you get good grades, didn’t you learn something?” Perhaps the student did learn, but perhaps what they learned was how to memorize names, places, or other information only to forget it later. (Erica Goldson). How is that education? Albert Einstein once proclaimed that:

"Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school." (Albert Einstein).

Albert Einstein was much like any ‘underachieving student’, uninterested and uninspired by his educators. He was expelled from Zurich Polytechnic School for bad grades. If he was in our modern day schools, his ‘failure to focus’ would probably cause him to be drugged up on ADHD or ADD medications and convert him into an apathetic drone by our system. Perhaps Einstein’s failure to focus in school was due to his boredom with the curriculum or his creative mind wandering. Why would anyone want to suppress such a creative mind with a forced curriculum?

(Image © Pink Floyd – The Wall)
Much like any prison system, our school system, “…is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.” (Erica Goldson). It is forced labor, monotonous work, repetitive, and like a prison you cannot leave school at will (at least not until 16 years old). The problem with our current education system is that it is forced upon students. This system is not about creating well educated individuals; it is about creating a subordinate workforce and masses that all think alike. While Correctional Facilities may be a tangible prison, schools ultimately become a prison of the mind. The objectives of both institutions are to produce obedient workers, soldiers, and civil servants. Historically, this has always been the aim of institutions of forced schooling.

For instance, in 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte’s amateur soldiers slaughtered Prussia’s army of professional soldiers and mercenaries at the Battle of Jena. It was a serious loss for Prussia, and led to Philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte creating an education reform. The “Address to the German Nation” basically stated:

 “…the party was over, and that Prussia would have to shape up to a new Utopian institution of forced schooling in which everyone would learn to take orders.” (The Public School Nightmare). 

So, the country was forced at bayonet point into mandatory schooling run by the government by 1819. The focus of this schooling, as illustrated by Fichte, was to provide:

 "obedient soldiers, obedient workers, subordinated civil servants to government, subordinated industry workers, & citizens who think alike on major issues." (The Public School Nightmare).

Shortly after, Fichte concept of forced schooling produced a highly efficient industrial workforce. Prussia once again rearmed and reunified their military and became a world superpower. Their ideologies and influences were spread worldwide. In 1845, the King of Prussia was invited to North America, where he helped establish a boundary between the United States and Canada. His influence on America played a major role on the United States educational system. Just thirty-five years after forced schooling was introduced in Prussia, America copied the ideologies of Fichte and Horace Mann to create a Prussia-like system of American education. It is important to know that the adaptation of this new Prussian system marked the end of traditional American education, which the purpose was, “to prepare the individual to be self-reliant.” (The Public School Nightmare). 

Whereas, in the Prussian system:

 “…the purpose of the Volkschule (translates: peoples’ school), which educated 92 percent of the children, was not intellectual development at all, but socialization in obedience and subordination. Thinking was left to Real Schulen, in which 8 percent of the kids participated. But for the great mass, intellectual development was regarded with managerial horror, as something that caused armies to lose battles.” (The Public School Nightmare). 

However, Prussia did not create the idea of compulsion schooling. It had been around since the early days of the great Philosopher Plato. In the book, The Republic, Plato spoke of compulsory education stating:

"Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” (Plato). 

Consequently, the American education system is due for another reform. According to John Taylor Gatto, a NY State Senate award winning retired teacher of 29 years and author, our students rank at the bottom of nineteen industrialized nations in reading, writing, and arithmetic.

 “Our teenage suicide rate is the highest in the world, and suicidal kids are rich kids for the most part, not the poor.” (John Taylor Gatto).

It’s like the kids have lost their identity. Children in school are locked into the same routine doing it over and over in endless boredom, then factor in bad grades and a forced curriculum. It’s almost as if kids can’t be kids, school is taking away their individuality by forcing them through a pedagogy system of oppression. Their minds are held captive by a system that forces them to think just like everyone else. Gatto states, “It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and social class. That system effectively cuts you off from the immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety; indeed it cuts you off from your own past and future, sealing you in a continuous present much the same way television does.”

On the contrary, since the 1850’s school has always oppressed students into attendance. In Massachusetts, in the 1850’s it was even resisted with guns. Forced socialized education was protested by an estimated eighty percent of the Massachusetts population. Many parents held out with their children in a Barnstable on Cape Cod, and they did not surrender their children until the 1880s. The area was seized by militia and children were marched to school under the guard of soldiers. (John Taylor Gatto). How is that possible in ‘the land of the free’? Where is the childrens’ right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? They couldn’t possibly be happy being forced into ‘learning’ by the use of militia. As Gatto said, “It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the sound of a gong for every day of your natural youth in an institution that allows you no privacy and even follows you into the sanctuary of your home demanding that you do its "homework." (John Taylor Gatto). Commonsense would dictate that school is just like any authoritarian dictatorship, it is a place of oppression, not education. On the other hand, “The purpose of compulsory education is to deprive the common people of their commonsense.” (G. K. Chesterton).

(Image © Artist: David Dees)
In my opinion, school in America is successful. However, it is only in the successful in the negative way Prussia had designed its compulsory schooling. Other than that, in my experience, school has been a like a dreaded repressive cage on my childhood. As a child, there was nothing I hated more than school. I always did well in grade school, I got straight A’s mostly. Nonetheless, in the 3rd grade my family moved from Des Plaines to Elgin, IL and I had to switch schools. I went from Mark Twain Elementary, which had advanced progressive learning classes that I was enrolled in, to Clinton Elementary. The curriculum at Clinton school was far below that of the progressive learning classes at Mark Twain. My mom recalls me telling her, “I hate it, it’s a baby school. I don’t want to go there.” This resulted in, me becoming completely uninterested in school and ‘acting out’ a lot in class. I developed an immediate disdain for my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Barbarosa, who described me as being inattentive and a possible ADD child. I would describe her as being over-caffeinated, but I digress from my original point. It must be my ‘ADD’. In her class, I got so sick of her picking on me for not paying attention and trying to force me to pay attention, that I stood up during class, grabbed all my books, pens, pencils, etc. and threw them out the 2nd story window. I had enough apparently, and my opinions remain the same today.

Although today, I cannot rebel in the same fashion. Now, I just go through the motions. I do only what I have to. I’m in this system of schooling for a little piece of paper that says I am capable of becoming a worker. Yet, I argue that I am a thinker, not a trained and manufactured ‘worker’. I do not wish to be indoctrinated in order to work for some greed driven corporation or government. Mark Twain once said:

 “I've never let my school interfere with my education.” (Mark Twain).

 Like Plato said:

 “…knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” (Plato).

In conclusion, a rigid curriculum and forced education is detrimental to the creative mind. The current system of compulsory school fails to stimulate children to learn. Historically, it is a system based on oppression and not individual freedom. As John Taylor Gotto suggested, our education system is in dire need of a complete reform.

Posted with the Authors Permission 11/21/2014

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