Unlearning school // L’Observateur


When I returned home for the fall vacation, I found campaign materials on my counter for the election of my local school board. I decided to do some research on the nominees and found that the main dividing line between incumbents and challengers was masks and “critical race theory”. The incumbents supported the requirement for masks in schools and supported a recently adopted policy focused on eliminating systemic disparities between racial groups. The challengers supported an optional mask policy and argued that the incumbents were too race obsessed and were implementing a critical race theory in the district. Part of the challengers’ argument was that schools should be non-partisan and focus only on preparing students to become productive members of society. I suspect the incumbents would agree with this view, although they disagree on who is and who is not politicizing schools. And yet, I think there is a fundamental assumption – a false one – that is made from this point of view. Specifically, the assumption is that if schools focus only on preparing students for the “real world” then they would be somewhat apolitical.

In reality, education is an inherently political activity. Sure, masks and critical race theory (or the lack of them) are clearly political in the sense that Republicans and Democrats tend to disagree about them, but once you take these issues off the table education remains political. The aim of education, in the broad sense, is to prepare young people for their lives as members of society. Each society therefore has to decide what it means to be a member of that society and how to convey that identity. What young people think of who they are will affect how they think society should function as adults. In addition to the ideology adopted by young people, education will also determine the types of characteristics and habits that students will have. Education affects the political future of a society, so it is inevitably political.

The political task that our school system performs in America today is to maintain the status quo by generating obedient citizens. You only have to look at a school today to see this idea in action. The pupils have a rigid timetable, where they are led from one class to another by a bell, as if they were in a factory. In each of these classes, they learn a defined and standardized curriculum from a teacher standing at the front of the classroom, while they passively receive instruction. The teacher is the ultimate authority – not just over the subject being taught, but in how the whole class is run. The teacher can grant or deny permission for students to use the bathroom and remove students who fail to passively sit in class. The behavioral police are constant and the pupils must remain sufficiently docile for the entirety of their stay of at least seven hours at school. School is in many ways like a prison – students are required to be there and must do as they are told.

When they finally leave school at the end of the day, students have to complete more homework or study for a number of exams. The constant use of graded assessments slowly shifts the motivation from learning towards getting good grades. At any time, non-compliance results in a sanction or a penalty, whether it is detention or a bad grade. And the system is hard to escape: not only is academic success necessary to access well-paying jobs, but education is compulsory until students are nearly adults. Over time, students are slowly brought to be obedient. As psychologist Bruce Levine writes, schools teach students “to be passive; be led by others; take seriously the rewards and punishments of authority; pretend to care about things they don’t care about; and that one is powerless to change one’s unsatisfactory situation.

The worst part is that this result is not a defect of our education system, but a main characteristic. The American public school system was originally modeled on the Prussian school system, which instituted compulsory education in order to create an efficient, educated and obedient army. The Prussian system, like the American system, also increased literacy among the poor classes in society and provided them with technical skills – the system is not entirely bad. Yet we can still view this point as favorable to the status quo. We are currently living in an increasingly technological society. Thus, education must be sufficient so that citizens can perform essential economic functions, without being sufficiently educated to start asking too many questions. Of course, education allows a certain economic mobility, but this should not be confused with any liberation. A Starbucks barista and a computer scientist are both cogs in the machine, even if one has a more comfortable life. Either way, the fact remains that the goal of creating citizens and workers who support the current power structure is deeply rooted in the school system.

In light of this function of the school, the debates over masks and the politics of race and education are somewhat less significant. These are still important issues that need to be addressed, but they also distract from the more insidious – and highly political – function of our school system. A function which, as far as I know, is at odds with what we would otherwise profess about equality and democracy. It makes no sense to think that an education worthy of a citizen of a democracy should consist of learning to respect authority. Of course, authority can never be totally absent from education, as teachers will know more than their students, but this fact is not enough to justify the authoritarian nature of school today. Ironically, our inability as a society to question this system on a more than superficial level is one effect of this system, leaving me pessimistic about the possibility of recognizing the real issues. Either way, I think it’s time to unlearn school and start rethinking what our education system should look like.

David Henry is a second year student specializing in the Liberal Studies program with an additional major in ACMS and a minor in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Originally from Minnesota, David lives in Baumer Hall on campus. He can be contacted at [email protected] by email.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Tags: American schools, critical race theory, education, masks, public education, school board elections


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