If you’ve ever read anything by John Taylor Gatto, or Mr. Llewellyn Davis’ book “Why are So Many Christians Going Home To School?” you’ll note that they focus on _other_ underlying assumptions that we generally pick up in public school. These assumptions come through via the way school functions rather than in particular teaching.
I’m talking about things like how to study, how to learn, what we come out of school believing about ourselves, about who our friends are, about how the world works, about our expectations for what is normal, about peer relations, about free time, about the purpose of education, about knowledge, values, ideas, family, state, kirk, and home, about utilitarianism, politics, and more. People can and do go to public school and continue to be decent, upright folk. But there are assumptions imbibed in the very air, things more caught than taught, that I do not share and do not wish my children to pick up without questioning. What we assume to be so doesn’t necessarily reflect our own experiences. We just incorporate common wisdom and common assumptions into our own way of thinking without really questioning conventional wisdom. We need to ask those questions. Are institutions better places for children to be socialized than families? I am going out on a limb here and saying no. I am not the only one:
Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents.
Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage. Before the banning of child labor, they worked in factories and textile mills and mines. All were different roads to adulthood; many were undesirable, if not outright Dickensian. But these disparate paths did arguably have one virtue in common: They placed adolescent children alongside adults. They were not sequestered as they matured. Now teens live in a biosphere of their own. In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescence, psychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.
Something happens when children spend so much time apart from adult company. They start to generate a culture with independent values and priorities. James Coleman, a renowned mid-century sociologist, was among the first to analyze that culture in his seminal 1961 work, The Adolescent Society, and he wasn’t very impressed. “Our society has within its midst a set of small teen-age societies,” he wrote, “which focus teen-age interests and attitudes on things far removed from adult responsibilities.”
Educator John Holt wrote in Escape From Childhood that:
“Schools seem to me among the most anti-democratic, most authoritarian, most destructive, and most dangerous institutions in modern society. No other institution does more harm or more lasting harm to more people or destroys so much of their curiosity, trust, dignity, and sense of identity and worth.”
He also wrote of those who object to unschooling:
Their reasons boil down to these: (1) Children are no good; they won’t learn unless we make them. (2) The world is no good; children must be broken to it. (3) I had to put up with it; why shouldn’t they? To people who think this way, I don’t know what to say. Telling them about the real learning of real children only makes them cling to their theories about the badness and stupidity of children more stubbornly and angrily than ever. Why do they do this? Because it gives them a license to act like tyrants and to feel like saints.
Are your friends all the same birth year as you? Would your child benefit from friendships with children and adults in other age groups?
Do your friends all live within the same geographic region (i.e. school
district) as you? Would your child benefit from friendships with people
outside your local school district?
Are your friendships based on age and location or on shared goals, interests,
If you are confronted in real life by a bully who pulls your hair, shoves you, calls you names, makes fun of your clothes or your glasses or even lifts your skirt to see your underwear, what could you do about it? When this happens in public school what do we usually tell kids to do about it? How do these situations differ? Why?
If your circle of friends does not reflect the same sort of demographics as your public school did (same age, same district, and an accidental assignment to the same class) then was public school socialization really quite the preparation for real life that we assume?
In fact, one of the reasons that high schools may produce such peculiar value systems is precisely because the people there have little in common, except their ages. “These are people in a large box without any clear, predetermined way of sorting out status,” says Robert Faris, a sociologist at UC Davis who’s spent a lot of time studying high-school aggression. “There’s no natural connection between them.” Such a situation, in his view, is likely to reward aggression. Absent established hierarchies and power structures (apart from the privileges that naturally accrue from being an upperclassman), kids create them on their own, and what determines those hierarchies is often the crudest common-denominator stuff
Our age segregated, peer based model of socialization has influenced us so deeply- far more deeply than scripture has- that even once we are free from the constricting limitations of the artificial environment of government schools, we no longer know how to think differently, we no longer have the ability, or even the desire, to expand our horizons beyond the limits of age segregated peer groups, and I think it’s a tragedy, I really do. it grieves me how little what we consider normal or natural actually stems from the model of government institutions for children based on age mates.
Maybe, perversely, we should be grateful that high school prepares us for this life. The isolation, the shame, the aggression from those years—all of it readies us to cope. But one also has to wonder whether high school is to blame; whether the worst of adult America looks like high school because it’s populated by people who went to high school in America. We’re recapitulating the ugly folkways of this institution, and reacting with the same reflexes, because that’s where we were trapped, and shaped, and misshaped, during some of our most vulnerable years.
High school itself does something to us, is the point. We bear its stripes.
What families have in common the world around is that they are the place where people learn who they are and how to be that way. –Jean Illsley Clarke
This used to be true, but I don’t think it is anymore.