I think it is now widely acknowledged that the U.S. school system was originally intended to produce lots of good factory workers – individuals who have basic literacy and are practiced at following orders and obedience to authority figures. And that college was generally intended for a minority of the especially intelligent or wealthy. I have been asking myself over the past year, what is the goal of our country’s school system now? I have found many answers to this question, in books, documentaries, articles, and in conversations with people of differing perspectives. I am no authority on the subject, but it is with a feeling of passionate interest that I share with you my opinion, my answer to this question, in the following paragraphs.
I believe that the goal of the current U.S. school system is to funnel the majority of individuals into the status quo, into the corporate-run economy. My choice of the word “funnel” is very intentional here, because I see the whole process as one of narrowing the individual’s life by limiting their perception, their experience, and their opportunities. I realize that this statement is the opposite of popular educational rhetoric, but consider these characteristics of the present system:
- the individual is measured by how well he or she meets the expectations of others (teachers, tests, the state, parents)
- the system naturally produces winners and losers, and competition is used as motivation
- book knowledge is valued over self knowledge
- book knowledge is valued over direct experience, especially when it comes to nature
- individuals, especially in high school, are expected to devote the majority of their waking hours to meeting the requirements of the system/curriculum.
In general, these characteristics seem like a pretty effective way to produce a large supply of good workers who generally:
- measure their self-worth by how well they meet the expectations of others
- are fearful of losing their jobs to smarter or more resourceful individuals
- do not think very much about their personal interests
- are disconnected from nature and by default contribute to the lack of conscience displayed by their employers or by the makers of the products they consume
- are willing to devote the majority of their waking hours to the continuing profitability of their employer and to the continued ability to consume according to the status quo
I think the system limits perception and experience by telling students what to think about and what to do – it keeps large numbers of young people focused on what the system deems appropriate to focus on. I admit that students in the mainstream school system may learn a great deal about a wide range of topics, and that can look expansive, but if the student has no personal interest in a topic, whatever is learned is easily and usually forgotten. For example, I got good grades, As and Bs, in the required high school and college history classes, but I was not at all interested and I have forgotten 99.9 percent of what I memorized perfectly for the tests. I think most of us have had a similar experience, and probably not with just one topic.
Training individuals to think about the same things, and do the same things, and learn from the same kinds of sources, and be measured by the same measurements, is handy for maintaining any status quo. The school system, as a whole, is a structure that does just this. Even if the set of “same things” is very large, it is still only a subset of what is possible. The larger the set, the more time is spent learning things that will be forgotten.
The whole notion that students need to be kept very busy learning things is crazy, unless you want those individuals to learn certain things, unless you want them to be kept on the track, unless you want them to maintain the status quo. Then you’ve got to keep them busy so they won’t stray, so they won’t think for themselves too deeply.
I realize that so much of our culture points towards the status quo, towards the funnel, which empties into the American Dream: work hard, gets lots of stuff, and you’ll be happy and successful. I don’t believe that the American Dream leads to “happy and successful” for many people, and it certainly isn’t leading to sustainability of our natural resources. I chose Sudbury because I don’t want to subject my children to programming that works like a magnet to the funnel. I want my children to have the best possible chance of choosing their own path, whatever it may be.
What about college? College is no longer for the very intelligent or wealthy, it is now proclaimed to be necessary for every individual if he or she wants to be successful. As a routine, expected destination, I think college is just the neck of the funnel. I am not saying that college is a waste, or that it is unnecessary for some pursuits. If my children go to college I hope it will be because they really want to, and not because they think they have to in order to have a happy life, and not because they think it is some sort of guarantee of future success or happiness, which it is not. I hope the result of their college experience, should they have it, is that their lives are expanded, not narrowed.
More reasons I choose Sudbury for my children:
- Not having competition as the basis for motivation allows the possibility of community and cooperation to be a basis for motivation
- Having the freedom to choose, in the broad sense permitted by Sudbury, allows decisions to be made based on inner knowing and conscience, instead of external reward
- Being equal members of a democratic community provides an opportunity to learn about democracy from direct experience and to practice democratic behavior
- Practicing being responsible for one’s own behavior, well being, and happiness I think contributes far more to a person’s potential for success than practicing memorizing information for a test.
In the end, we make decisions about our children’s education based on what we think and feel, which is shaped by our own education and life experience. What do we really want for our children? I want mine to be deep-down happy, not status-quo happy. I can’t make that happen for them, but I can give them the chance to practice at it, before life sweeps them into the wide world. You can accuse me of wanting a funnel too - but I like to think of mine as an inverted funnel. I believe that focusing on happiness, self-determination, and personal responsibility as a child ultimately leads to more opportunity and a more expansive, fulfilling life.
My first three or four years of exposure to Sudbury made me question my own priorities and values, and set me on a path of change. By grappling with my own freedom (or lack thereof) in my 40s, I have become more profoundly happy and motivated than I have ever been before, but it was not without a bumpy ride. Sudbury is a gift that I give to my children, because I believe it will help them find their way to the kind of success that is possible only when they are free.