How schools came to serve the state

Arguing for changes to the structure of ‘schooling’ we employ in countries like New Zealand and the USA, Peter Gray provides a history of what we know as schools, beginning with an explanation of child-rearing in hunter-gatherer societies, then explaining the social and cultural effects of shifting to agriculture and the consequent rise in feudalism and religious power. I recommend the book for a clearer story, but here are a few quotes that sum it up or that tickled my fancy:

“Agriculture offered many improvements to people’s lives. It provided a steadier food supply and thereby reduced, at least initially, the threat of starvation. It eliminated the need to keep moving in search of food and allowed people to settle down and build sturdy houses to protect themselves from predators and storms. But agriculture also came with a big price tag, which could not have been foreseen by those who took the first, irreversible steps away from hunting and gathering. It altered the conditions of human life in ways that led to the decline of freedom, equality, sharing, and play.” (p.44)

The hunter-gatherer way of life was knowledge-intensive and skill-intensive, but not labor-intensive. To be effective hunters and gatherers, people had to acquire deep knowledge of the plants and animals on which they depended and the landscapes within which they foraged. They had to develop great skill in crafting and using the tools of hunting and gathering. They had to be creative in finding food, tracking game, and defending against predators. But they did not have to work long hours. In fact, long hours, of hunting and gathering would have been counterproductive, as they would have led to the harvesting of nature’s food supply faster than nature could regenerate it. Moreover, the work of hunting and gathering was exciting and joyful, partly because it was so knowledge-intensive and skill-intensive. Anthropologists report that hunter-gatherers did not distinguish work from play as we do. They grew up playing at hunting and gathering and moved on gradually to the real thing, still in the spirit of play. They had no concept of work as toil.
Anthropologist Marshall Sahlins famously referred to hunter-gatherer societies, collectively, as “the original affluent society.” They were affluent not because they had so much, but because their needs were so few.” (p.44)

“As agriculture spread across the useable land in Europe and Asia, landownership became tantamount to power and wealth. People without land became dependent on those who owned it. Landowners discovered that they could increase their wealth by getting other people to work for them. Systems of slavery, indentured servitude, and paid labor emerged as means to supply landowners with workers. Wars were fought to gain and control land and workers. This was the context in which children grew up.” (p.51)

Gray presents a slightly simplistic view of the Catholic Church and its relationship with education, but the idea is still here when he writes: “Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, the Roman Catholic Church held a monopoly on knowledge. The Church took on the task of preserving and interpreting not just the Bible but also the classical works of Greek and Roman scholars, and it prohibited new scientific or philosophical developments. …Knowledge is power, and the Church suppressed new knowledge and dispensed even its own doctrines judiciously. To guard knowledge, the Church kept its dissemination in Latin. Anyone who had the means, desire, and official permission to enter one of the learned professions – that is, to become a theologian, lawyer, or physician – had to learn Latin and study in a Church-run university. The Church developed universities not for the purposes of free inquiry, but for the purposes of formulating and controlling doctrine.” (p.54)

“By the beginning of the nineteenth century, churches throughout Europe had been forced out of political power, and states began to take over the task of educating the young.” (p.60)

“Schooling came to be seen as a state function that was essential for national security, not unlike the army. The state’s power to forcibly conscript children into schools was understood as comparable to the state’s power to conscript young men into the army.” (p.61)

Once compulsory systems of state-run schools were established, they became increasingly standardized, both in content and in method. For the sake of efficiency, children were divided into separate classrooms by age and passed along, from grade to grade, like products on an assembly line. The task of each teacher was to add bits of officially approved knowledge to the product, in accordance with a preplanned schedule, and then to test that product before passing it on to the next station.
Female teachers generally replaced men in the classroom, largely because they could be hired more cheaply…. At first, however, the female teachers were called assistants. They were assistants to the ‘principal teacher,’ who was almost always a male. … the principal is still charged with making sure that teachers follow the prescribed curriculum and that students obey the teacher. The school became, in some ways, a polygamous version of the hierarchical early twentieth-century family, with the man in a position of authority, the women working directly with the children, and the children at the bottom. The task of the student, then as now, was to be punctual and obedient, to pay attention, to complete assignments on schedule, and to memorize and feed back to the teacher the lessons taught, without questioning either their content or the prescribed methods for learning them.” (p.64)

Today most people think of childhood and schooling as indelibly entwined. We identify children by their grade in school. We automatically think of learning as work, which children must be forced to do in special workplaces, schools, modeled after factories. All this seems completely normal to us, because we see it everywhere. We rarely stop to think about how new and unnatural all this is in the larger context of human evolution and how it emerged from a bleak period in our history that was marked by child labor and beliefs in children’s innate sinfulness. We have forgotten that children are designed by nature to learn through self-directed play and exploration, and so, more and more, we deprive them of freedom to learn, subjecting them instead to the tedious and painfully slow learning methods devised by those who run the schools.” (p.65)

An implicit and sometimes explicit message of our forced schooling system is this: “If you do what you are told to do in school, everything will work out well for you.” Children who buy into that message stop taking responsibility for their own education. They assume, falsely, that someone else has figured out what they need to do and know to become successful adults. If their life doesn’t work out well, they take the role of a victim: “My school (or parents or society) failed me, and that’s why my life is screwed up.” This attitude of victimization, set up in childhood, may then persist for a lifetime. As schooling has become an ever more dominant force in young people’s lives, the sense of individual helplessness has increased in our society…. Mark Twain was fond of saying, “I’ve never let school interfere with my education.” Unfortunately, today, because of the great expansion of forced schooling since Twain’s time, it’s becoming harder and harder for anyone to live by that maxim.” (p.70)

By forcing all schoolchildren through the same standard curriculum, we reduce their opportunities to follow alternative pathways. The school curriculum represents a tiny subset of the skills and knowledge that are important to our society. In this day and age, nobody can learn more than a sliver of all there is to know. Why force everyone to learn the same sliver?” (p.81)

“[Daniel Greenberg argued that a] major purpose of schooling in a democracy …should be to help people prepare for the opportunities and responsibilities of democratic citizenship; and you don’t do that effectively by depriving students of those opportunities and responsibilities as they are growing up.” (p.87)

According to Gray, Sudbury Valley School “works because it is the functional equivalent, for our time and place, of a hunter-gatherer band.” (p.100)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Peter Gray (c2013) Free to Learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. Basic Books: New York

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About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in History of Childhood, social and political contexts, Understanding Education and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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