How the Public School System Crushes Souls

“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.

Possible solutions:

  1. 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.
  2. Small neighborhood based co-ops – Small cooperatives of parents and professionals creating home based neighborhood-learning centers.
  3. 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 (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.

Recommended Reading…

Book List:

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


288 thoughts on “How the Public School System Crushes Souls”

  1. In Colorado, we have allowed charter schools since 1993. We also allow students to “choice” into any school in the state. The charter schools allow for parents to get together and come up with a school that meets their needs. For example, our area has a charter school based on the expeditionary learning model, another based on the IB-PYP model, and another that is geared toward black families and incorporates a lot of black history in the curriculum. DPS (Denver Public schools) still has a LOT of problems. There are still schools where over half the kids are not meeting basic requirements (this is partly or largely due to the huge populations of English-language learners). But on the other hand, there are actually schools worth attending due to the fact that they have to compete for students. Some are Montessori, some are Dual-Language, some are IB-PYP. I believe if parents have a choice, public (government) schools don’t all have to be the horrible experience that we had growing up.

    The only problem is that the pace of change is slow. Having small, excellent programs means that there are not enough spaces to accomodate all the families wanting to get in. Hopefully we will continue to improve all the other schools so that good options are available for everybody.

    Good luck with finding a good educational experience for your kids! I am wrestling with the same thing, and hoping that my daughter gets one of the coveted slots in the programs we are considering.

  2. From an early age society (schools, peers, families) dictates whether we are going to be successful in our lives or a complete failures. It’s funny how no-one ever questions why?

    I believe schools are like factory production lines. Kids are never thought to think for themselves and yet all thier thinking is already done for them. For instance the more concisely, accurately a kid can follow instructions the more awards he gets. Are these kids really being taught? And yet society and our media truly believes these kids are being educated. This is the greatest lie of them all.

    Your article hits home this message, well done

  3. Jim writes:

    “I have worked with severely troubled students even in my fairly affluent community. Accepting and working with these students is a beautiful thing. A fully privatized system would not serve students with such issues.”

    How do you know this to be true? Before you answer, let me ask you to consider two things: (1) You have never lived in a laissez-faire economy, and few if any Americans are old enough to remember anything approaching that degree of freedom; (2) Care for the sick and the destitute originated as voluntarist effort with the arrival of Christianity, not a government effort.

    I’m old enough to remember that before Title I, kids who were severely troubled, or learning disabled, or in any other way not part of the mainstream, were simply left behind in most schools. There was no private program that would take them except for parents with lots and lots of money.

    Today, many private schools refuse to take these same kids, instead trying to take the cream of the public schools. As Ann Richards observed, to be a Republican means you have to believe an exclusive private school will take a failing kid of color, from a gang, with learning disabilities, and make him a great student, with a $1,000 voucher. It ain’t gonna happen.

    We have public schools in America because private schooling couldn’t do the job fast enough, far enough, small enough, or equitably enough. We need public schools for our republic, to keep our democratic systems healthy, Jefferson observed and Madison agreed. It’s still true. Private schools cannot ramp up quickly enough, or cheaply enough, to mend things. We have about 60 million kids in school, about 11 million of them out of the public school system. There are not enough private schools, enough teachers willing to work for less money, enough school buildings, enough parents with work hours that allow them to transport kids across town to schools, to make a significant dent in school quality issues.

    So we have to improve our public schools, and shore them up against assault by angry and reckless students and apathetic, feckless parents.

    Giving up on public schools is one way guaranteed not to help change things. We’re in rather a quandary, aren’t we?

  4. I was picked on and i feel bad for your wife however it is one choice to skip lunch or not! heck i did for a half a year then i was a wreak after the school assembly and the teacher annouced the homecoming queen as me ooopps the hole gym went quite…. you could hear a pin drop!
    i had the same name as the girl who one! I think the teacher felt bad.. i sort of hide my head between the bleachers and snuck out come to think of it i never attended another accembly again!
    any way i’m sure over half of the humans on earth had some sort of embarrasment story to tell regaurdless if it was in school or not!
    to hide from it is up to the human who is hiding!
    I hide then somewhere down the line I lose my aparment in a fire i was in highschool! the same school and same teacher put together a donation for me I had over 10- bags of new clothing some where donated churches gave me female stuff and i think my mom got some money along with the other tentents!

    so to say schools crush your soul i have to disagree! yeah they embarrassed me but they did so much more postitive reenforse ment that the little things like that assembly i look back at and laugh at because the love is there.. You just have to see it..
    Yes it’s harder when your young and bull headed! but that is where the parents need to step in and teach there childeren some morals! and confidence and self esteem.. it’s not the schools job to do that! and it’s sad that some humans think that it is!

    But more and more teacher are becomeing less passionate about there job and they treat it as a job there for the kids suffer!
    the only way to stop the trend is to get teachers and other humans to have passion at there job!
    Great artical!
    Thanks for sharing!

  5. I thought this was a great article. I wonder why some people keep accusing you of being angry, as if that would be a totally inappropriate response?

  6. interesting article and interesting comments. But you lost me when you said “10 to 20% of government school students suffer from severe psychological and emotional abuse”

    Do you really think they GET psychologically & emotionally abused AT school — or do they come there that way, can’t cope there either & school doesn’t help them deal with it? That I’d buy….too many school systems aren’t properly able to identify these types students. Or if they are able, many refuse help or the parents refuse to help with the treatment (maybe in part because they’re part of the problem). I think 10-20% of ANY population probably suffers from psychological or emotional abuse.

  7. Susan,

    It is a guess. All the psychological and emotional abuse I have expereived during my life happened inside a school. All the psychological and emotional abuse my wife experienced happened inside a school. All the psycological and emotional abuse I learn about from the kids in the neighborhood happens inside a school or on a school bus, and the parents are constanly trying to fix it when the get home… to no avail. So my statement is based on my own anecdotal evidence, but if you ask most kids in middle school they will tell you large numbers of kids are tormented, I think is it less so in the elementary and high schools.

  8. ALL of it?
    If that’s true for you, I find that terribly sad.
    And define tormented, please.
    I think we all experience some sort of disconnect & discomfort during our school years even the so-called “popular” kids. But torment, psychological and emotional abuse are very strong words. I have no statistics to refute what you’re saying and I hope that’s not true in the numbers you seem to believe.

  9. There’s a lot here to take in… I need to read it a few more times.

    One comment for the moment, though: You wrote, “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.”

    I think actually there’s a more common reason they neglect to tell their children: they’re ashamed. They still believe that it was their fault, that it was because there was something wrong with them. So what would be the point in admitting this shortcoming to their children, who are perfect and above-average and will fare much better anyway?

    Otherwise, I think people just tend to suppress the memories and especially the feelings associated with them over time. It’s a self-protection strategy. They really just don’t remember. For instance, I just saw this image today: and remembered, suddenly, that sort of thing happening and how awful it was to be the victim, and how easy it was to take part in if you weren’t. I’d totally forgotten. I’ve not ever been a big fan of schooling, but even I’ve been amazed at the memories and feelings that continue to surface as I read about others’ experiences and allow myself to be honest and really reflect.

    Also, thanks for the link to Josh’s essay. Powerful.

  10. one thing i never learned was patience but i’m glad i sat and read your entire blog. i like to read but that doesn’t get you far in life. i like to write as well but i don’t know how to begin this either. i didn’t care about any subject whatsoever in school. it’s been 7 years since high school and i’ve done nothing more than become depressed, an (ex)alcoholic, hospitalized for suicide attempts, and a still to this day mall rat. i still have no idea when something will come along or i’ll gain an ounce of motivation to find something.

    still, your blog was everything i needed to hear because i haven’t been able to put it on paper myself in a well organized manner. so, i feel like i got it all out now and i should pass it on. 🙂 at least, it’s one goal completed (not like i’ve ever had any) even, though, someone else did it for me.

  11. Our growing up, and our education should NOT be something we should have to spend most of our adult life “recovering from”. So many people I encounter either on line or offline, also have told me stories, like mine. Childhood should be a free time of explorations, growth, and facing challenges in a way that does not damage them.

    Yet because it’s so common, we as a society have become complacent about it, believing it to be “necessary.” (shudder). I especially liked that “nasty note” picture. Ahh I remember the days. My name was in some of those notes, and the people who made up the rules treated them as sacred scrolls.

    Thank you for being among the many I have read on the internet, who are brave to tell it like it is.

  12. We keep teens from growing up and wonder why we have all the problems. I can’t stand the infantilization forced on teens and even adults by the system and the government.

    “Trashing Teens”

    Our current education system was created in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and was modeled after the new factories of the industrial revolution. Public schools, set up to supply the factories with a skilled labor force, crammed education into a relatively small number of years. We have tried to pack more and more in while extending schooling up to age 24 or 25, for some segments of the population. In general, such an approach still reflects factory thinking—get your education now and get it efficiently, in classrooms in lockstep fashion. Unfortunately, most people learn in those classrooms to hate education for the rest of their lives.

    We need education spread over a lifetime, not jammed into the early years—except for such basics as reading, writing, and perhaps citizenship. Past puberty, education needs to be combined in interesting and creative ways with work. The factory school system no longer makes sense.

    In most nonindustrialized societies, young people are integrated into adult society as soon as they are capable, and there is no sign of teen turmoil. Many cultures do not even have a term for adolescence. But we not only created this stage of life: We declared it inevitable. In 1904, American psychologist G. Stanley Hall said it was programmed by evolution. He was wrong.

    They are restricted and infantilized to an extraordinary extent.

    In recent surveys I’ve found that American teens are subjected to more than 10 times as many restrictions as mainstream adults, twice as many restrictions as active-duty U.S. Marines, and even twice as many as incarcerated felons. . . .The more young people are infantilized, the more psychopathology they show.

    In this country, teens learn virtually everything they know from other teens, who are in turn highly influenced by certain aggressive industries. This makes no sense. Teens should be learning from the people they are about to become. When young people exit the education system and are dumped into the real world, which is not the world of Britney Spears, they have no idea what’s going on and have to spend considerable time figuring it out.

    Studies show that we reach the highest levels of moral reasoning while we’re still in our teens. Those capabilities parallel higher-order cognitive reasoning abilities, which peak fairly early. Across the board, teens are far more capable than we think they are.

    I advocate a competency-based system that focuses on the abilities of the individual. For some it will mean more time in school combined with work, for others it will mean that at age 13 or 15 they can set up an Internet business. Others will enter the workforce and become some sort of apprentice.

    Beginning in 1960, the number of laws infantilizing adolescents accelerated dramatically. You may have had a paper route when you were 12, but your children can’t.

  13. Beautifully written. My husband and I had terrible school experiences and now homeschool our three boys. Thank you!

  14. You are a man after my own heart. I am desperately trying, as a single mother, to get out of my education job and homeschool my 8 year old, who has Sensory Integration Disorder. I’ve already witnessed the damage it did to my 16 year old, whom I recently encouraged to drop out, take the GED and enroll in college. He is doing better now, but still struggles with “playing the game” even in college.

    I became a teacher because I wanted to help kids who were troublemakers like me when I was in school. I do alt ed. Other teachers get mad at me because I am not invested in “punishing” the kids and making sure they “learn their lesson”. I thought I was part of a small subset of somehow defective people, and that that was the reason that I had such behavior problems in high school.

    If I had not carried this belief into adulthood, I would have never opted into the system in order to try to reform it (I think it needs to be abolished), nor would I have ever sent my own children to public school. Turns out it’s a pretty bad experience for just about everyone, even the “popular” kids.

    I have recently read many of the same books that you have. They are good. They have radically changed how I approach students. Unfortunately, this approach will probably get me fired at some point. I hope I can quit and homeschool first.

    You’re an excellent, excellent writer.

  15. I spoke with my mom who had taught in the Minnesota school system for over 3 decades. She said the changes that were brought on were due mainly from government standards and bench marks.

    I also believe that the curriculum needs a completely overhaul to educate students for the times of today.

  16. WHY the TV program NUMB3RS is bullshit:
    I sent this reasoning (?) to a close friend (at least he was BEFORE I sent it to him): The program has been Praised for its Educational Value by various Science magazines, but….

    It’s bullshit because:

    0) They’re running out of new fads in mathematics faster than they can steal plots from other shows to use them on. I’m waiting for them to use fractal clouds to find invisible Taliban unmanned spy planes over LA.

    1) Only the insanity of A BEAUTIFUL MIND is at work here–applications of math based on quick looks at tables of numbers. That is either an occult ability or wishful thinking akin to cult religion. TV has taken the dramatic scenes from A BEAUTIFUL MIND, the prettifications, and made them into a police procedural with lots of fancy CGI. And the super-powers of computers (and their large-screen wall displays) are used like video games to seduce the audience into thinking that hard work is no longer needed to break a case–and a big loud shootout is always the final solution instead of a headache-producing long trial (with about half of the perps acquitted because of police legal errors). Over the entire flow of the Court System only about 5 to 10% of the “criminals” ever serve time. (Only LAW & ORDER ever shows “them getting away with murder,” and without vendetta.) Only the Evening News shows Fun Shootouts.

    2) Such arm-waving math is a perversion of real math and not the sort of thing that should be used to attract young students to the field by trickery and fantasy. The enrollments in college CSI has sky-rocketed all right, but the disappointed graduates who run into the real wall of boredom (unbroken by remote-viewing, telepathy, or mind-reading) often seek other employment. The fact that some money-eager university department heads have praised NUMB3RS as a student-lure just confirms the conclusion. The IEEE uses pleading to get older often-retired engineers to lecture and mentor undecided students, as if there is a shortage that is only being filled by foreign workers. The medical dramas result in more girls going into nursing, by NOT showing their actors emptying bedpans, hurting their backs lifting, or getting needle sticks from AIDS patients and later dying. There is little magic in reality. (See THE ILLUSIONIST anyway.)

    3) Hollywood uses the same miracle-working medicine in its doctor/hospital/ER dramas and Science Channel Docs where colored lights illuminate test tubes and beakers filled with food-colored water, in crime-scene investigations where the hero solves the case just because someone nearby accidently says something they thought was irrelevant but wasn’t (MONK makes fun of that), and in cold-case-file dramas which align with TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL and other Special Powers Hogwash TV shows. (Where is Madonna when the cops need her?)

    4) “Suspension of disbelief” is precisely what Mathematics is NOT about. No progress comes from suppressing skepticism, belief in metaphysics, and computer-assisted Miracles. NUMB3RS never admits to being math fantasy, and probably its producers and sponsors would defend its emotion-laden Savior-Hero (who admits himself to being math ignorant) with the usual pleading that “it’s only a TV drama not based on actual cases or individuals.” (One of the main characters on ER said in a TV interview that he “doesn’t really know the meaning of the medical terms he is spouting,” just like the technical wizard on MISSION IMPOSSIBLE admitted to profound technical ignorance.)

    5) Just because I needled you for having no appreciation of the art of fantasy does not invalidate the argument that NUMB3RS is bullshit because your comeback is always to attack historical inaccuracy, inconsistency, and artistic license.
    Are you now a classic born-again defender of the faith of fantasy? Stop and remember how you hated EMPIRE OF THE SUN with flimsy jibes at the author’s defective memory of what he lived through. It’s not even enough for you to suspend disbelief long enough to see the beauty of an artistic movie which has something to say. (NUMB3RS just wants to merely entertain all right with romance and a math snowjob. Math is just the Magic Wand.)

    6) Fantasy has Survival Value as a way of forgetting traumatic injuries and bitter life experiences, but daydreaming at the wheel can get you fired or killed. It’s a drug of possible severe main and side effects. Too much of any drug, even water, can drown you in unexpected addictive misery. When we can’t face Life, we resort to drugs.

    7) NUMB3RS has a lot of fun-looking math toys, including the sexy female characters. Every career needs office toys and romance. But The Boss often objects. Isn’t it NICE that these TV drama characters get away with playing with toys? What is the real percentage of unmarried mathematicians who get to solve crimes under critical conditions of restricted time intervals and ongoing serial killings? Is this really the desired image of mathematics? Is not OFFICE SPACE a more realistic image of common working conditions? (Where’s my goddamned stapler?!)


    –Don Watts

  17. Steve,

    My wife was home schooled her entire life. I slogged through the public system. Of course, we home school our two daughters. It also allows us to travel all over the world with them and not worry about school schedules. The freedom is a huge perk.

    People always say that home schooled kids don’t get socialized. Not true. We get together every day with other home school and public school kids. Also, the traveling has caused our kids to make friends on playgrounds regardless of language barriers. They are our little ambassadors.


  18. So many words.

    So many Americans.

    The wealthiest country in the world and you still have no idea. Not sad at all, your naivety is what makes you endearing. Your wealth is what makes you a target.

    Your education system? You know so much. You know everything and can articulate it with such aplomb!

    You are all better than Socrates.

    Snaps to you all. And Elle Woods too.

    I love your country. It is an amazing place! Really!

  19. When I started I wanted to bring more love into the world. I wonder if my past had anything to do with it? Perhaps?

    You and I share that same thirst, so I applaud you for going for it, Steve. It bummed me to hear you participated in making fun of other kids. Here’s why:

    For every person someone makes fun of, there is a person hurting inside from those insults/name-calling. I know–I experienced the name-calling from 3rd grade through 8th grade. It was only upon entering High School that it finally stopped. I tried everything to get people to stop, and actually the only things that worked were FIGHTING. I know, it doesn’t make sense, but I figured out that if I kicked butt on the biggest bully who made fun of me, all the other kids would stop, too.

    But, today, I see that type of thing differently. Now that I am older, if someone makes fun of me or calls me a nick-name, I consider it a compliment. I guess being called “Scotty” is much more endearing than being called “poinzy” or something like that, though. So, if someone calls you a name you don’t like, perhaps suggesting one you do might correct the situation.

    As someone who participated in name-calling, I would encourage you to reach out to kids to stop that practice, in any way you can, as it will do much to help those suffering the ridicule. Most kids make fun of kids who are just a little different from them. I grew up in the country, wore glasses and hand-me-down clothes. I was also smart, and taller than just about every other kid. So, was I better? Maybe. Was I different? You bet! Did they have a right to poke fun? I suppose. I think, on the whole, I’ve used it that to power much of my success, so I now embrace what happened back in those days…

  20. So true, my friend. The typical school model is only fun for writing stories, that’s what I think.

    I grew up being taught to think for myself, thankfully, and I was just figuring out that I was an independent learner when I hit adulthood. Then…college. I joke around and tell people I just sort of fail at it, and that’s fine with me, but I fret about the prejudice in the job market–namely what you mentioned, about people who survived the system being treated as more intelligent or capable.

    Thank you for writing this article. It gives me hope for the future, and for my future son(s) and daughter(s).

  21. Another good topic, Steve, for us to rant about. 🙂 I have my issues with school like you & many of the others. I got a degree to teach like a nut — but it turned out to be the catalyst for me to homeschool when I had my two sons.

    I was saddened by the thought of having to put my first son in public school, especially since I kind of just drifted through school myself. No one hardly paid attention to me — in kind, I just sort of did enough to get by — while I paid my time. That’s what it felt like — TIME — punishment! I milked my asthma for all it was worth, to get extra sick days. It was survival here.

    So when I heard about homeschooling — I was ecstatic. My husband agreed. We were shunned by people many times, but I didn’t care. I was learning not to doubt what I knew was right. We were with a group of other parents at first, but we later went on our own. It was hard at times to stay motivated (I won’t lie & say it was all a “bed of roses”), but the longer we stayed with it — the better & simpler it got. Anything worth doing will be challenging.

    My sons are young men in their 20’s and out in the work force. That was in essence the diploma — to be out & working. They are pursuing careers in the tech field (planning on taking some classes at a tech school, jr. college or online — or possibly a combination of all.) It’s their choice.

  22. P.S. I should also mention that my two sons have also started a business. It’s still in the infancy stage. The business is like an ongoing college education. Hopefully, some day it will flourish.

    ~ Suzy 🙂

  23. Great writeup Steve! This is the article I’ve been looking for all along and I found it completely on accident.

    Growing up as a Muslim in America and attending both a private Islamic school and Public, Government High school, I can honestly say both were a regrettable mistake, but who was to know?! My parents thought they were doing the best for me. I thought I was doing the best for me. But, I remember clearly the anguish, the pain and the overwhelming feeling that I just didn’t fit in the system. I thought attending Islamic school would help by learning with kids of my religious and cultural background, but it was a mess. I always felt out of place, I felt teased and ridiculed from my ideas. I never did anything out of the ordinary or tried to attract attention to myself but I always ended up being isolated.

    Public school was even worse. All I got was respect and understanding from my peers and never did I feel ridiculed like I was in private school, but there was this sense of utter unbelongingness that loomed above me. I could literally feel the energy being sucked out of me just walking through the halls like you said thanks to “the political, social, and sexual tension.”

    Anyways, enough about me.

    I really like your model for the most practical and ideal schooling method and I am totally support the ideas you listed above. I had the same thing in mind for my kids one day. I’m still 21, but I can’t help but start researching and preparing for stuff like that so my kids don’t have to go through the same thing.

    Once again, excellent writeup. Although, I don’t know you at all, I feel after reading just this one article has helped me know you a great deal.


  24. Brother, I can relate to your story. When I was in the 3rd or 4th grade we had an hour each week where all the class would sit in a circle and each person would read a page in a short story book out loud.

    Now I was what you would call an advanced reader, in fact, and although I didn’t know it at the time, I was in effect speed reading.

    Well, the first time we did the out loud reading and as I listened to most the other children read it was like listening to fingernails on a chalk board for a protracted period of time.

    Then my time came and I read out loud as fast as I could form the words…for the first paragraph. Then the teacher stopped me and asked me what I was doing. I said reading. The teacher then berated me and accused me of showing off, telling me that I was reading too fast and that some of the other kids wouldn’t be able to follow what I was saying (which we all know today is 100% false since the brain can process speech much faster than we can talk) in spite of the fact that not one other student complained.

    I tried a second time….
    read slower
    I tried a third time….
    read slower
    I tried a fourth time (now reading at a pace slower than most the other children)…..
    finally acceptance and approval.

    Because of that experience and the weekly “indoctrination” of “slow reading”, I lost interest in reading almost entirely. It wasn’t until late in my college education that I finally became interested in reading anything outside classroom assignments and the newspaper.

    This is the US government public education (indoctrination) system at work. Lower expectations to the least common denominator so that all children will have a feeling of accomplishment.

  25. My daughter and son are both ADHD(my daughter more severe)they also have mild LD’S and my daughter has underlying Tourettes brought out by the meds she took. We live in a rural area and they both go to school in a small town. Both of my children have issues with making and keeping friends….that is if they are even given a chance. Most of the problem is not with the the teachers or the administration it’s with the kids. My daughter especially has had multiple harrassment and bullying situation. We weren’t even 2 weeks into her 4th grade year when she was already having issues with 3 kids. One was the ring leader and the others were the followers. Needless to say they made my daughters life miserable with comments like stupid, weird, she didn’t have any friends and that she was never going to pass the state mandated test. I went straight to the principle and told him what was going on. He was right on the situation with a conference with kids then with myself and my daughter. Of course it came down to he said/she said. They children embellished the story telling the principle that my daughter had called him a retard. My daughter explained to the principle that she would never say that and she didn’t even know what it was. Basically the ring leader got a dentention and the followers got off with a firm warning and giving a handshake to my daughter. Needless to say it didn’t stop. One of the followers harrassed my daughter verbally and physically poked her in the hall and singled her out for everything. The child was kept in the same class but moved to a different table. The most horrifying experience that we had so that my daughter could be “socialized” and to “learn how to stick up for herself” (because of course we would want her to be unrealistic and sheltered about life) was when the principle tried to get in touch with me several times and then he called my husband at work. I felt uneasy because he never calls my husband. When he finally get in touch with me, he had a hard time telling me what was going on. While my daughter was home for 3 days(sick) a teacher heard a child( that had given my daughter trouble before)say that if he had a gun he would shoot my daughter and one teacher. Of course after I picked up my jaw off the floor, I was able to ask question. Apparently my daughter’s tics and over focusing on certain subjects irritated him. Eventually we has the all purpose conference with the parents in which they blamed friends, tv violence, and my daughter for their sons “wishful thinking”. That was that. I don’t blame the school or the staff. They did what they were supposed to do and nothing more. Basically their hands are tied. I have to laugh whenever I hear the comment that kids need to be “socialized” so that’s what school is for. How on earth can you feel comfortable enough to socialize with the very people that are calling you weird, stupid and not worth talking to. How can that be conducive to learning. I’m shocked to see how many people think school is for socializing(only if your a grizzly) and feel that putting children in that situation is making them learn to stand up for themselves, is totally idiotic. If they could only see how much of my daughters day is taken up by feeling unwanted, seeing her self esteem failing , crying, feeling unmotivated and feeling that no matter what she does it’s going to turn out crappy, they would see this less as a socialization activity and more like a prison yard. I for one think that my daughter’s learning is geting interfered with and homeschooling is might be a better choice.


  26. Excellent post. May I publish it on my website? You will of course get full credit and a link to your site 🙂

    I find it annoying when trying to talk to teachers about the problems with school. They always seem to require “proof” that things need to be changed. Yet they follow the system without any proof that it even does what they claim it to do.

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” – Upton Sinclair

  27. I wish I had never gone to government schools. That’s all I can say. I hated the conformity, the rules, the bullying. Every ounce of my being was attacked day after day, without cessation. I am somewhat dysfunctional nowadays in terms of how I relate to other people. I suspect everyone of going against me behind my back. I blame government schools for this 100%.

  28. i agree one hundred percent. I attended a public school from kindergarten to the sixth grade and I absolutely hate it. I hated the fact that my parents sent me there and didn’t see the bigger picture that I had seen. Of course my parents totally agreed with the system since they thought that it was important for kids who didn’t have the money to attend a private school or any other system. They grew up in the Philippines so they thought that this was beneficial for the kids.
    But they will never understand what I had to go through, along with my brother and sister. It really does offer a challenge. I too was “different” in that sort of sense and I just didn’t belong. After sixth grade I transferred to a private school for seventh and the eighth grade. I loved it so much. I found the BEST friends ever, as opposed to when I was in a public school where I had little. It was a Catholic school and I LOVED it so much. I still miss everyone. Now I’m in high school as a sophomore at a Catholic school and I think I definitely made the right choice. If I continued my educational career at a public school I would be a TOTALLY different person that I am now. I will never send my children to a public school after what I experienced.

  29. As a public school teacher, I completely see where you’re coming from. The school system is sucking the life right out of me. In my 7th period class, I have 7 special ed students in a class of 28, who desperately need one-on-one instruction, that I cannot provide. They sit there, frustrated, and therefore, will disrupt the class, which makes it even more difficult for me to teach. I’ve asked for help, stating my concerns for these students, but as it appears, they will be just 7 more that will fall through the cracks. I try to make every student feel worthwhile, and they know that I truly care, but I am unable to assist them in ways that are necessary because of all of the paperwork and bureaucratic nonsense, and the money issues that no one seems to want to solve (gee, wonder where all that money’s going?). I have no choice but to send my own children to public school because of the exorbitant amount of tuition for private schools in my area. *sigh* I am one of those who is constantly bucking the system, pushing for change. I actually lost a job because I was standing up for the rights of the students. Imagine that.
    Thanks for your article.

  30. My experience exactly. Social, self-esteem and career scars just from going to school. My son had the same experience the one year he attended public school at the blue ribbon school nearby. My daughter never went to school until she went to college. She found the other students in her art school were timid and uncreative.

    I would encourage all parents to take a more unschooling approach: provide learning materials and learning opportunities for their children, and let the children decide which ones they want to take up and master. My 26yo son now owns his own business and owns his own house full of people renting from him, and goes no vacation two months per year.

  31. There are a few positives that come out of a public schooling system. Granted there are a lot of negatives and hopefully this will get better. Don’t really believe that but no harm in hoping. The only positive I can think of is Public school prepares you for tougher challenges in life and you are better off handling pressures and every day situations a little better.


  32. Just to further my point yesterday, America has probably one of the better public school systems when compared to third world and many of the developed countries. Yes it is not perfect and there is crime but that is a consequence of society degenerating to the extent it has and not the public school system that is at fault.

  33. Steve, I love your subject matter. Much of what you say rings true with me. I, too, had school experiences like yours and your wifes. I counted the days until I could graduate and get on to a real life. I have learned so much more since I got out!

    I do agree that our public school system is extremely behind the times. I have been doing a lot of research on this matter lately and have read several of the books on your list. It is a huge institution and institutions are made of individuals and unfortunately there are lots of individuals that think that the past was better and are unwilling or unable to accept the changes that are necessary to keep our public or private school institutions from falling further into the pit of despair that they are currently in because of that inability to change with the times. It’s been happening for too many years.

    Education isn’t about going to a school building and being around hundreds of other students and neither is socialization. That is mass babysitting. I don’t believe it is the teachers fault, the parents or the children’s. Our society is so stuck on traditions. Like seeing value in reading but seeing playing video games as a bad thing. Tradition tells us that a child sitting in a corner reading a book is a good thing while that same child sitting in a corner playing a video game is determined to be wasting their time. That child is most likely using many of the same skills with both forms of media. It is time for us as individuals to begin changing peoples ideas of what learning really is. The more individuals that recognize the value in new ideas in learning the possibility that those that don’t see any alternative other than large institutions for education will at least begin to receive some benefit from the “time” spent there.

    Rome wasn’t built in a day and we certainly couldn’t end the use of educational institutions. Our world is too full of people and so many other institutions revolve around our schools. Helping individuals change, one by one, by making them aware of the alternatives by wonderful articles like yours that make people think about what they have always assumed was the “right” way to do things is an excellent beginning to change.

  34. Steve,

    I’m in the same pool as you are. I too come from a family that had enough money, with an engineer as a step-dad. I’m a 1988 graduate of SHS (South High, Minneapolis) which to my knowlege was the best school in the #1 district that year. I too was an autodidact computer programmer (among only 3 programmers in my high school), hacking professional software to improve the code (like you) before I was 13 years old. I too joined a programming class in the 10th grade and completed the hardest assignment on the first day just to boast – with one difference; the teacher allowed me to teach that class of 10 students for the entire trimester, and allowed me to respond to the raised hands from other students who were debugging their code. He offered and graded the tests, but let me do the teaching.

    I too was generally oppressed by the system and hated the slavery of going to school. I too skipped school and read books at the public library by Hiawatha and Lake Street – and spent some afternoons staying at that library or going elsewhere to avoid my parent’s religiously bent mental abuses – Mom, constantly telling me that I was wasting time by reading and programming into the early-morning hours.

    In school I felt forced to listen to the teachers teaching things that were simplistic at the pace of the rest of the slow class. I was “that kid” who was always doing “it” in school. I was also the kid who was placed in the advanced learning section and removed to a separate classroom for part of the day as “gifted” or “talented” and learned cryptography in the 4th grade, but found that having a teacher always pushing me to do something that I didn’t recognize as directly useful (and I needed to see the usefulness of my study in order to give it any attention), this impeded my ability to remain brilliant in the academics.

    According to my stepdad (who rarely spoke to me, his step-son), when I graduated from South HS, he suggested that I go to M.I.T., I thought it was just another small technical college that would result in a miserable pigeonholed life. I didn’t actually know that M.I.T. was a significant positive step. To me, M.I.T. was just a small technical school with no credentials – and the internet was not available to help find those answers. With a language barrier in my family, I believed that he was telling me to continue to be an underachiever. I responded and told my stepdad that instead of M.I.T., I wanted to go to a “real school” and left-home the next day by greyhound to enroll in a small business college in another state far-away from home, alone in the world.

    I graduated highschool, but never completed my college education track in computer sciences because I felt trapped by tuition and rental expenses of the system, and starved while studying, or neglected studies to earn money to survive. I also felt that college general education classes were less-than a poor repeat of my very good highschool classes – wasting more of my time in the ongoing prison-sentence of “school”.

    After attending 5 colleges without graduating, being told by my former deans that my college technical credits have expired and that I cannot graduate without taking the classes over-again, I work as an autodidact spanish interpreter for the local hospital. I still haven’t achieved my desired degree in computer sciences, but have ended up with a two-year technical AAS degree in robotics and industrial automation with high honors in 2005.

    I’ll describe my better teachers as an example of what WORKS for our personality type, later in this text, but I first want to mention another problem stemming from the poor and abusive kind of schooling and from a broken-home being the only step-child and oldest in a family of half-brothers; the problem is that I’ve become a caretaker personality.

    Like your discussion about your wife also being different, I also reach-out to people who have had or are experiencing similiar problems as I have had. I try to make their lives easier.. Unfortunately, there are people who take advantage of this – and as a result, I find myself divorced twice, with two children from the second attempt as a caretaker, and now a hugely unfair child-support burden that I’m stuck with because the system burdens me with paper-work, inflated unjust imputed garnishments, and court. The state of Minnesota revoked my driver’s license and passport while I was going to school for the purpose of gaining the ability to get a career job to pay that child-support, now with no-license or passport it has caused me to get layed-off from the robotics career that requires me to travel to foreign work-sites to install industrial machinery per my recent formal education.

    I could go back to programming computers as the prodigy that I was, but people won’t take me seriously because I don’t have that part of my education completed and haven’t had the ability to focus on that due to the other problems caused by our system.

    It’s not just education that enprisons us, it’s the long-hours of employment required to be “normal” citizen. I have found that being self-employed works much better for my personality-type. I focus easily and sustain that focus until a job is completed, and I have been self-employed for most of my adult life; The “system” doesn’t support self-employment, and I don’t feel right in a daily punch-card routine. I need to control my schedule, to own my creativity, and to be the chief of my caretaker desire to problem-solve and “program”. The state is preventing my progress and damaging my two children, and I feel trapped again. My life in the system is still a painful burden.

    There are some useful tips that I can glean for you teachers out there who want to know what to do with self-motivated students.

    I had some horrible teachers who taught on a strict itinerary and didn’t take time to help those who didn’t fit their mold. I also had just a few good ones.

    GOOD TEACHING EXAMPLES: I highly credit those few teachers that made the classroom into a game environment, and did not push all students to do exactly the same thing, but gave us the choice to elect an option every week. Linda Nelson, who taught english at South High School, learned from a Dr. Bruce King, who studied for his Master’s thesis while in Linda’s classroom where I was their student – they presented their lesson together as a choice for the students, placing several distinct challenging options on the blackboard at the onset of a new week, and allowing us to choose our path of education within those allowed options. For example; listed on the blackboard might be: one library research essay with counted words, one poem to write at stanza length following certain guidelines, one classroom presentation about a defined range of topics, one book-report from a list of books, and one lengthy vocabulary quiz based on a handout, student’s choice on which one to do for equal credit with another student who chose to do something else — in that format, I accelled.

    Antoher good example was the tenured Spanish teacher from Santiago, Chile named Arturo Herrera who identified one of my autodidact talents (spanish) and allowed me to join his class mid-year. In his envorinment, distict from that of Nelson and King, he gave homework by packet. Each chapter and topic of research was a thick stapled packet of take-home homework which students turned-in in order to receive the next homework packet – I started his packet-based class mid-year, completed the first entire year of homework in one month (including the homework that I had missed from not attending the first-half of his year), and then completed the second year’s homework in another month – faster than any student had ever studied spanish in South High School before, in a half-year, I was third-year Spanish and participated in a college-level language competition at St Olaf’s College that year. Arturo Herrera’s classroom environment was a participation contest with constant quizzing for participation points. We competed for points individually and as teams called “countries” with four-member student-teams seated at round tables scattered around the classroom. One student at each table was “president” of that “country” and served as a point-master, tracking and adding the points earned by each team-member on a daily basis. Grading was done as a goal – the classroom goal was to earn 100 points of classroom participation in a set allotment of time. My had was always raised – In this environment, I was the outsider for being “the best”. I’m still an self-study in Spanish, and work as an interpreter today.

    Regardless of subject, in general I accelled easily in everything that I saw useful – It was more important for me to understand the usefulness of the topic, than to hear the lesson. I could learn the lesson from the book, or listen to most teachers who basically quizzed directly from the books anyway, so by following the book, there was no real human element in the classroom from those teachers. It didn’t matter what the teacher was trying to peddle at the blackboard, the book removed the teacher’s personality from his lesson, and made the lesson dry and uninteresting unless there was a clear and useful reason to learn it – “How will learning this topic help me as an adult?”

    I remained in my prodigious bubble and learned everything I needed “alone”. Except for those few classes with brilliant teachers who knew how to spark an interest in continued learning in a student, I don’t feel that book-based school was useful in any way, and I too counted the days for it to come to an end.

    Today, I wonder where I would be if my step-dad would have taken the time to explain why he wanted me to attend M.I.T. — For a student who is motivated to learn alone, any topic can be easy and interesting. But a student who has a talent needs to know where to display that talent in order to be recognized. For a programmer, for example (I learned this just recently) there is a website called “top coder” where programmers can compete for worldwide recognition and receive instant job-offers. There are places for all kinds of talent to bloom, and that’s what I believe our teachers should be showing the students.

    I am 38 now, but still feel like I need a boost in life to get to where I “should be”. I need certifications for my talents, I need a BS or MS degree in computer science. I need venture capital.. and I keep trying, against incredible resistance from the system.

  35. Steve,
    I am so glad I stumbled onto this post. I have a nine year old daughter, she is very much a free spirit. I love that about her, she’s funny, articulate, very outgoing, she has a extraverted personalilty. All of these things that are just beautiful in my eyes. I was so opposite of her when I was a child, I was painfully shy, did not have much interest in anything. I don’t remember even one teacher ever taking the time to work with me, just prod the kids through, just like cattle. I am like you, in the sense that I am not bitter, eventually, I came out of my shell, and started enjoying life, but only after graduated from high school. My mother would have home schooled me, but at that time, it was against the law in the state of North Carolina. I am so glad the laws have changed. I have just recieved my letter of intent to withdraw my daughter from the public school system, and homeschool her. I believe this is the best decision I have ever made. I have two wonderful daughters, however my oldest has already been victimized by government schooling. When she was in the 2nd grade, her teacher informed me that she was learning disabled, I was very much uninformed of my options at that time, and allowed her to be labled. I regret that decision so much, she has never been LD, not now, not then, she is a very smart 22 year old adult now. She is a dance instructor, and I am very proud of her. The LD label followed her up until the day she graduated, she was in classes called inclusion, meaning that unlike the way it was done early on was to take the kids out of class that were labeled LD and put them in one classroom, now, the system allows them to stay in the same class with the other students, but they have another teacher that helps the students that are “LD”, as if the other children don’t recognize this and make fun of them anyway. I believe as she got older, she also rebelled because of this label, but I am happy to say she made it through and doing just fine now. The reason I believe she was labeled was for state funding, I was a easy target, I was a single mom, with no support from my ex-husband, and no college education, it was easy to target someone like me, I did not know at the time that the schools were appropriated additional funds for children with learning disabilities, I can’t change the decision I made now, but I try to inform as many people as I can to not fall into this trap. Now, getting back to my 9 year old, she is in the 4th grade, in what is supposed to be one of the best public schools in county, in fact we bought our home in this school district just so she would be able to attend this school, it was at one time one of the top 8 elementary schools in the state of N.C. Everything was fine up until she entered the 3rd grade, then I start recieving notes from her teacher explaining to me that, shes a daydreamer, she has ADHD, she talks too much, just endless criticisms of my daughter, and after many conferences with the teacher and the principle I just said, well its the 3rd grade, things will change and next year will be better. With only one month into this year, I’ve already had 8 conflicts with her teacher. I have talked to the principal several times about the teachers actions and reactions, but to no avail, they will not even hear me out, it’s always “well, you know how kids exaggerate at her age” or “maybe she’s just a drama queen”, all that it boils down to is that she does not conform, and this angers the teachers, she is a free spirit and they don’t like kids like her, and because I am a very proactive parent that speaks up when I see a wrong, they don’t like me. I get so tired of hearing the other parents complain, and never do anything about it. My childs teacher is a screamer, she likes to instill fear as a way of keeping her class in line, but I have a daughter that is not scared too tell me the things that she does in class, and I listen. She, interrogated my daughter because she was late for school on 9-11, I followed procedure walked her into the office, signed her in, the reason for her late I entered as “personal”, she recieved her pass to go to class and her teacher just happened to be walking down the hall, my daughter gave the note to her and then she started the questioning. Why were you late, my daughter told her that she had to go to the doctor( when I asked my daughter why did she lie, she told me that she was just so scared of her teacher that she did’nt know what else to say) then her teacher proceeded to ask what is your doctors name, my daughter told her his name, and then the teacher saids that’s my doctor too, now my daughter really is scared because she believes her teacher is going to call and check, so then the teacher said, Did you really go to the dr? So, she told her no, she said “my mom said it was personal” the teacher”so, did you stay up late last night? Once again in fear my child said “yes, I went to a church thing” ( and by the way she was in the bed at 8:30 the night before), then her teacher said”you just overslept this morning did’nt you? and my child said “yes”. Then the teacher told her not to ever lie to her again and by the way “lets just keep this conversation between me and you”. The only reason that I can think of why she lied was out of fear, and this is very said, when a child that won’t lie will resort to it when she feels that much fear towards a teacher. This is just the tip of the iceburg, she refuses to let her go to the bathroom when needed, even though I explained to her at orientation that my daughter has a medical condition, and she sees a pediatric urologist at the university of Chapel Hill’s hospital, and she will get severe UTI’s if she can’t go when she has to go. The teacher acted as if she understood, but she still makes her raise her hand, and then sign out of the class to go to the bathroom. I’m done, they can keep training these children to be robots but they will not do it to mine, and she will not break her spirit. There are other issues but just too long to go into detail. I spoke with the principal this morning, and she is begging me not to take her out of school, because “homeschooling does not offer the technology that we can” and “she can’t recieve the education that we can provide for her” which I take as an insult because I have a great support system for her needs, but my favorite line was “she will not learn the social skills that are so important for a childs success in life” that is a joke, she got social skills that the principal does not have. On that note I am going to give it up for the night, I am sure I have misspelled a lot of words, but it’s late and I’m tired, but thanks for giving me this forum too vent my frustrations with the government school system. Sincerly, Susan

  36. Thumbs up to you Susan!! One size fits all schools does not fit! We all learn differently. The schools don’t get it! They keep trying to squeeze everyone into one type of shoe and it’s causing bunions and calluses and even more serious debilitating problems. We need extra pairs of shoes, that will accommodate others’ differences.

  37. Hi Steve, I just found your piece about schooling and how the system doesn’t work. How sad for those of us who need and want a different way to learn. Experiential learning was the and ocnt=inues to be my style. It must be challenging having kids. I’ll be back to your blog, I like it!

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  38. Steve, My Russian wife and I home school our kids. When someone ask’s me about socialization, I joke with them saying, “My wife comes from a socialist country, and she says it’s not that great.”
    I agree with the term “Government school” If that is where the funding and mandates come from, then that is what it is.
    Another downside is that the kids get a new teacher every year. When one teacher finally figures out a kid’s learning style, off they go to another teacher. In Russian government schools, the kids at least kept the same teacher throughout elementary school.

  39. Hey. Right now I’m a student in a high school in California and I can safely say that you over exaggerate the so called horrors of public schools. I’ve gone to a public school my whole life, and can say I’ve never gone through any of these, nor seen anyone as continuously and widely mocked as you suggest. You refer to Minnesota as “the best of the best” as far as government schools go – perhaps that’s the case for academic rankings, but your article does not refer to the academic situations of government schools. You are definitely correct in that certain people, for their own benefit, should go to a smaller, more private school. Also, I am actually in the “Gifted and Talented Education” (GATE)program, and can say that, contrary to what Ms. Schuler says, most people in the program are not, in fact, in high risk. In all actuality, most people in the GATE program that I know of seem to hold themselves better than most other kids around. Despite all the aforementioned criticisms, your article was a good read.

  40. i think public school kids can’t really judge private school kids unless they actually experience private school, and private school kids can’t really judge public school unless they experience public school.

    i attended both, public from k-6 & private from 7- [currently] 11. it is a HUGE difference. there really is a fine line between both systems. both sides have unclear views between eachother, and it doesn’t make sense to say things about the other without actually experience.

    personally, i think if you go to a public school, you better pay attention to yourself and only yourself…in the end, only YOU can get your diploma. if you go to a private school, at least you have the teachers who will push you, and i REALLY mean push you, to your limits and MAKE you get your diploma. this is only because your paying for your education and you really get your money’s worth.

  41. in continuation, there are some public schools/systems that do push, but really, its all up to the student. there are choices for public school, where there aren’t for private. if you go to a private school, the students do not have rights because they pay for their education. it sounds wrong for a student to not have rights, but it’s true. my spanish teacher who works on the discipline committee said that if you go to a private school, all of your rights are removed.

    an example of choices is the diplomas. at the local public school, the minor diploma is 21 credits to graduate, and the major diploma is 26. at my private school, there is only one diploma, which is 26 credits to graduate.

    my private school diploma is equal to my local public school’s MAJOR diploma. so in the end, it is the students CHOICE to pick their high school courses, where as in my private school, you are FORCED to take the required courses.

  42. This is probably a really old post, but I found this linked through some other things and felt really moved to comment.

    Let me give a little background on myself. I’m 22 years old, and was home schooled from K-8 through a correspondence program with Calvert Schools (a private school in Baltimore); then I went to public high school. I can say, without arrogance, that I’m smarter than most people — I have a higher IQ, grasp concepts quicker, think more critically, and retain knowledge better than most of my peers, all skills that I can directly attribute to the Calvert education. Unlike the public schooling my peers received, Calvert focused primarily on teaching HOW to think for yourself — how to analyze, think critically, form opinions and defend them. Because of the way the grading system in Calvert works (you take a comprehensive test once every thirty pre-written lessons, and mail that into one of the correspondence teachers), I never learned how to *test* the way you do in public school — my mother would take the test with me and would essentially make sure I understood WHY I was making the answers I was, and then we’d complete the test together to be sure everything was answered the best way possible. Taking a test for Calvert could take up to a week. This is probably reflected in my less-than-stellar ACT score (26), which kept me from getting into the college of my choice despite my perfect GPA and general high intelligence. (I learned how to take tests in college — my GRE score was much more impressive).

    At any rate, I left 8th grade in Calvert perfectly capable of going to college; I can safely say that with a few minor exceptions, I never *learned* anything academically in high school. I graduated high school in three years, and went to college at 16, where I consistently remained one of the best students (once I figured out what the right major for me was — English) and then graduate school, which I amicably dropped out of after realizing that it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.

    What I DID learn in those three years of public education, though, was that NOTHING in my Calvert education had prepared me for the cruelty of teenagers — and I didn’t get it nearly as bad as most of my friends, because I 1.) only had to put up with it for three years rather than twelve, 2.) was self-sufficient and didn’t have the same requirements for acceptance that my peers did and 3.) I’m one of the lucky people who just projects a natural aura of “don’t mess with me”. Still, I suffered my share of abuse, and for no good reason.

    I’m ultimately not sure how I feel about the high school experience. I never had friends as a child — my first real social exposure was high school — and I’m not sure how that would have impacted me if I had done things differently. I’ve never had a difficult time meeting people (I’m very amicable and confident) and tend to get along with everyone; I MAKE friends very easily. I do however have a very difficult time MAINTAINING friendships, and I don’t know how much of that is a side-effect of never developing social skills as a child and how much is baggage from mistreatment in high school. I know in college I had to unlearn a number of my defense mechanisms from high school — I wonder if I would have been better off if I’d never experienced that three years of “socialization” before starting college.

    All that being said, I think just home-schooling isn’t enough. For me, it’s imperative to say not that I was home-schooled, but that I received a *Calvert Education*, because that was the real difference. I’ve known people who were also home-schooled, but either through various religious groups (ACE, I think, is one) or through some thrown-together curriculum their parents dreamt up, and the results were disastrous. — the kids could only learn as much as the person teaching them knew, and there was no way to track their progress…and they also didn’t receive any socialization. Calvert was a legitimate correspondence course — every year, all of your books and supplies would arrive in the mail, complete with 180 pre-planned lessons. You could teach yourself based from the lesson plan, or be taught by a parent who didn’t know the material, and still gain from it.

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