Saturday, September 01, 2012

What is With People These Days? - The Neutralization of Childhood

Have you ever found yourself wondering, "What is wrong with people these days?"  How about, "Why does this or that adult think/act like that?"

On average I hear asked...

  • Why do people lack curiosity?
  • Why do they lack patience and attention spans?
  • Why do they lack determination and energy?
  • Why do they accept what they are told?
  • Why do they not stand up for themselves?
  • Why do people feel alone and alienated?
  • Why do they not reach out to each other?
  • Why do they feel worthless?
  • Why do they not trust themselves?
  • Why are they afraid of being wrong, of being judged, of being punished?
  • Why do they put up with boring, meaningless lives?
  • Why do the accept disrespect and bullying?
  • Why are they content to consume stories about others lives while throwing away their own?

Were you aware that these questions have been answered already?  Were you aware they were answered 40 years ago?  Are you open to learning how many millions of people are involved in making sure these questions are not answered?

The reason we ask the questions above is that we absolutely know that humans should be the opposite of what we witness. We all know, at a gut emotional level, that something is very, very wrong with the way most of us think and act.  We know, because we have a physical benchmark with which to compare adults: preschool children.

Preschool children exhibit the exact opposite qualities of each and every one of the questions above.  With no coaching or training, they exemplify every positive feature of humanity.

A Fresh Wind of Clarity (Echoing from the Past)

Recently, I was struck by the power of the words of John Holt in his article "School is Bad for Children" originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, February 8th, 1969, and released by The Natural Child Project.  This article was excerpted from a larger book entitled The Underachieving School.

Holt describes what we all understand children to be as they enter school:

"Almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building, is smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he doesn't know, better at finding and figuring things out, and more confident, resourceful, persistent and independent than he will ever be again in his schooling..." "In he comes, this curious, patient, determined, energetic, skillful learner."

Very slowly, over the course of years, many individuals slowly and methodically grind these positive skills out of the child through endless repetition.  Repetition is the key, as it is the most effective way to disconnect someone from their natural environment.  This behavior modification was famously researched by Skinner.  What is taught to children?  Well facts and figures of course, but Holt would argue, and the facts back him up, that the figures are a cover for much more fundamental teachings.  Lets take a look shall we?

Learning is Separate from Living

"You come to school to learn," we tell him, as if the child hadn't been learning before, as if living were out there and learning were in here, and there were no connection between the two."  "In short, he comes to feel that learning is a passive process, something that someone else does to you, instead of something you do for yourself."

You Can Not Be Trusted

"...he cannot be trusted to learn and is no good at it. Everything we teach about reading, a task far simpler than many that the child has already mastered, says to him, "If we don't make you read, you won't, and if you don't do it exactly the way we tell you, you can't"."  "...he learns that he is worthless, untrustworthy, fit only to take other people's orders, a blank sheet for other people to write on."  "Your experience, your concerns, your curiosities, your needs, what you know, what you want, what you wonder about, what you hope for, what you fear, what you like and dislike, what you are good at or not so good at - all this is of not the slightest importance, it counts for nothing."

The Opinion of Authority is All that Matters

"What counts here, and the only thing that counts, is what we know, what we think is important, what we want you to do, think and be."  "The child soon learns not to ask questions - the teacher isn't there to satisfy his curiosity. Having learned to hide his curiosity, he later learns to be ashamed of it."

 Disgusted Already? Jump down to The Truth, and The Way Out 

Being Right Is Paramount, Error is a Crime to be Punished

"He learns that to be wrong, uncertain, confused, is a crime."  "He learns to dodge, bluff, fake, cheat. He learns to be lazy! Before he came to school, he would work for hours on end, on his own, with no thought of reward, at the business of making sense of the world and gaining competence in it."  "He learns that in real life you don't do anything unless you are bribed, bullied or conned into doing it, that nothing is worth doing for its own sake, or that if it is, you can't do it in school."

Being Disconnected from Others is A Virtue

"The child comes to school curious about other people, particularly other children, and the school teaches him to be indifferent. The most interesting thing in the classroom - often the only interesting thing in it - is the other children, but he has to act as if these other children, all about him, only a few feet away, are not really there. He cannot interact with them, talk with them, smile at them."  "In fact, he learns how to live without paying attention to anything going on around him. You might say that school is a long lesson in how to turn yourself off..."

The Truth is Dangerous and Should be Avoided

"And so, in this dull and ugly place, where nobody ever says anything very truthful, where everybody is playing a kind of role, as in a charade where the teachers are no more free to respond honestly to the students than the students are free to respond to the teachers or each other, where the air practically vibrates with suspicion and anxiety, the child learns to live in a daze..."

You Must Accept the Results of Rules at All Costs

"Today the [school attendance] laws help nobody - not the schools, not the teachers, not the children." "To keep kids in school who would rather not be there costs the schools an enormous amount of time and trouble - to say nothing of what it costs to repair the damage that these angry and resentful prisoners do every time they get a chance. Every teacher knows that any kid in class who, for whatever reason, would rather not be there, not only doesn't learn anything himself but makes it a great deal tougher for anyone else."

The Crazy and The Irrational Should Be Accepted

"It is a very recent idea, and a crazy one, that the way to teach our young people about the world they live in is to take them out of it and shut them up in brick boxes."

People Must be Corrected At All Times

"A child learning to talk does not learn by being corrected all the time - if corrected too much, he will stop talking. He compares, a thousand times a day, the difference between language as he uses it and as those around him use it. Bit by bit, he makes the necessary changes to make his language like other peoples."  "But in school we never give a child a chance to detect his mistakes, let alone correct them. We do it all for him. We act as if we thought he would never notice a mistake unless it was pointed out to him, or correct it unless he was made to."

A Person's Mind Can Be Measured

"We don't know now, and we never will know, how to measure what another person knows or understands."  "...let the child learn what every educated person must someday learn, how to measure his own understanding, how to know what he knows or does not know."

What One Needs 20 to 50 Years from Now Can be Predicted

"People remember only what is interesting and useful to them, what helps them make sense of the world, or helps them get along in it. All else they quickly forget, if they ever learn it at all. The idea of a "body of knowledge," to be picked up in school and used for the rest of one' s life, is nonsense in a world as complicated and rapidly changing as ours."

The Truth of Government School (Not Taught in School)

Public education was implemented in the 1800's by religious lobbyists looking to change unruly immigrant children into disciplined, godly citizens.  (They saw the protestant basis of the countries culture as under attack.)  Horace Mann looked to the Prussian educational system sought to take education out of the hands of family and church with five key goals in mind. It was to create:
  1. Obedient workers for the mines.
  2. Obedient soldiers for the army.
  3. Well-subordinated civil servants to government.
  4. Well-subordinated clerks to industry.
  5. Citizens who thought alike about major issues.
The reasoning behind such a system is easy to understand, since independently educated masses could not be always counted on to submit to their government’s objectives. Tyrants like Prussia’s Frederick William I and France’s Napoleon each used this system to build a powerful, controlling state apparatus. [Exerpted from Our Prussian Model of Public Schooling: Controlling the Masses]

The Way Out - Release the Prisoners

John Holt and John Taylor Gatto both have been speaking out on this subject for decades.  In the 1970's a movement to empower children in their education gained traction called Unschooling.  As the turmoil of the decade was suppressed, the movement slid into the background.  It has recently found new traction as the disgusting nature of state schools continues to amplify beyond what can be hidden behind closed doors.  I have found a wealth of inspirational resources on respecting and empowering children at The Natural Child Project.

Inspiration Quotes
"When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself." - Jean Piaget

"Growth and mastery come only to those who vigorously self-direct. Initiating, creating, doing, reflecting, freely associating, enjoying privacy - these are precisely what the structures of schooling are set up to prevent, on one pretext or another." - John Gatto

"Children raised with love and compassion will be free to use their time as adults in meaningful and creative ways, rather than expressing their childhood hurts in ways that harm themselves or others. If adults have no need to deal with the past, they can live fully in the present."
- Jan Hunt

"Listen earnestly to anything your children want to tell you, no matter what. If you don't listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won't tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff."
- Catherine M. Wallace


JamesR said...

Damon, I had encountered Gatt's thinking before, with deep ambivalence in fact as I work for the public education system. With that disclaimer out of the way, I must say I have to agree with much of what you've written and the thinkers you've synthesized. I see the effects of this trend toward force-feeding "information" and the lack of personal meaning creation frequently in my high school classroom. The "unschooling" concept is one I find myself drawn toward, though I wonder how it can work within the confines of our market economy. (In other words, I like to eat sushi every once in a while and afford internet access.) That said, of course, I would be happy to make a trade toward a less unionized, less money- and assessment-centric system, even if it meant a pay cut. I just don't even know where to begin to look.

I also fear the damage that may occur if groups that have been wrung through the current public school system were faced with a sudden change in educational paradigms. In other words, what happens when we try to apply unschooling and homeschooling to patents who are more than happy to have their children log a work day sitting in straight-backed chairs with 24 other students.

Rambling thoughts, I know. Looking forward to discussing this with you further--maybe at the meet up scheduled for the 22nd of September.

Damon Smith said...


I am very interested in discussing these exciting topics with you. I have assumed from your writing that you are intelligent, open-minded, and above all, you love children. I highly respect these traits.

Unschooling as an idea is definitely a huge flip in assumptions from those most commonly held by individuals. There are definitely lots of questions and tons of implications that we each may want to explore.

You mention of the word "system" also piqued my interest. I am very interested in systems based knowledge. I see in my life that every thing around me interacts in very complex systems which push and pull at every other thing. These systems themselves are often in a process of change as well. Almost every form of education I was given in public school was "state" based, in that it assumed fixed inputs to a fixed answer. I am intrigued by the lack of systems based education in individual's proposals for learning.

Your mention of possible damage resulting from quick and unilateral changes to established systems also is intriguing. I do agree that forcing anything will always result in unintended and inevitable negative results.

Lastly, I am very intrigued by individuals' use of language for the manipulation of self and others. If you have not had a chance to read my argument on the Power of Words, take a look. Your last sentence asked about "applying" unschooling to people. Since unschooling by definition is self applied, your choice of language here would be an exciting thread to pursue.

You end by self acknowledging your rambling thoughts. I would like offer that I am very proud of my chain of thoughts, and respect the ones you have presented here. What most often call rambling, is often the intelligent mind making connections and references that are not always immediately apparent. The challenge for each of us is to tease out these connections, and present them in intriguing ways so that we inspire others to make their own obscure connections. This is the soul of creativity.

I am interested in the two of us talking sooner than the 22nd if you are interested.