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Friday, June 21, 2024
The Observer

Unlearning school


When I returned home for fall break, I found campaign material for my local school board election sitting on my counter. I decided to research the candidates and found that the main dividing line between the incumbents and the challengers were masks and “critical race theory." The incumbents supported requiring masks in school and supported a recently passed policy focused on eliminating systemic disparities between racial groups. The challengers supported a mask-optional policy and argued that the incumbents were too obsessed with race and were implementing critical race theory in the district. Part of the argument from the challengers was that schools should be non-partisan and just focus on preparing students to be productive members of society. I suspect that the incumbents would agree with this view, although they would disagree about who is and who isn’t politicizing the schools. And yet, I think that there is a fundamental assumption — a wrong one — that is being made in this view. More specifically, the assumption is that if schools just focus on preparing students for the “real world,” then they would somehow be apolitical.

In reality, education is an inherently political activity. Of course, masks and critical race theory (or the lack thereof) are clearly political in that Republicans and Democrats tend to disagree over them, but once you take these issues off the table, education is still political. The purpose of education, broadly speaking, is to prepare youth for their lives as members of society. Every society must, therefore, decide what it means to be a member of that society and how to pass down that identity. What the youth believe about who they are will affect how they believe society should function once they become adults. Aside from just the ideology that the youth adopt, education will also determine what kinds of characteristics and habits students will have. Education affects the political future of a society, so it is inescapably political.

The political task that our schooling system accomplishes in the U.S. today is to maintain the status quo by generating obedient citizens. One need only look into a school today to see this idea in action. Students have a rigid schedule, where they are directed from one class to the next by a bell, just as if they were in a factory. In each of these classes, they learn a set and standardized curriculum from a teacher that stands at the front of the room lecturing, while they passively receive instruction. The teacher is the ultimate authority — not just on the subject being taught, but in how the whole classroom is run. The teacher can grant or withhold permission for students to go to the bathroom and remove students that fail to passively sit in class. The policing of behavior is constant, and students must remain sufficiently docile for the entirety of their at least seven-hour-long stay at school. The school is in many ways just like a prison — students are required to be there and must do as they are told.

When they finally get to leave school at the end of the day, students are expected to complete even more work as homework or study for any number of examinations. The constant use of graded assessments slowly shifts motivation away from learning and towards getting good grades. At every point, failure to comply results in some punishment or penalty, be it detention or a bad grade. And the system is hard to escape: Not only is academic success necessary for access to high paying jobs, education is compulsory until students are almost adults. Over time, students slowly are made to be obedient. As psychologist Bruce Levine writes, schools teach students “to be passive; to be directed by others; to take seriously the rewards and punishments of authority; to pretend to care about things that they do not care about; and that one is impotent to change one’s dissatisfying situation.”

The worst part is that this outcome is not a flaw of our education system, but a primary feature. The U.S. public school system was originally modeled off of the Prussian school system, which instituted compulsory education in order to create an effective, educated and obedient army. The Prussian system, just like the US.. system, also increased literacy among the poor classes of society and provided them with technical skills — the system is not entirely bad. Yet, we can still take that point to be supportive of the status quo. We currently live in an increasingly technological society. Thus, education must be enough for citizens to be able to perform essential economic functions, without being so educated as to start to ask too many questions. It is certainly the case that education allows for some level of economic mobility, but we must not confuse this with any kind of liberation. A Starbucks barista and a computer engineer are both cogs in the machine, even if one has a more comfortable life. Either way, the point remains that the goal of creating citizens and workers supportive of the current power structure is deeply ingrained in the school system.

In light of this function of schooling, debates over masks and policies about race and education are a little less meaningful. They still are important questions that must be settled, yet they also distract from the more insidious — and highly political — function of our school system. A function that, as far as I can tell, is at odds with what we would otherwise profess about equality and democracy. It makes no sense to think that an education fitting for a citizen of a democracy should be about learning to respect authority. Of course, authority can never be fully absent from education, as teachers will know more than their students, but this fact is not enough to justify the authoritarian nature of schooling today. Ironically, our inability as a society to question this system on more than a superficial level is one of the effects of this system, leaving me pessimistic about the possibility of recognizing the real issues. Regardless, I believe it’s time that we unlearn school and start to rethink what our education system should look like.


David Henry is a sophomore majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies with a supplementary major in ACMS and a minor in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. Originally from Minnesota, David lives in Baumer Hall on campus. He can be reached at over email.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.