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WE NEED LESS SCHOOL, NOT MORE
“We were making the future,” he said, and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is!
— The Sleeper Awakes, H. G. Wells
This essay — a personal favorite — was written especially for the first edition, and presented many times as a public speech before the book was published.
ASURPRISING NUMBER OF otherwise sensible people find it hard to see why the scope and reach of our formal schooling networks should not be increased (by extending the school day or year, for instance) in order to provide an economical solution to the problems posed by the decay of the American family. One reason for their preference, I think, is that they have trouble understanding the real difference between communities and networks, or even the difference between families and networks.
Because of this confusion they conclude that replacing a bad network with a good one is the right way to go. Since I disagree so strongly with the fundamental premise that networks are workable substitutes for families, and because from anybody’s point of view a lot more school is going to cost a lot more money, I thought I’d tell you why, from a school teacher’s perspective, we shouldn’t be thinking of more school, but of less.
People who admire our school institution usually admire networking in general and have an easy time seeing its positive side, but they overlook its negative aspect: networks, even good ones, drain the vitality from communities and families. They provide mechanical (“by-the-numbers”) solutions to human problems, when a slow, organic process of self-awareness, self-discovery, and cooperation is what is required if any solution is to stick.
Think of the challenge of losing weight. It’s possible to employ mechanical tricks to do this quickly, but I’m told that ninety-five percent of the poor souls who do are only fooling themselves. The weight lost this way doesn’t stay off; it comes back in a short time. Other network solutions are just as temporary: a group of law students may network to pass their college exams, but preparing a brief in private practice is often a solitary, lonely experience.
Aristotle saw, a long time ago, that fully participating in a complex range of human affairs was the only way to be become fully human; in that he differed from Plato. What is gained from consulting a specialist and surrendering all judgment is often more than outweighed by a permanent loss of one’s own volition. This discovery accounts for the curious texture of real communication, where people argue with their doctors, lawyers, and ministers, tell craftsmen what they want instead of accepting what they get, frequently make their own food from scratch instead of buying it in a restaurant or defrosting it, and perform many similar acts of participation. A real community is, of course, a collection of real families who themselves function in this participatory way.
Networks, however, don’t require the whole person, but only a narrow piece. If, on the other hand, you function in a network, it asks you to suppress all the parts of yourself except the network-interest part — a highly unnatural act although one you can get used to. In exchange, the network will deliver efficiency in the pursuit of some limited aim. This is, in fact, a devil’s bargain, since on the promise of some future gain one must surrender the wholeness of one’s present humanity. If you enter into too many of these bargains, you will split yourself into many specialized pieces, none of them completely human. And no time is available to reintegrate them. This, ironically, is the destiny of many successful networkers and doubtless generates much business for divorce courts and therapists of a variety of persuasions.
The fragmentation caused by excessive networking creates diminished humanity, a sense that our lives are out of control — because they are. If we face the present school and community crisis squarely, with hopes of finding a better way, we need to accept that schools, as networks, create a large part of the agony of modem life. We don’t need more schooling — we need less.
I expect you’ll want some proof of that, even though the million or so people participating in education at home these days have begun to nibble at the edge of everybody’s consciousness and promise to bite their way into national attention when details of their success get around a little more. So for those of you who haven’t heard that you don’t need officially certified teachers in officially certified schools to get a good education, let me try to expose some of the machinery that makes certified schooling so bad. And remember, if you’re thinking, “but it’s always been that way” — it really hasn’t.
Compulsory schooling in factory schools is a very recent, very Massachusetts/New York development. Remember, too, that until thirty odd years ago you could escape mass schooling after school; now it is much harder to escape because another form of mass schooling — television — has spread all over the place to blot up any attention spared by school. So what was merely grotesque in our national treatment of the young before 1960 has become tragic now that mass commercial entertainment, as addictive as any other hallucinogenic drug, has blocked the escape routes from mass schooling.
It is a fact generally ignored when considering the communal nature of institutional families like schools, large corporations, colleges, armies, hospitals, and government agencies that they are not real communities at all, but networks. Unlike communities, networks, as I reminded you, have a very narrow way of allowing people to associate, and that way is always across a short spectrum of one, or at most a few, specific uniformities.
In spite of ritual moments like the Christmas party or the office softball game — when individual human components in the network “go home,” they go home alone. And in spite of humanitarian support from fellow workers that eases emergencies — when people in networks suffer, they suffer alone, unless they have a family or community to suffer with them.
Even with college dorm “communities,” those most engaging and intimate simulations of community imaginable, who among us has not experienced the awful realization after graduation that we cannot remember our friends’ names or faces very well? Or who, if we can remember, feels much desire to renew those associations?
It is a puzzling development, as yet poorly understood, that the “caring” in networks is in some important way feigned. Not maliciously, but in spite of any genuine emotional attractions that might be there, human behavior in network situations often resembles a dramatic act — matching a script produced to meet the demands of a story. And, as such, the intimate moments in networks lack the sustaining value of their counterparts in community. Those of you who remember the wonderful closeness possible in army camp life or sports teams and who have now forgotten those you were once close with will understand what I mean. In contrast, have you ever forgotten an uncle or an aunt?
If the loss of true community entailed by masquerading in networks is not noticed in time, a condition arises in the victim’s spirit very much like the “trout starvation” that used to strike wilderness explorers whose diet was made up exclusively of stream fish. While trout quell the pangs of hunger — and even taste good — the eater gradually suffers for want of sufficient nutrients.
Networks like schools are not communities, just as school training is not education. By preempting fifty percent of the total time of the young, by locking young people up with other young people exactly their own age, by ringing bells to start and stop work, by asking people to think about the same thing at the same time in the same way, by grading people the way we grade vegetables — and in a dozen other vile and stupid ways — network schools steal the vitality of communities and replace it with an ugly mechanism. No one survives these places with their humanity intact, not kids, not teachers, not administrators, and not parents.
A community is a place in which people face each other over time in all their human variety: good parts, bad parts, and all the rest. Such places promote the highest quality of life possible — lives of engagement and participation. This happens in unexpected ways, but it never happens when you’ve spent more than a decade listening to other people talk and trying to do what they tell you to do, trying to please them after the fashion of schools. It makes a real lifelong difference whether you avoid that training or it traps you.
An example might clarify this. Networks of urban reformers will convene to consider the problems of homeless vagrants, but a community will think of its vagrants as real people, not abstractions. Ron, Dave or Marty — a community will call its bums by their names. It makes a difference.
People interact on thousands of invisible pathways in a community, and the emotional payoff is correspondingly rich and complex. But networks can only manage a cartoon simulation of community and provide a very limited payoff.
I belong to some networks myself, of course, but the only ones I consider completely safe are the ones that reject their communal facade, acknowledge their limits, and concentrate solely on helping me do a specific and necessary task. But a vampire network like a school, which tears off huge chunks of time and energy needed for building community and family — and always asks for more — needs to have a stake driven through its heart and be nailed into its coffin. The feeding frenzy of formal schooling has already wounded us seriously in our ability to form families and communities, by bleeding away time we need with our children and our children need with us. That’s why I say we need less school, not more.
Who can deny that networks can get some jobs done? They do. But they lack any ability to nourish their members emotionally. The extreme rationality at the core of networking is based on the same misperception of human nature the French Enlightenment and Comte were guilty of. At our best we human beings are much, much grander than merely rational; at our best we transcend rationality while incorporating its procedures into our lower levels of functioning. This is why computers will never replace people, for they are condensed to be rational, and hence very limited.
Networks divide people, first from themselves and then from each other, on the grounds that this is the efficient way to perform a task. It may well be, but it is a lousy way to feel good about being alive. Networks make people lonely. They cannot correct their inhuman mechanism and still succeed as networks. Behind the anomaly that networks look like communities (but are not) lurks the grotesque secret of mass schooling and the reason why enlarging the school domain will only aggravate the dangerous conditions of social disintegration it is intended to correct.
I want to repeat this until you are sick of hearing it. Networks do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that they can manage human social and psychological needs. The reality is that they cannot. Even associations as inherently harmless as bridge clubs, chess clubs, amateur acting groups, or groups of social activists will, if they maintain a pretense of whole friendship, ultimately produce that odd sensation familiar to all city dwellers of being lonely in the middle of a crowd. Which of us who frequently networks has not felt this sensation? Belonging to many networks does not add up to having a community, no matter how many you belong to or how often your telephone rings.
With a network, what you get at the beginning is all you ever get. Networks don’t get better or worse; their limited purpose keeps them pretty much the same all the time, as there just isn’t much development possible. The pathological state which eventually develops out of these constant repetitions of thin human contact is a feeling that your “friends” and “colleagues” don’t really care about you beyond what you can do for them, that they have no curiosity about the way you manage your life, no curiosity about your hopes, fears, victories, defeats. The real truth is that the “friends” falsely mourned for their indifference were never friends, just fellow networkers from whom in fairness little should be expected beyond attention to the common interest.
But given our unquenchable need for community and the unlikelihood of obtaining that community in a network, we are so desperate for any solution that we are driven to deceive ourselves about the nature of these liaisons. Whatever “caring” really means, it means something more than simple companionship or even the comradeship of shared interests.
In the growth of human society, families came first, communities second, and only much later came the institutions set up by the community to serve it. Most institutional rhetoric — the proclaiming of what is important — borrows its values from those of individual families that work well together.
Particularly over the past century and a half in the United States, spokesmen for institutional life have demanded a role above and beyond service to families and communities. They have sought to command and prescribe as kings used to do, though there is an important difference. In the case of ancient kings, once beyond the range of their voices and trumpets you could usually do what you pleased; but in the case of modem institutions, the reach of technology is everywhere — there is no escape if the place where you live and the family you live in cannot provide sanctuary.
Institutions, say their political philosophers, are better at creating marching orders for the human race than families are; therefore they should no longer be expected to follow but should lead. Institutional leaders have come to regard themselves as great synthetic fathers to millions of synthetic children, by which I mean to all of us. This theory sees us bound together in some abstract family relationship in which the state is the true mother and father; hence it insists on our first and best loyalty.
“Ask not,” said President Kennedy, “what your country can do for you, but rather ask what you can do for your country.” Since the “you” in question is both real and human and the country you are alleged to possess is one of the most extreme of verbal abstractions, it will readily be seen that the president’s injunction is an expression of a synthetic family philosophy which regards “nation” as possessing a claim superior to the claim of “family”. If you see nothing wrong with this, then it is probable you also believe that, with a little tinkering, our schools will work just fine. But if you have a queer feeling about the image of yourself and your family as appendages of an abstraction, then we are on the same wavelength. In the latter case, we are ready to consider that we may need less school, not more.
I want to examine the destructive effects the false claim of institutional prerogative has on both individual and family life, a destructiveness equally profound whether the claim comes from a government, a corporation, or some other form of network.
If we return to our original discussion of networks, it will be clear that every one of our national institutions is a place where men, women, and children are isolated according to some limited aspect of their total humanity: by age, and a few other considerations in the case of compulsory schooling, as well as by various other sorting mechanisms in the other institutional arenas.
If performance within these narrow confines is conceived to be the supreme measure of success, if, for instance, an A average is considered the central purpose of adolescent life — the requirements for which take most of the time and attention of the aspirant — and if the worth of the individual is reckoned by victory or defeat in this abstract pursuit, then a social machine has been constructed which, by attaching purpose and meaning to essentially meaningless and fantastic behavior, will certainly dehumanize students, alienate them from their own human nature, and break the natural connection between them and their parents, to whom they would otherwise look for significant affirmations.
Welcome to the world of mass schooling, which sets this goal as its supreme achievement. Are you sure we want more of it?
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