“It has been said that whoever asks about our childhood wants to know something about our soul. Society must take time to inquire.” – Isa Helfield 2001
Let me bare my soul for you.
When you read about the problems with American education, you usually read statistics about literacy and dropout rates. But those statistics don’t do the subject justice because the problem with American education is a human story. Every dropout is a human being, every illiterate teenager is an individual, every teen that commits suicide was somebody’s baby, and every kid that’s doing 20 to life is a real breathing person – full of potential.
People are too quick to criticize parents, teachers, administrators, and students. The failure of government education isn’t theirs alone. It’s every American’s fault because we continue to allow the unrestrained growth of government schooling. Haven’t we learned anything from our own experiences in government schools?
At the end of this post, I will list some books on this subject, followed by a list of links about this subject. But before that, I will share some thoughts and stories that expose the American K-12 meat grinder.
The Girl Who Sat in a Bathroom Stall for a Year
My wife is a beautiful, capable, intelligent, self-confident, ambitious, entrepreneurial woman. She had all these qualities as a child as well. During her senior year of high school, she spent her lunch hour hiding in a bathroom stall. She didn’t eat lunch for a year. Why? Because no one sat with her in the lunchroom and sitting alone in a bathroom stall ashamed and frightened was better than public humiliation. Don’t think that she is an isolated case, she isn’t. I just stumbled across this last week.
For a significant percentage of kids in our government school system, survival is the only goal. Based on my experience, I’d guess 10 to 20% of government school students suffer from severe psychological and emotional abuse. Smaller percentages suffer physical and sexual abuse.
My wife and I both describe our years in the government school system as a prison sentence. My wife kept a running countdown of days left in government school, like chicken scratches in a prison cell.
I asked her to write a blog post about her experiences with government education, but she won’t do it because thinking about it is too painful and depressing. She describes it with one simple word – horrible.
My wife and I were in the same grade and attended the same Jr. and Sr. High in Bloomington Minnesota from 1981 – 1987. We didn’t know each other when we were students. During our school years I had no idea she existed. She was ‘a nobody’.
I would have been ‘a nobody’ too, but I decided after 18 months inside that I wasn’t going to allow the public education caste system to brand me ‘a nobody’ and I became a highly visible renegade burnout. She knew about me. In her yearbook she wrote “biggest dirtball druggie in the whole school” next to my picture. She said the only time I communicated with her during those six years was when I bumped into her in the hall and growled at her like an animal.
Now before you jump to the conclusion that we were in a rotten school in a poor school district and had screwed up parents, let me set the record straight. During the 1980s, Minnesota had the #1 or #2 educational system in the US (they still do). Within Minnesota, Bloomington was one of the top two school districts in the state. The schools we attended (Olson Jr. High and Jefferson Sr. High) were the best schools in the district. So our example comes from the best of the best of the best government schools in the United States. We both came from Beaver Cleaver families, with adequate income, no divorce, abuse, or family violence.
My wife and I have talked about our negative experiences for eighteen years and neither of us believes we learned anything of value within the system. Everything worth knowing we learned outside of school.
I used to skip school and sit in the public library and read all day. I have an insatiable desire to learn but I couldn’t learn in school. The political, social, and sexual tension in school was too distracting.
I was born with this intense desire to learn and grow, but sometime in the second grade, school became an obstacle to learning. I felt thwarted at every turn by fellow students, teachers, and meaningless assignments. It’s hard to learn when you are constantly afraid of having your head flushed in the toilet.
The 10-Year Old College Prodigy
My father is an autodidact engineer. We had computers (TRS-80) and teletypes in our home since 1977. I taught myself to program Level II Basic at eight years old. By 10, I was hacking into commercial programs to improve them. By 11, I was enrolled and succeeding in college level programming classes at North Dakota State University.
Junior High Computer Class Failure
Two years later in Jr. High, I took an Apple II computer class. On the first day of class, I looked through the syllabus, found the last lesson, loaded the 5 1/4 inch floppy, and completed it. I beamed with pride and arrogance. The teacher looked at my program, turned bright red, yanked me out of my seat by my ear, and I fell to the floor humiliated. He pointed to the door and said, “get out of my classroom.” He forced me to sit in the hall the rest of the semester and failed me.
I didn’t complain to my parents or the administration, because they never listened before, so I had no reason to believe they would listen this time. That day ended my stint in education – I showed up – sometimes – but I never returned mentally. So even though I have a diploma, it’s fair to say my formal education ended in the 8th grade. I never bothered trying to please the system again and I checked out of programming and computers for 15 years. I contracted a 15 year case of the F*ck Its (A term my brother learned in AA for an attitude that leads people to fall off the wagon).
This single event didn’t push me over the edge. It was years of institutionalization and constant emotional, psychological, and physical harassment. From 2nd to 8th grade, I was harassed for having the wrong haircut, the wrong jeans, the wrong belt, the wrong look on my face, the wrong brothers, the wrong parents, and the wrong attitude. The harassment ended in 8th grade when I fought back violently. It worked, earning me a lasting respect. At the time, I believed it was my only viable option.
I spent most of my life believing I was defective
I believed I was defective until recently. I thought the reason I couldn’t function in school was due to some inherent incurable defect. But in my thirties, I discovered that I wasn’t defective, I was just different. Three years ago I read this article from Josh Shaine at MIT and it changed my life. His story was just like mine (except the expensive prep school part).
Government school doesn’t work well for kids that are different
I know there are oodles of success stories from government schools. I understand the system works great for some people. But what if you aren’t one of those people? What if your spirit won’t allow you to follow directions? What if your heart forces you to be different? Then what?
Why are you throwing your life away?
If you conform, the system rewards you. If you rebel, it destroys you and someone in authority will inevitably ask you this question…
Why are you throwing your life away?
Think about the implication of that question. Your body and soul in the back of a garbage truck on the way to the dump.
I’m not angry or bitter
You may think I sound bitter about all this. I’m not. I am grateful for my experience because I believe it’s my purpose in life to tell these stories. I am never going to stop talking about it. The emotional abuse of children in our government schools is shameful and the story must be told.
The Intergenerational Code of Silence
Few kids tell adults what really goes on within the school building. Did you? When you finally got out of school and went to college or work, most of you wanted to forget about the place.
A famous comedian said “you know who scares the sh!t outta’ me? Those f..king people that liked high school. What are they sadists – masochists – what the f… Did they go to the same freaking place I did?”
When we have children, we don’t want to tell them about our experiences, because if we told them the truth – the horror stories and the wasted time – we’re afraid they’ll use it as an excuse to fail. Besides, if you admitted the truth about your experiences, how could you justify putting them on the yellow bus every morning.
Is it just part of growing up?
When I talk to people about this, most don’t want to hear it. And the most frequent response is, “Everything you’re talking about is just a normal part of growing up.”
Emotional abuse and self-denial is not normal childhood development.
There is nothing normal about enduring years of emotional, psychological, and physical abuse in a government institution. I have met dozens of home-schooled kids and they don’t suffer from these problems. When I talk to them, they stand upright, look me in the eye, and speak confidently. Many of the government-schooled kids I meet won’t look me in the eye. They hang their heads and speak in muffled tones I can’t understand. Many of them act like abused puppies. The contrast is astonishing.
What’s normal about a homely awkward girl walking into the lunchroom and hearing three hundred kids chant her name, “Trina, Trina, Trina, Trina, Trina, Trina, Trina,” until she breaks down sobbing and runs from the lunchroom? I saw it and I am sad to say I participated in it.
Things are Different Today – Yep – It’s Worse
When my sons were born, I wanted to believe that things were different today, and I discovered that they’re worse. I met a local mother with teenagers several months ago while I was anguishing over what to do with my son’s education. I asked if her kids were in the local public school district (which has an outstanding reputation). She said, “We pulled ‘em out. It was horrible.” I prodded her for more information. She spent most of her nights with her kids trying to correct the damage done at school earlier in the day. She said there was a lack of basic decency and respect throughout the institution.
She said the students intentionally elected an obese, awkward girl as homecoming queen as a joke. Funny huh?
Her kids said that racism was so rampant that life was intolerable. Racism is something I didn’t have to deal with. Sure racism was there, but there wasn’t any racial conflict. I’ve read racial conflict is a constant problem in many of today’s government schools.
About a year ago, while I was planning my writing projects, I contacted my 12th Grade English teacher. He was one of the few teachers that treated me like a free spirit instead of a caged animal. He was one of those teachers that fought the status-quo, and I respect him for it. I asked him what had changed about his students over the past 25 years. This is a paraphrased summary of what he said:
Critical thinking skills have been absent from my classes for years. Kids used to read the book “Catcher in the Rye” and then describe what Holden Caulfield meant to them. Today, they read it and expect me to teach them what it means. Not just most kids, all kids. I haven’t seen a critical thinker in my classroom in five years.
The top students learn the system. If they are free thinkers, they hide it, because they’re after top grades and independent thinking is too risky and unpredictable.
What’s different today is the nature of the mediocre and poor students. They don’t confront and challenge us like they used to. They seem brain dead and indifferent.
Our zero tolerance policies have created a larger gulf between the students and us. From the late sixties until the mid-nineties, the students and their culture were somewhat accessible. Today they completely shut us out.
The Poisonous Pedagogy
Yesterday my 4 year old son asked, “You never say no to a teacher, right dad?” I asked where he heard that. His Montessori pre-school teacher said it. This is an example of what Alice Miller calls the Poisonous Pedagogy. I didn’t answer my son’s question directly. But I believe we should teach our children to question authority and refuse to follow blindly. I plan to talk to the teacher and the administrator of the school. I realize the need for an orderly classroom, but she can maintain control without demanding blind obedience.
The Gifted and Talented
We have a new label in our schools called – Gifted and Talented. I believe everyone is gifted and talented, so I don’t care for the label, but… The gifted child learns advanced material earlier than the mean. And they have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. They tend to be highly emotional and in some ways, it is a social and learning disability. Patricia A. Schuler writes about the high risk facing this group of kids. She quotes the triggers as “lack of intimacy and rejection.” So these kids need intimacy and acceptance? Does anyone believe they’ll find these qualities in our government schools? I don’t.
What is the solution?
So let’s say you agree that government school may be the worst possible place for kids to learn. Then what is the solution?
Is it private religious schools?
No. Most of the above problems are present in the parochial schools – especially large ones. The biggest benefit the parochial school offers is the ability to easily remove abusive kids and teachers. But the smart covert tormenters will survive. The larger the institution, the harder it is to expose them.
Can we reform the existing system, minimizing these problems?
No. As long as you put hundreds or thousands of kids in a large government institution, the Lord of the Flies scenario is inevitable. Institutionalizing large numbers of children before they form a moral foundation will always lead to abuse.
- Home-schooling – Millions of people are home-schooling in the US and it grows every year. It isn’t just for religious fundamentalists anymore. 25% of home-schoolers are non-religious. This is the best solution if you can do it.
- Small neighborhood based co-ops – Small cooperatives of parents and professionals creating home based neighborhood-learning centers.
- Small entrepreneurial schools – This is what I have opted for with my 4-year-old. He will be attending a small private Montessori school, with three teachers serving 20 students in a single room.
How is the Post Related to Personal Freedom?
My personal development program directly attacks the fears I learned during my stint in government school.
- Fear of criticism
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success or fear of responsibility
- Fear of rejection
My personal development program also attacks this belief which is clearly taught within our government schools.
- My happiness and success are dependent on another person’s evaluation of me and my performance
This is an extremely damaging belief that I work hard to eradicate. As long as I continue to look outside myself for validation, I will be dependent and addicted.
A little controversy
A post over at ww-success.com (link no longer valid) cites the statistic that only 18 out of 100 American high school freshmen will earn a college degree within six years of graduating from high school. He goes on to cite statistics that show the relationship between education and income. I don’t dispute either of these statistics. He then makes the argument that the economic future of our nation depends on increasing the percentage of students that graduate from college. Based on our current system, he’s right.
But why do we need to keep this system? Our current government schooling system causes this problem. It’s designed so 20% rise to the top and the rest fall out to the factory floor. We have an antiquated system designed to supply labor to an industrial economy that doesn’t exist anymore.
As a society, shouldn’t we question how we discriminate between job applicants?
- Are high school and college graduates more productive or is that assumption prejudicial?
- Couldn’t prejudice be the root cause of the average income disparity between various educational levels? Similar to disparities between sexes and races?
- If 82% of children will never graduate from college, why don’t we open more doors to them and see if they can make it? Wouldn’t that be in everyone’s best interest?
- What could it hurt?
- What are we afraid of?
- Why punish and discriminate against people that don’t make it in formal schools?
- What purpose does it serve?
“one of the best programmers I ever hired had only a High School degree; he’s produced a lot of great software, has his own news group, and through stock options is no doubt much richer than I’ll ever be.” – Peter Norvig in Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years
Test taking is the most valuable skill you can posses in school
My brother-in-law is a doctor and a successful student. He says that test taking is the most important skill necessary to succeed in college. I know he’s right. But what does that say about college? Who’s going to pay anyone to take a test? What does a test measure? It measures your ability to memorize stuff. Who is paid to memorize stuff? Actors? Pilots? I don’t know. I’ve never been paid to memorize stuff.
The most valuable skill you can possess in life
The most valuable skill you can possess is the ability to acquire useful knowledge and apply it to solve real problems. Once you own this skill, you have all the education you’ll ever need.
More History and Background
An Irish commenter on Reddit asked if American government schools are as insane as they are portrayed in movies and TV.
No, the stuff you see on TV and most movies is mild. The only two movies I’ve seen that come close to modern American youth culture are Kids (Warning – This Movie is Extremely Disturbing) and Over the Edge. But the last twenty minutes of Over the Edge isn’t accurate – but everything before they burn down the school is an exact time capsule of American youth culture in the late seventies and early eighties.
How I became so passionate about this subject
Since my first son was born in 2002, I’ve gone through a 4-year period of growth, healing, and introspection. His birth changed me forever. His birth got me asking questions about how my life became what it became. One of the things I needed to know was where all these crazy insecurities and fears came from. I looked to my parents and I think some of it came from them, but not most of it. I wasn’t born with these crazy fears. I joined 12 step programs. I dug into self-help books. I immersed myself in the work of Jung. But I never found the root cause of the baggage until I found this book – The Underground History of American Education. After reading the book, I saw reality through a new lens. My life made sense again. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but about 70% of it directly applied to my educational experience.
I was also terrified after reading this book. People are going to think I’m nuts if I talk about it. What am I going to do about my kid’s education? Am I going to home school them? What am I going to do? I was flummoxed.
My wife and I had discussions over several nights and we decided that we would do anything legal to keep them out of government school.
But I still question the decision because I want my sons to be ‘normal.’ If I send them to some alternative school, will they hate me? If I homeschool them, how will they learn to pick up girls? Will my neighbors think I’m a freak? Constant questions enter my mind.
Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling
Beyond the Classroom
Guerrilla Learning: How to Give Your Kids a Real Education With or Without School
The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education
Homeschooling Our Children Unschooling Ourselves
The Unschooling Handbook : How to Use the Whole World As Your Child’s Classroom
The Unprocessed Child: Living Without School
Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls
Students Dropping Out of High School Reaches Epidemic Levels
1.1 Million Homeschooled Students in the United States in 2003
The Public School Nightmare
Underreporting Crime In Public Schools: A Shell Game?
I’ll share the results of our journey on this blog as it progresses. So subscribe to my RSS feed for easy updates. If you don’t have RSS, get my feed via email.
Trust the people, give them choices, and the school nightmare will vanish in a generation. – John Taylor Gatto
Read the 10 part series on the 10 things I wish I had never believed:
#1 Why People Believe Money is the Root of All Evil
#2 Why Getting a Good Job isn’t the Best Way to Earn Money
#3 The Secret Great Leaders Know About Emotions
#4 Success is 99% Failure
#5 10 Tips to Secure a Management Position without a College Degree
#6 Always Question Your Doctor – Three Stories Why
#7 How the Public School System Crushes Souls
#9 Give Me 3 Minutes and I’ll Make you a Better Decision Maker