Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Misery Argument

Every now and then I hear what I call "the misery argument" in support of forced schooling. It goes something like this: "I had to endure 13 years of soul-sapping schooling so my kid must too." Or, "I have to spend my day at a job I don't like, my kid has to spend his day at a school he doesn't like. That's life."

This is the most profoundly tragic consequence of our compulsory schooling system: learned helplessness. 

I think most parents, most people, want better for themselves and their children. Yet, having gone through the stifling and segregating system of forced schooling, they often find themselves in a place with little hope or agency. It's not surprising, really, as our current system of compulsory schooling was designed, dating back to the first compulsory schooling statute in Massachusetts in 1852, to control and subjugate the masses. It has worked. 

As War On Kids documentary film-maker, and my colleague at Alternatives To School, Cevin Soling, writes about schooling in this provocative article in Forbes:

"Learned helplessness is a vital feature and takes place very early when children discover that they will never be permitted to follow their passions.  This is axiomatic due to the inexorably rigid curriculum, structure, and design that must accompany processing large numbers of students.  Every aspect of student life is controlled, including their surroundings, what they can do, how they can act, and what and how they may think."

Learned helplessness is often what leads to the misery many people feel resigned to endure--both for themselves and their children. What they fail to see is that this learned helplessness is a result of the forced schooling that systematically drains people of their creative spirit and individual passions. 

Yesterday, the temperature here in Boston hit 75 degrees. We spent almost the entire day outside, in the sunshine. At one point in the day, I was sitting across from a local elementary school where the kids were able to enjoy 10 minutes of recess, followed by several minutes of being applauded by the teacher for the good job they did getting into their straight line to go back into the classroom. Seriously. 

As Dr. Peter Gray writes in his excellent article, "School Is A Prison--And Damaging Our Kids:"
"Schools as we know them today are a product of history, not of research into how children learn. The blueprint still used for today’s schools was developed during the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them. The early founders of schools were quite clear about this in their writings. The idea that schools might be places for nurturing critical thought, creativity, self-initiative or ability to learn on one’s own — the kinds of skills most needed for success in today’s economy — was the furthest thing from their minds. To them, willfulness was sinfulness, to be drilled or beaten out of children, not encouraged."
Is this really what we want for our children? Do we want their takeaway from a beautiful day, not to be sunshine and play, but the fact that they got into a straight line? 

As parents, we have the power to break this cycle of oppression and learned helplessness for our children. We can give them freedom and opportunity and retain or rekindle their innate curiosity and zest for learning. We can end the misery and once again focus learning around family, not institutions. 

It starts with us.


  1. Gorgeous! Standing "O" & thanks!!

  2. Such a great post, Kerry!!

  3. This is so powerful!

    In addition to the misery argument, I think some of us parents look back at our schooling days with rose-colored glasses, remembering the fun parts and editing out the miserable parts. Some parents fail to see how school has changed since we were young (that 10 minute recess you witnessed is a far cry from the two recesses and non-silent lunchtime I experienced back in the day).


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