How Schools Hold Children Down

Gulliverby Bruce Price   12/11/13
Behold the mighty Gulliver, in the prime of his life held down by a few dozen strands. This has always been an arresting image. It seems paradoxical that such little ropes could restrain this gigantic creature. But let’s imagine that instead of rope tied to pegs, we use piano wire secured to metal beams. Then you realize that probably even a mighty athlete could be firmly secured with ten or twenty wires.

It’s simply a matter of having the right restraints cleverly arranged. You have to make sure the wires press down on the right parts of the body.

Let’s consider the typical child in the typical school. What would you have to do to make sure that, education-wise, the child was adequately restrained?

Do you wonder why anyone would want that? Some political philosophies demand that citizens be kept under control. Some ideologies insist that all runners run at the same speed, otherwise the race isn’t fair. Some people are ruthless control freaks. Some elitists want everyone else kept in their place. Some pundits say, blame dumbing-down on greedy corporations. It turns out that there are many forces working against genuine education, and here are some of their techniques. [pullquote]In this vacuum-friendly pedagogy, teachers don’t talk about interesting facts. They are forbidden to do so! Rather, the children are supposed to discover facts for themselves. As they can hardly read or count, they will discover facts only in a very rudimentary sense. Still, they are made to seem busy all day. This keeps the parents at bay.[/pullquote]

Suppose you could keep a child from reading right away. Indeed, many of the early Progressive educators believed that reading shouldn’t begin until fourth-grade, so they were very comfortable with reading retardation. G. Stanley Hall, the professor who mentored John Dewey, thought that illiteracy was a satisfactory outcome for ordinary children. Parents, of course, didn’t buy this malarkey; they were always pushing for literacy. What could Progressive educators do? They had to come up with ineffective reading instruction so they could appear to be teaching children to read. But almost no one would learn to read at a high level. Ordinary kids would be forever semi-literate. That in a nutshell is the history of Whole Word, which has stupefied tens of millions (famously explained by Rudolf Flesch in Why Johnny Can’t Read). If a child cannot read in a comfortable, capable way, you can easily imagine how little progress will occur in Geography, History, Science, Literature, etc.

But that’s just a start. How would you keep a child from doing arithmetic? Numbers are everywhere: clocks and calendars, road signs and speedometers, buying things and counting change. Probably most kids would learn a good deal of math if you just left them alone.

Here is the genius of New Math (and the later variation called Reform Math) — it never left children alone. Even as these pedagogical interventions refused to teach mundane useful math, they relentlessly forced children to wander helplessly in advanced math. This was quite a clever trick. Most of the parents didn’t know much math; so they were cowed into silence by constant references to algebra, geometry, statistics, set theory, engineering, trigonometry, pre-calculus, base eight, place value, properties of operations, and lots of other jargon. Who could be against such wonders?

These programs (New Math and a dozen varieties of Reform Math) were brilliantly designed. Children went all the way through high school, arrived at college, and still couldn’t multiply 7 x 6 without a calculator. (One persistent problem was that some children have a knack for math. How could such naturals be slowed down? Simple. You make all of math instruction revolve around verbose word problems. These kids haven’t been taught to be good readers. Of course they will struggle with word problems. Problem solved.)

All right, now at this point the children don’t have both arms, so to speak, but they’re still running loose, they’re seeing, hearing, talking. Educationally speaking, they are much too active. If teachers merely discussed interesting facts, these children could still learn a lot. So that had to be stopped. The name of this technique is Constructivism (or the Discovery Method). In this vacuum-friendly pedagogy, teachers don’t talk about interesting facts. They are forbidden to do so! Rather, the children are supposed to discover facts for themselves. As they can hardly read or count, they will discover facts only in a very rudimentary sense. Still, they are made to seem busy all day. This keeps the parents at bay.

No reading, arithmetic, or knowledge. You underestimate the commitment of our Education Establishment if you think they stopped here. No, they came up with many more devices for making sure that the education-elevator remains permanently on the first floor.

Self-Esteem, for example, dictates that children should not be allowed to feel badly about themselves. If some children learn more than others, the ignorant children will lose self-esteem. This evil cannot be permitted. The key is to make sure that everything is taught to everybody at the same low level.

Cooperative Learning, another leveling device, has been remarkably successful at eliminating some of the last vestiges of traditional education. Children work in groups of about six. All children are doing essentially the same thing; typically they are engaged in a project. Usually it will be something that sounds very grand, for example, Environmental Priorities in the Third World. The big feat here is that the children will use Google to find enough phrases to create a portfolio or poster listing those priorities. What each child actually understands might be very little; what they remember next year might be close to zero. But if every child has a high opinion of himself, and parents think, look at this fancy stuff my kid is working on, that’s enough. Meanwhile, children never learn what it means to be independent and self-reliant.

With the technique called Learning Styles, children are divided up according to a new sort of “racism”: you have kinesthetic learners, auditory learners, visual learners, and many other kinds. Teachers expend a great deal of time and energy trying to figure out what kind of learner each student is, so they can tailor their lessons to fit various sorts of brains. Teachers are already exhausted before the first instance of teaching takes place. Learning Styles is something like karma and astrology combined. If you had a past life as a lion but your moon is in Taurus, no one can be surprised if you don’t succeed. Learning Styles is an all-purpose alibi when schools do a bad job.[pullquote]Self-Esteem, for example, dictates that children should not be allowed to feel badly about themselves. If some children learn more than others, the ignorant children will lose self-esteem. This evil cannot be permitted. The key is to make sure that everything is taught to everybody at the same low level.[/pullquote]

Another determinist technique is called Prior Knowledge. This one is particularly bizarre. The central premise is that children know lots of old stuff, and it will surely get in the way of learning new stuff. There is almost nothing anyone can do. The old stuff will sit there like an overturned truck in the middle of the road; traffic can’t advance. The teacher must be very careful to catalog this old knowledge and struggle bravely to escape from its grip. But according to some theorists, Prior Knowledge is like having a genetic defect. You’re stuck with it. (Note that the central trick in all of these techniques is to make sure the victim is at fault. The deep problem usually turns out to be something in the child’s past or in the wiring of his brain. Certainly, schools cannot be held responsible if children show up with genetic defects.)

Still another cornucopia of bad outcomes is made possible by a relentless emphasis on guessing and fuzziness. Close is good. The one correct answer is never glorified, indeed it is scorned. Children are told to indicate various ways of possibly trying to find an answer. These hapless children are expected to use context clues, picture clues, and prior knowledge. They should talk it over with their group, and take a shot. If they can show any reason at all why they came up with the answer they did, they can get an A. (Now just for fun, imagine that each of these children actually knew the right way to find the answer, and then found it. Think how satisfying that would be for them. But that sort of euphoria might encourage children to be more serious about their education, exactly the opposite of the desired goal.)

So you see, it’s just one wire after another stretched tightly and tautly across the bodies and minds of the children. Each of them is a little Gulliver tied down by a swarm of lilliputian con artists.


Instead of the empty techniques discussed above, our schools should be teaching basic skills and foundational knowledge, as outlined in A Bill of Rights for Students 2012.

Note: You’ll find article such as 26: How To Teach History at Improve-Education.org.
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Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org • (821 views)

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3 Responses to How Schools Hold Children Down

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    Let’s consider the typical child in the typical school. What would you have to do to make sure that, education-wise, the child was adequately restrained?

    Do you wonder why anyone would want that? Some political philosophies demand that citizens be kept under control. Some ideologies insist that all runners run at the same speed, otherwise the race isn’t fair. Some people are ruthless control freaks. Some elitists want everyone else kept in their place.

    I’m truly astounded that there is another human being alive on this earth who understands what “equality” actually means. Bruce does.

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    Much of this reminds me of the opening scene in the TV movie version of Vonnegut’s dystopian version of equality-gone-mad, “Harrison Bergeron”, which I first read in a magazine called Read during 6th grade.

    • faba calculo says:

      The thesis that schools are purposefully not teaching rather than attempting to teach, with various levels of success, reminds me of fiction as well.

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