We hear, more or less constantly, that schools are failing in their mandate. Nothing could be more wrong. Schools are succeeding all too well, accomplishing precisely their purpose. And what is their primary purpose? To answer this, ask yourself first what society values most. We don’t talk about it much, but the truth is that our society values money above all else. We live in a culture that is based on the illusion that happiness is outside of us—and schooling is central to the creation and perpetuation of that illusion.
Pretend you wish to procure for your nation’s commercial interests a steady supply of workers, and a population pacified enough to not resist the expropriation of its resources. The crudest and probably most common means of facilitating such production is to capture the workers and haul them to your factories and fields in chains. Or dispossess them at gunpoint, then give them the choice of starvation or wage slavery. Alternately, you can force them to pay taxes or purchase your products, thereby guaranteeing they’ll enter the cash economy, meaning, ultimately, that they’ve got to work in your factories or fields to gain cash.
Throughout our lives, it is expected that we will be good citizens, good boys and girls all. We won’t question country, God, capitalism, science, economics, history, the rule of the law, but in all those areas we will defer to experts, just as we were taught. And the experts themselves? It is expected that they will always know what or whom to question, and what questions to leave unexamined. And none of us, if all goes well, will ever question how these areas—religion, capitalism, science, history, law—trick out in our own lives.
Here are some questions I’ve been asking lately: What are the effects of schooling on creativity? How well does schooling foster the uniqueness of each child? Does schooling make children happier? What does each child receive in exchange for the so many hours for years on end that she or he gives to the school system?
As midwives attending to the births of their students, teachers carry an awesome responsibility, with correspondingly awesome possibilities. Education, if it is to be worthy of its true meaning, can, should, and must be at the forefront of resistance to the routine dehumanization of our whole industrialized mass culture. This is possible. But it is rare. Too many teachers, like too many students, too many workers at too many war manufacturing plants, too many writers, too many politicians, too many people who could be human beings but who have been trained by their schooling and by their work and by their pursuit of money and their pursuit of acceptance and by their very real fear of being who they are, step away from this responsibility. In so doing they lead themselves and those around them ever further from their hearts, and lead us all ever closer to the personal and planetary annihilation that is the looming end point of industrial civilization.
If one of the most unforgivable sins is to lead people away from themselves, we must not forgive the processes of industrialized education. There is, however, an alternative. Or rather, there are as many alternatives as there are people.
I’ve heard it said that within our deathly culture, the most revolutionary thing anyone can do is follow one’s heart. I would add that once you’ve begun to do that, the most moral and revolutionary thing you can do is help others find their hearts. Time is short. It’s short for our planet, and it is even shorter for all of those students whose lives are slipping away from them with every awful tick of the clock on the classroom wall. There is much work to be done. What are we waiting for?
Originally published in the March/April 2004 issue of OrionFiled in Essays