John Singleton with Bob Howard, Rip Van Australia (Stanmore: Cassell Australia, 1977), pp. 83-87, under the heading “Education”.
Education is the modern cure-all. It is thought of as the barrier that has to be smashed through before poor or underprivileged kids can make good. Because of this too much emphasis is placed on qualifications and education in our society today. We are so concerned with force feeding education to our kids that we’ve forgotten something. We’ve forgotten that our children aren’t mindless robots, but real, living, flesh-and-blood human beings. They have minds, needs, and wills of their own. But we, in our wisdom, have managed to construct an education system that mounts a brutal attack on all three. We then have the hide to turn around and resent the fact that our children don’t don’t appear to appreciate what it is we are doing for them. It’s probably because they are so painfully aware of what we are doing to them, that children are a little confused about what it is we are supposed to be doing for them.
That our educational system is not producing the goods is by now common knowledge. Business people are increasingly concerned about the lack of skills — such as the abilities to read, write and effectively communicate — demonstrated by many schools and university graduates. The dissatisfaction of large numbers of young people with the education system is also obvious. How many would attend if they didn’t have to? Schools are being burnt down and vandalized. (The same does not happen to libraries, which are voluntary places of learning.)
Educationalist John Holt has for many years been a trenchant critic of modern educationist systems:
When you turn education into a race, which is essentially what we do, you have to have more losers than winners. That’s how races work. We really have to award 100 loser labels in our schools for every winner label we put on. The trouble with putting loser labels on people is that they begin to feel like losers, and think like losers, and act like losers, and human growth stops.1
Modern education has led to a complete breakdown of the old educational networks that used to exist in culture and communities. The standard response to children’s questions to parents is likely to be “ask your teachers”.
In Australia, as elsewhere, [so-called] mental illness is becoming enormously more prevalent. There is an epidemic of unhappiness, of people not knowing what they want to do, what occupation they want. Eventually, they drift into some job or other, but because of a basic lack of interest, don’t do it well. All this and more is happening. We see it, have experienced it, know it, and naturally do nothing about it.
Learning is the most natural function known to us. We start learning the moment we are born (if not before). We have to learn to survive.
Young children are the most inquisitive beings imaginable. “Why?” is the most constant word tossed at parents. Babies learn with all their senses — touching, tasting, listening, seeing, feeling emotionally (as distinct from touching), and talking (or attempting to).
Why is it that after a few years in school, this all changes, and children have to be forced to “learn”? Is this inherent in children, or is it the educational system that is at fault? Why does it take a Japanese baby only eighteen months to learn the Japanese language and an excellent student in Australia at least four times that long to learn next to nothing about the same language from “experts”?
The fault lies in the system. Our present educational system performs three functions (or is supposed to). They are: (1) growth and learning; (2) a jail function; (3) a sorting and grading function (keeping the children off the streets and out of their parent’s way). The reason this sort of system gets into trouble is that (1) is incompatible with (2) and (3). The jailed children merely learn the game.
The following lengthy but important quote from Thomas Johnson, illustrates this perfectly:
Any system which is based on force must have the implements necessary to apply this force to keep the victims subdued. In the educational system these implements are the grades and degrees.
The grade is the scholastic gun which is placed in the hands of the instructor, thus giving him full control over his charges. Having this powerful weapon, the instructor can demand that the students follow his every command, for the students know if they choose to do otherwise, if they should choose not to waste their time with nonsensical busy work, if they choose to challenge a pronouncement of the teacher, if they should desire to write a composition in a manner to their own liking, that is, if they should decide to express their individuality through independent thought and action, they can be shot down.
Students also realise that if they do not go along with the system, if they do not completely submit their wills to others, that they will be denied that certificate of graduation, which in present day society is most essential in obtaining a desired position.
Thus, we can see today millions of youths being forced into, or “voluntarily” entering, scholastic prisons which we euphemistically call schools, where they are exposed to a constant environment of force and fear, where they quickly learn that hypocrisy is the name of the game, that what really counts is not what one knows or wishes to know but how to figure out and please the master of the class. Where they readily come to realise that every other student is a natural enemy who may jeopardise a student’s academic standing and that the student who gains the greatest success in the system is the one who is the most subservient, the one who becomes the docile follower of rules, who jumps at every command and sacrifices his will to that of instructors and administrators.
As John Holt (in The Underachieving School) has unmistakably clarified: “School is a long lesson in How to Turn Yourself Off.” He correctly asserts that in the schools “What children learn is Practical Slavery”:
Drawn on top of a student’s desk, which is, in reality, the prison cell of the captive inmate of the education institution, was the sketch of a tombstone on the face of which a student had written “In memory of all those who have died waiting for the bell”. This anguished expression of despair, silently drawn, during one of the long and seemingly never-ending periods of boredom that all students are subjected to, vividly reveals the nature of the educational system, a system which suffocates, numbs, and in some instances, brings about the death of the mind. It is these innumerable periods of torturous boredom that turns students into somnambulant robots ready to be led by any assertive individual who grabs a position of power.
The silent majority that if often referred to does exist, and it is silent because it consists of humans who have been dehumanised, whose minds have either been turned down (in which case the individuals choose to restrict their thinking to a few areas — their work, hobbies or other areas of special interest) or turned off and who quietly recede into their own frightened corner of our world — and almost beg for some authority to tell them what they can and cannot do. It is only natural that individuals who were subjected to twelve to sixteen years of a completely controlled, dictatorial environment, as they were in school (as students, they were most assuredly the silenced majority), would continue to remain silent as adults.
The only reason that the entire world today is not a complete dictatorship is the saving fact that students are only in school five or six hours a day, and thus in their free time (when they are released from the scholastic cages) a number of them are capable of developing some degree of independence and self-esteem, which means, some degree of mental maturity. And it is these few individuals that are responsible for maintaining those vestiges of freedom that remain in the world …
… a classroom is one of the most immoral, the most inhuman, environment in existence, for it ignores the chosen, the understood, and the rational, and simply demands the compliance of the students to the master and his commandments. The proceedings of a dogmatic classroom are mystic rituals devoted to the slaughter of man’s mind.2
Our modern schools kill imagination, kill initiative, kill the ability to make decisions and judgements, and most of all kill the desire to learn and the love of learning. We should not be surprised to find this. If the government makes a mess of running the postal services, the railways, the buses, welfare systems and the economy, it is very unlikely that it would do any better with education.
The reasons for this failure are fundamentally the same as for government failures in other areas. Government has made effective, open competition impossible, has prevented the market from operating, and has substituted instead the use of coercion. Private schools are very difficult to open. There are numerous government requirements that they must satisfy for example, (idiocies like window area must be a “certain percentage” of floor area, toilet and playground facilities must be “adequate”, and so on). Taxation and inflation make the accumulation of capital difficult. And schools are not immune from economic factors such as rates, land and building costs, material costs, wage costs, maintenance costs, book costs, and all the other economic aspects of life. All of these have effectively prevented the opening of an enormous number of alternative private schools, and have thus discouraged diversity, experimentation, innovation and development.
The government has effectively created for itself a coercive monopoly on education, which it holds onto in complete defiance of market demands. The elimination of all restrictions on the opening and operating of private educational alternatives is a must. It would at least give us some outs, and some real choice.
By far the greatest lesson we have to learn though, is the fundamental truth of the old saying, “You can lead a child to school, but you can’t make him learn.” All today’s education system has done is to make children hate learning and knowledge, and to justifiably lose respect for their parents and social institutions. If you owned a store, and the government guaranteed that a certain number of people would, every day, spend a certain amount of money in your store, what would happen? (Assuming that the amount you would receive was enough to satisfy you.) What would happen to your store, your service and your attitude? Nothing is what.
And that is the situation in our schools. The teachers are guaranteed classes. The schools are guaranteed customers by the zoning regulations and compulsory attendance laws. As a result, there is no market function relating what is offered by way of facilities, teachers and syllabuses to the demands of the market. We are forced to accept what we get. This is why compulsory schooling has to go.
Without compulsory education, bad teachers would be left without classes, bad schools without pupils. In order to attract good teachers and pupils, schools would at long last have to look at their product. They would have to develop relevant syllabuses, the most attractive teaching methods, and supply good facilities. Because the compulsion was no longer there, the disruptive students would leave school and the students that were there would be there because they wanted to be there. The psychological benefits alone to the students (and teachers) would be enormous.
Of course, it will be argued that there are parents who don’t care about their children. We agree, but question whether or not the wholesale slaughter going on in our schools today can be justified on the grounds that it provides an education of dubious value to a few who otherwise might not get one. There are plenty of concerned people and organisations about, who would attempt to help such neglected children. Let’s not compound the problem by ruining the rest of the children as well.
Our governments will spend over $4,000 million this year on education. It’s time we asked what we are getting for it. Let’s start treating our children as having the same rights as other people. There is a market need for education. Modern industry cannot survive without a constant supply of engineers, scientists, accountants, solicitors, etc. There is every incentive for industry to support schools. A privately owned and operated free market educational system would supply whatever type and quality of education there was a need for. That’s how the open, competitive market works.
Companies would inevitably supply scholarships, loans, apprenticeships and cadetships that would allow even the poorest person a chance. It is also highly probable that some companies would own and operate their own schools, especially for the children of their employees. Learning should be an enjoyable process. It can be if we build the system to suit people instead of the other way round.
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