Why School Made Me Angry

Our intuition can be a powerful guide to understanding. This is very true, when it comes to my understanding of education.

As a young kid, I loved school.

As a teenager, I hated school. I felt trapped and claustrophobic simply being in the building. I took the 'work release' option, so I could leave school at 11am every morning. And I skipped class as much as I could!

I hated everything about school. At graduation time, I didn't have enough credits to graduate -- and so I dropped out for a year. I finished my high school education up at an alternative high school, which didn't make me feel like a tiny cog in a monstrous machine. I could also take classes at the community college -- which was a huge improvement.

College, by contrast, was amazing! They treated me like an adult, they expected me to attend to my own schedule and manage my own learning.

So, what is it that made school such a terrible experience for me? What were my intuition and emotions telling me, that my logical mind couldn't explain? Why did school make me so fucking angry?

I eventually came to understand this anger, through an extensive study of alternative education theory.

I didn't study education in college. In college, I studied history and political science. In graduate school, I studied public administration (how government works). I was never formally educated in educational theory. However, when the alternative high school I was teaching at chose to pursue an educational grant to 'transform' the school's curriculum, I had a crash course in education! :)

I studied under one of the foremost experts in educational theory, Wayne Jennings and learned about the Community Learning Center</a> model that he had created.

I also read voraciously. I kept going down the rabbit hole on educational theory, including Alfie Kohn, Deborach Meier, Larry Cuban, Robert Barr, John Dewey, Peter Senge, Ted Sizer, John Holt, Charles Sykes, William Glasser, Ivan Illich, and John Taylor Gatto.

After this crash course in alternative educational theory, I understood why I had hated school so much. It was designed to suck the life out of children and turn them into compliant factory workers.

John Taylor Gatto inspired me, his explanation of how schools came to be the mess they are made a lot of sense:

"Back at the beginning of the nineteenth century, wise men and women, honorable individuals themselves, came with sadness to realize that for all the foreseeable future, more and more ordinary people would need to give their entire lives to a dark hole in the ground or in service to a mind-destroying machine if a coal-fired dream world was to happen. People who grew up in the clean air and the folk society of villages did not make good workers for the screaming factories or the tunnels underground, or the anthill offices.

What was needed was some kind of halfway house that would train individuals for the halfway lives ordinary people would be more and more called upon to lead ..."

-- Source, John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education.

More fundamentally, John Taylor Gatto's spectacular book The Underground History of American Education helped to reshape my political views. I came to recognize that most large systems and bureaucracies cannot be perfected, and that they can often get in the way of genuine human motivations and desires:

"By allowing the existence of large bureaucratic systems under centralized control, whether corporate, governmental, or institutional, we unwittingly enter into a hideous conspiracy against ourselves, one in which we resolutely work to limit the growth of our minds and spirits. The only conceivable answer is to break the power of these things, through grit, courage, indomitability and resolution if possible, through acts of personal sabotage and disloyalty if not."

-- Source, John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education.

Yes, I'm inspired by shit like this. Woo!!! Personal sabotage and disloyalty for the win! :)

While John Taylor Gatto inspired me, reading John Holt pissed me off.

“When children are very young, they have natural curiosities about the world and explore them, trying diligently to figure out what is real. As they become "producers" they fall away from exploration and start fishing for the right answers with little thought. They believe they must always be right, so they quickly forget mistakes and how these mistakes were made. They believe that the only good response from the teacher is "yes," and that a "no" is defeat.


“I doubt very much if it is possible to teach anyone to understand anything, that is to say, to see how various parts of it relate to all the other parts, to have a model of the structure in one's mind. We can give other people names, and lists, but we cannot give them our mental structures; they must build their own.”

-- Source, John Holt, How Children Fail.

We've known since the 1950s that our educational system is fundamentally at odds with human curiosity, and that it interferes with our innate <i>and more powerful</i> human abilities to learn and discover. I'll repeat -- we've known this since <i>at least the 1950s</i>. And yet, we keep educating children the same fucking way.

I was angry in high school. I didn't understand why.

Now that I know why school made me angry, I'm still angry! But it's for a different reason.

I'm angry that we send children to be educated in schools that were designed to turn them into compliant factory workers. I'm angry that we send kids to schools that were designed to strip them from their innate curiosity, sense of wonder and drive for discovery. I'm angry that we raise children with TVs instead of books, that we're all so fucking busy that we consider day care and 3rd party child-rearing to be an 'acceptable' alternative to genuine community and family. I'm angry that we consider 'helicoptering' kids from one safe event to another is the responsible way to raise kids, and that limiting the scope of their activities is 'for their own good'. I'm angry that so many of us wonder why children turn out lazy, and uninspired, and want to play video games all day long instead of go outside and play.

Education makes me angry. But at least I can articulate the source of my anger now. My intuitive and emotional understanding of school preceded my logical understanding. This happens quite often, for me! :)

The power of human understanding lies in the confluence of logic and intuition; we're stronger when we harness the power of both sides of the human mind.


John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education

John Holt, How Children Fail


Originally written on 2013-12-24