So You Hated School. Guess What. It Hated You Too.

You were there. You sat in the seat, took notes, raised your hand and answered the questions. You might have even aced a few tests. But if you’re like the rest of us, school didn’t really inspire you or bring your life much joy or meaning. If you’re currently in school, you know exactly what I’m talking about it. It’s okay, you can admit it. You hated school.

For the vast majority, you will continue to hate it or, best case scenario, tolerate it. This is no fluke. There are many reasons, but let’s just boil it down to a few. You won’t be tested on these, but you should be aware of them.

School isn’t about you

Author and educator Derrick Jensen writes that “There’s really only one question in life, and only one lesson. This question is whispered endlessly to us from all directions. The moon asks it each night, as do the stars. It’s asked by drops of rain that cling to the soft ends of cedar branches, and by teardrops that cluster at the fold of your nose or the edge of your mouth. Frogs, flowers, stones, pieces of broken plastic, all ask this of each other, of themselves, and of you. The question: Who are you?” He goes on to make the point that school completely ignores this question in a fundamental way. It is about the Pyramids or about the degrees in a triangle or the atomic weight of a water molecule. And of course, these things relate to you and they are about you, in a sense. But school uses these as a starting point to eventually get to the question of how it relates to you. If the starting point was you, something tells me, you could keep your eyes open for a bit longer in second period geometry.

Traditional schooling can actually discourage your thinking process

How many times have you heard a teacher tell you to stay on topic? Whether speaking or writing, the traditional approach to education is to pick a topic and stay on that topic until you have squeezed it to death. Any stray thoughts or ideas that “don’t relate” to what you’re talking about are to be speedily discarded. The truth is, once you start on one idea, and truly begin to think about it, you see how it relates to other ideas, and how those ideas relate to other ideas. It’s like a spider web. You begin to see the interconnectedness of everything. In doing so, you begin to make sense of the world and see how things interrelate and effect each other.

When academic methodology tells you to stay on topic and don’t go off on tangents, what it’s really saying is don’t allow your mind to make connections. Don’t explore, don’t hypothesize, don’t contextualize. Of course, there is a lot of value in being able to stick to one argument or one line of thinking and logically, systematically, in a linear way bring it to fruition. But linear thinking is only one kind of thinking. The world is as much like a giant interconnected web as it is like a straight line. To the extent that school, classroom or teacher tries to make it a straight line, it misses out on an opportunity to actually help people think and make sense of the world.

Teachers hammer on you

According to Horace Mann, an educational reformer and politician, “A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.” At first this sounds inspirational. The point many people take is that a teacher should inspire not just hammer. This is close to, but not the same as the quote attributed to Plutarch and WB Yeats and everybody under the sun: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” But if you take a look at the Horace Mann quote, there is a dirty underside. Would it be better if the students were first warmed up through inspiration and would therefore be hot iron that the teacher could then “hammer” on? The way teachers have approached students for centuries is that they are objects that need to be manipulated or changed.

But Brazilian educator and philosopher Paulo Freire spent a great deal of his life emphasizing that “education must begin with the solution of the student-teacher contradiction, by reconciling the poles of contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students.” Most people who design schools don’t know who Paulo Freire was or what he was about, but they do know that the most common correct answer to a multiple choice answer is usually C. The whole system is and will continue to be based on the teacher-student contradiction. That is precisely why…

Your teachers try to teach you

A large majority of teachers assume that teaching is merely transferring knowledge from one place to another. From their brains to yours. But it was one of the most notable teachers of all time, Socrates, who said, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” Perhaps your teachers were better than Socrates and succeeded in “teaching you something.” Kudos to them. However, in my opinion, greater emphasis should be put on making you think, rather than “knowing” what other people have thought.

Most conventional schooling focuses on the latter. This has been the basic approach to education and is still the reason we hate school and homework and tests. Tests have always sided with assessing what (the curriculum) to think rather than how (the process) to think. That’s why much of testing is multiple choice. It’s not interested in how or why you got the answer, just that you got the answer. These tests can much more easily assess the what than the how. Because of that, you get a lot of emphasis on “knowing” shit. Knowing this and knowing that–meaning you can recall the definition or maybe if you’re lucky, explain how or why (someone else has told you) it works.

Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford, certainly doesn’t hate school, but even she has observed that “If we taught babies to talk as most skills are taught in school, they would memorize lists of sounds in a predetermined order and practice them alone in a closet.” Sadly, the paradigm still has not shifted all that much, folks. The past is hanging onto us like a bad cold.

You didn’t learn the right things you thought you did.

The truth is, you actually did learn a lot of things in school, but maybe not the things you thought you did. John Dewey defines collateral learning as things that are learned in a classroom that were not explicitly taught. They are things that students were not intended to learn, but did end up learning. He says “Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of like and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned…the most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning.”

However, what often ends up being learned collaterally, according to 30 year veteran teacher and author John Taylor Gatto, is this: “Learning to wait your turn, however long it takes to come, if ever. And how to submit with a show of enthusiasm to the judgment of strangers, even if they are wrong, even if your enthusiasm is phony.” He contrasts this with his vision of what school should be. The “primary goal of real education is not to deliver facts but to guide students to the truths that will allow them to take responsibility for their lives.”

Which brings us full circle. You hate school because school hates you and treats you like data. You are a test score, you are a pupil, you are a seat to be filled. In short, you are a subject. John D. Rockefeller said it best: “I don’t want a nation of thinkers. I want a nation of workers.” As a side note, Rockefeller created the General Education Board in 1903 to dispense Rockefeller funds to education. See what I mean? Education is not about empowering you or assisting you in the journey of life. It’s really about herding people into groups and making them jump through hoops. As Woodrow Wilson said, education is about getting the kinds of classes of people we want. Specifically, he said, we want “one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forgo the privilege of a real education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.” It is precisely this reason that you hated school and simply tolerated it the best you could.

Is it possible that our current educational system isn’t designed to actually give most people a “real education”? Are we meant to forgo that privilege? No wonder we hate that shit.


Featured image by Paradox 56 via Flickr.