Children’s Liberation

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We don’t need no education/We don’t need no thought control/No dark sarcasm in the classroom/Hey, teacher,leave them kids alone.”
– Roger Waters, Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2

Here’s a thought for you. Suppose every day you were forced to go to a job you did not apply for and had absolutely no control over. You were kept in a building under surveillance in a subordinate position for thirteen years, being commanded by a relative stranger where to physically be at all times; who to associate with; when you could speak, shit, stretch, eat, stand up; what you could read, what you could think about. Your personal interests, aspirations, religious beliefs and values are considered inconsequential. Additionally, you’d have to be constantly vigilant to the arbitrary nastiness of bullies, cliques and disgruntled superiors. The longer you work, the more humiliating things get: searches of your locker and briefcase, merciless teasing, violence, security guards watching you at all times, random drug tests. In all these years, you will never be the equal of your managers and supervisors.
As your tenure progresses, you come to the realization that everything you are given to do is busy work. When you are asked questions, the answers are already known. There are no real problems to solve; nothing you do is useful, meaningful or productive to the society in which you live. Sound appealing? Of course not. But this is what we subject our children to when we institutionalize them in the prison called school.
No one gets to choose how to spend all her time. This is true enough. But free adults are not forced to take particular jobs. They are not answerable for every movement they make; chastised or browbeaten for each lapse of attention from things that don’t interest them; prevented from beginning or ending a conversation. Free adults have free minds – even in a menial job, a supervisor hasn’t the right to invade a worker’s thoughts. A job cannot force conformity of belief, pigeon-hole your aspirations, label you a failure. Compulsory schooling does all these things.
Schooling is not education. “Once a man or woman has accepted the need for school, he or she is easy prey for other institutions.” So writes Ivan Illich in his eloquent Deschooling Society. “…medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work.” By accepting compulsory schooling, we are swallowing the myth of institutional superiority and of our subordinate place in it. We are prepared to hand over major life decisions and public policy to institutional “experts.”
I am not an advocate of homeschooling. Homeschooling conjures up images of workbooks on the kitchen table, packaged curriculum and hiding children away from the rest of the world. I am an advocate of no schooling. The idea that schooling is necessary shows how effective the propaganda of compulsory education has been in this country. Compulsory schooling in the United States did not exist until approximately one hundred and fifty years ago when the need for conformity to sustain an industrialized  society became alarmingly evident. Those who would train children in school to be unquestioning automatons found unlikely support in social reformers who embraced compulsory education as a means of ending child labor. Before this time, people went to school when they and/or their guardians deemed it appropriate; and then only to receive the basics.
John Taylor Gatto, a contemporary, much-prized teacher who turned his back on the system, relates that it takes 100 hours of instruction to teach basic reading and math to an interested student. This instruction does not have to come from anyone with specialized certificates or training. From this foundation, children can use these tools to seek out any knowledge in the world. Gatto also tells us that most educational research points to the undeniable fact that human beings only learn on their own or in a one-on-one situation. Mass schooling is known to be ineffective as an instrument of education. The facts are easy to see: compulsory education in the U.S. coincided with the need to train workers to be subordinate and “know their place” in an industrialized society; the national literacy rate was higher before compulsory education; most of the people we collectively idolize as brilliant had little or no formal schooling: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford to name a few.
All of these people were free-thinkers. They sought out knowledge and directed their own educations. They decided what to study and what to pursue. They learned one-on-one or own their own. Most of them were versed in a multitude of intellectual pursuits – their learning was diverse and dynamic. They did not choose a predetermined slot to settle into. They were not labeled and tracked. These people would never have sacrificed their individuality and independence to a soul-deadening system.
So, if kids today were not in school, what would they be doing? On a large scale,wouldn’t this upset the order of things? What will we do with children hanging around all day? How will we accomplish our jobs?
Children who are not schooled are devouring books that interest them; they are asking questions about what they see, hear and experience; they are observing people and nature; they are learning to identify plants, animals and rocks; they are learning to deal with people of different ages and viewpoints; they are building things; they are making art; they are collecting things; they are seeking people with common interests to learn from and share with; they are visiting museums, libraries, state parks; they are learning to balance the checkbook and cook; they are helping with household tasks; they are playing; they are spending time alone; they are resting when they’re tired. They are exploring the possibilities of who they are and what interests them.
Yes, the order of things would be enormously upset, to say the least. It would be nothing short of a revolution. There would be no more business as usual. We would have to adapt. For example – instead of segregating children from adults, we would need to make accommodations for them to accompany us to meetings and sometimes to our jobs. Children would have to learn to be respectful of others and adults would have to loosen the demand for absolute silence and “businesslike” behavior. We may have to allow puzzles or quiet toys in the conference room. We may have to repeat, explain or illustrate a point. We may have to take time out to discipline – “that isn’t something you should be doing now,” or “please wait until she’s finished talking to ask your question.” Parents would have to assume responsibility for their children.
We could not accomplish our jobs in the same way as our current society demands. We will have to accept informal observation and apprentices. We will have to take our children with us more and not filter their learning experiences. We cannot be soulless cogs in a corporate machine or production-line robots. We will have a lot of explaining to do. We will have to allow children to try out and eventually take on new responsibilities. We will have to integrate them as members of society and not just visitors. All the tortuous hours and millions of minor (and major) humiliations adults remember from our own school experiences; Ritalin; and all the books on how to help children cope with the problems created by the school environment would be relics of a discarded social philosophy.
Such a revolution requires sacrifice on the part of adults. Sacrifice a little of your productivity to answer a child’s questions. Sacrifice the two-wage household for a real connection with your children. Sacrifice some of your leisure time to work on a project with a child or young adult you know. Sacrifice television watching for meaningful activities you wish to model for your child. Sacrifice some free time to help a single parent household. Include children in adult activities as much as possible. Let them learn to be members of society by participating in that society. Deschooling requires a radical altering of priorities. It requires a painful, self-critical look at how we live. It requires slowing down, negotiation and hard work. How can we cope with wild, undisciplined children running around our towns day and night?
Children who are not schooled learn self-discipline and selfcontrol.
They generally do not run rough-shod over other people’s rights and feelings. They know there are times to keep a low profile. This is not because they are drugged with behavior-modifying pharmaceuticals. It is because they do not have all their energies and interests repressed or disregarded and because they see considerate behavior modeled in the adults they interact with and respect. It is not natural for successive human generations to dismiss their elders as irrelevant; if such were the case, we would already be extinct.
The drive to learn is inborn. Watch a baby learning to walk. Watch a toddler trying to imitate her older brother’s actions or repeatedly dress and undress. Think of how your head hurts after your child asks you question after question. As John Holt reminds us, we need to trust that drive to learn. Have faith in your child, not in institutions.
Aside from the fact that it is the right thing to do, what can we hope to gain from child liberation? A better democracy with a more critical, discerning citizenry; a reawakening of our own drive to learn; a more compassionate community; more creative solutions to our problems; cultural and artistic proliferation – and people to actively care enough about adults to include us when we’re old because we cared enough about them to include them when they were young.

Gina Cassidy is a Champaign resident and mother of three.

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