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The Village Idiot

What is wrong with our schooling system

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

(Nov, 2010) There were eight of them standing or sitting on the shooting platform at the archery range, boys ranging from 8 years old to about 14. Ben Kelkye, Youth Program director, had just finished chewing the lot of them out for their behavior while on the firing line with bows and arrows in hand. (Ben likes, demands, a quiet, serious firing line and these boys had been anything but.) After Ben left the range I suggested we all take a break to let the directorís words sink in a bit.

"Coach Jack," one of the younger boys politely started. "Why did Mr. Kelkye yell at us? Why is he so angry with us?"

How to tell them without offending anyone? I am not politically correct or particularly diplomatic. With such earnest faces staring at me, I decide to tell the truth, as much of it as I figure these boys can handle. "Mr. Kelkye isnít mad at you, heís mad at me." By the time Iím finished talking the boys are bug-eyed, mouths agape. They had just received a quick history lesson that turned into an even quicker geography lesson, and then became a philosophy lesson.

They were surprised by the things I told them. I was stunned by the things they simply did not know! These bright boys, so eager to learn, were so god-awful ignorant! I could hardly believe we live in the same county. Not for the first time, I pondered what is wrong with our schooling system.

Since September of 1959, Iíve been compiling a list of wrongs. The biggest of them being money. There is simply too much money spent on too little education. All around this rock children learn to read and write, study history and manipulate numbers without the aid of computers, multimillion-dollar school buildings, or teachers with masterís degrees and administrators earning in excess of $100,000 a year. Not that $100K isnít just compensation! It is for the system these people operate. The system is designed to spend ever-larger amounts of money and it does that very well.

The most expensive school building I ever slept in was Catoctin High during the first four years it was open. Thinking back on those mind-numbing days I can barely stifle a yawn. The rooms were painted in calming color schemes that induced a coma like drowsiness, greatly aided by the constant hum of the lighting and air-conditioning systems. Coupled with a droning teacherís voice the rooms became torture chambers of boredom. Even the classes I had an interest in, few indeed, were hardly conducive to learning. The very rare classrooms with windows seldom offered views of the real world so life was denied those who were not academically minded. (Oh gods, was I not of such a mind!) At least in the older school buildings I could gaze out a window and imagine I was free of the hell my parents insisted I endure.

Second on my list of wrongs is what schooling really is. I always thought it was about educating me. Wrong! One of the handful of teachers who ever made an impression on me, told me (decades after Iíd escaped the classrooms) that school was NOT about educating, it was about controlling! What a freaking enlightenment that was! At once, twelve years of insanity fell into place and became understandable. I hadnít failed at education! I failed at being controlled! Damn, maybe Iím not as stupid as Iíve believed these last fifty years?

The third thing Iíve found wrong with schooling is who actually fails at it. All my life Iíve been told that students fail. But they donít. Teachers fail. Systems fail. Parents fail. Children start out mostly bright and eager to learn and often the most eager among them are subject to the most control as teachers desperately attempt to force everyone into the same pattern. A pattern that suits the system, often creating people who struggle with bitterness over how they were treated for the rest of their lives.

Fourth among the wrongs is the reason for schools. (Oddly, as I write this I hesitate. It has been several years since I read anything by John Taylor Gatto, a former "teacher of the year" in New York, who finally came to his senses and blew the whistle on what is happening in this nationís school system.) I Google "John Gatto" and find he has a website about schooling. Surprise, surprise, my fourth "wrong with" schooling is his fourth "purpose for" schooling. (My pagan friends have convinced me there are no coincidences in life. All is connected; ideas and facts come together as one needs them. So it seems Gattoís website shows up as I struggle to explain the fourth wrong.)

According to Gatto, the education systems originally founded in this country had "three specific purposes:

  • To make good people
  • To make good citizens

And to make each student find some particular talents to develop to the maximum."

These were the goals of such educators as Cotton Mather, Horace Mann and John Dewey whose education systems were built on the foundations of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and thousands of other thinking teachers from before the birth of Christ up to the 19th century.

The 19th century? Why did things change then? According to Gatto, a new way of thinking took over the education system in this country. The Mathers, Horaces and Deweys were slowly replaced by the likes of Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan and Frederick W. Taylor who pushed for schooling in America to become like schooling in Germany, a servant of corporate and political management. A factory system of control.

The new system didnít require students to think, only to learn enough to fill the ever-expanding factory models that were sweeping the first world nations. That the new schooling also turned out boys suited to further manipulation was a boon to the military which in those days did indeed need ranks of canon fodder because that was the way wars were fought. The elected elite didnít take long to see how they could control huge blocks of voters who were being "dumbed down" by the very systems the elect were mandating for every child in the country.

So, the purpose of education went from creating good people, good citizens and discovering what each studentís talents were so they could be enhanced Ö to what? To creating unthinking cogs and sheep?

What hasnít changed are the students. In spite of their families, in spite of their teachers, in spite of the school system and the elect who fund it, I still find kids who want to learn, who actually laugh at their teachers and manage to educate themselves. Many of these bright kids are being home schooled, though Iím meeting more and more of them using the government system for their own purposes. Quiet, earnest kids who smile at the befuddlement of the systemís teachers, but listen attentively to those who actually want them to become men and women, rather than sheepish cogs.

These are the heirs of the children who sat under Athenian porticos, or stood on street corners as Socrates exposed them to their ability to reason. How odd he was able to reach the youths under those circumstances, yet our modern system requires millions, upon millions of dollars to ensure we donít accidentally create another Socrates.

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