What Are We Doing to Children With Schooling?

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The following originally appeared at the Students For Liberty blog. I'll be joining them at their Philadelphia, Ohio, and Florida Gulf Coast Regional Conferences this fall. 

Imagine an institution that controls a vast majority of the productive activities of a large subset of mostly defenseless people for most of their yet-known lives. Their activities are designed, executed, and regulated largely by unelected authorities totally unaccountable to market mechanisms. These authorities are accountable only to another tier of unelected authorities, who themselves are accountable to a board of elected authorities themselves actually accountable for funding to another set of unelected bureaucrats, who are then accountable to a national department of bureaucrats who interpret and execute convoluted law passed by politicians subject to regulatory capture.

While these defenseless people go about their daily routines, the funding and support of the institution is reliant upon them meeting standards set by the national or local bureaucrats in accordance with a law passed by politicians. Pressure is put on them to perform. They spend their days toiling to meet the production standards of the bureaucrats, although they’d rather be doing other things. If they request access to other activities they are at best told “if you work hard enough here first.” At worst, they are ignored. Failure to meet production standards is treated with remedial work and practice. Sometimes the authorities demand even more of the person’s free-time, cutting into the little amount of time they would otherwise spend with their families or on hobbies or pursuing education.

Attendance at this institution is compulsory. The state hires agents to track down those who reject its demands and hires transportation contractors to collect and deliver these individuals on a factory-like schedule. The times of production to meet state-set quotas are regulated by bells as if in a 19th century sweatshop. Food is served by state employees. Any food brought from home must meet strict standards set by another set of unaccountable bureaucrats.

Compliance is above everything. Workers are under constant surveillance. Authorities are found in every room and watch even those workers who have spent more than a decade working in the institution. Security cameras line every hallway. Doors are locked during production hours and monitored closely. It’s said that this is for the protection of the workers, but it works just as well at keeping them from leaving as keeping outsiders away. Those who do not meet production quotas or do not comply with guidebook regulations are regularly shamed, have their little free time confiscated, or are denied some of the few luxuries available to workers (i.e., cultural activities like arts, music, and sports).

Compliance is not only enforced by the coercion of law but also by psychological pressure. Workers are taught to identify their productivity by the institution’s standards with their own self-worth. Those who regularly fail to meet quotas – whether due to failure to perform or interest in other activities outside the institution – are deemed “failures,” and are set aside as examples for the other workers to avoid. They soon start to identify with this label and stop even trying to produce.

After more than a decade, workers are allowed to allot their time to other activities outside the institution (although they may be forced to pass certain criteria first). They’re then given several options to which they can direct their time. That which most closely mirrors their last dozen years is given the most weight, while that which least mirrors it is looked down upon. Others who have been through this institution place a heavy emphasis on the importance of continuing this work, even if it has no relation to what the individual wants to achieve.

The above may sound like a dystopian system of forced labor or indoctrination. It may sound like something out of a science fiction novel like Brave New World or Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it finds its roots much closer to home. The above is a description of an American public school. While such a description may strike the reader as hyperbole, it is simply a look at schools as systems of producing test scores and meeting state-governed test score quotas in lieu of “production quotas.”

The persons most at the mercy of these standards are nearly defenseless individuals – children and adolescents – treated as if they have little agency of their own and no desires upon which they can intelligently act. They are collectivized and treated as test score numbers. They are bussed like prisoners and tracked down like bounties when they aren’t accounted for. The above description does not attempt to analyze systems of indoctrination inherent in state-mandated schooling. It simply looks at the psychological and coercive effects of schooling on its subjects.

If libertarians seriously care about the role of individual rights for all persons – legal adults and not-yet-legal-adults – and if they look to lay the foundations for a society of productive individuals responsible for their own lives, then the existence of state-mandated compulsory schooling should strike them as not only an injustice but a moral horror.

The first step towards creating a free society is the rejection of the belief that education and schooling are the same thing. This belief that schooling and education are one in the same is at the core of the libertarian blind spot on schooling. Even Milton Friedman supported public schooling via vouchers because education is thought to be something that can only be acquired in schools.

Education is important for a productive life and some education may take place in a school setting. Not all schooling results in education and not all education takes place in school.Education is an active experience – schooling is a passive setting. Some of the most powerful and useful learning is hampered by years of schooling.

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I'm Zak. School should have taught you how to succeed at work and build a great career. Instead, it taught you that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Thankfully, I teach what school never taught.

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