Free Time, Scheduling, Schooling and Independent Thought
This greatly valued, yet constantly devalued, thing is uninterrupted time. We claim to long for it, while at the same time we slam our cellphones against our ears and head off for our aerobics classes or meetings of our investment club with tomorrow's urgent report in our laps....
It's a necessity for remaining free and independent. In many ways, it's a necessity for human growth and progress.
....if the telephone or your boss or your maddening schedule or the barrage of e-mail constantly rattle your days, it becomes harder and harder to synthesize the information your mind gathers every day and make sense of the experiences you're living through. This is true even if the interruptions themselves are brief or innocuous....
Here's what I wrote on the same subject (Destroying the Capacity for Independent Thought):
...we've got our real-life version of the "handicaps" Kurt Vonnegut envisioned in "Harrison Bergeron." In his egalitarian dystopia, everyone of above-average ability was required to wear a handicap device of some sort. For instance, a person of above-average intelligence would wear a headset that, at random intervals, zapped the wearer or deafened him with a loud noise, so that he was unable to follow any coherent line of thought for five minutes at a time. In the real world, we don't need a handicapper-general; instead, people are lining up to buy their handicaps from Cingular or T-Mobile. Until the dawning of the Age of the Perpetually Wired-in Conversation, around a decade ago, it was while doing menial chores or walking from one place to another that thinking people often got their best thinking done. Now, every other person I see going down the sidewalk is carrying on a conversation. Can anyone born before 1985 even remember what it was like to be alone with your thoughts, without the constant possibility of being jerked by an electronic leash?
The educational system is closely tied to the war on quiet time. Wolfe resumes:
Something else arose in society at the same time as the Industrial Revolution. And it arose because of the Industrial Revolution. It's something that forms our lives and attitudes to this day. It teaches us that unthinking frenzy is right and proper....
It used to begin when we were five or six. Our parents would send us off to a school where the most important (albeit unspoken) lessons were, and still are, these:
* No subject is related to any other. History has nothing to do with Biology has nothing to do with English has nothing to do with Math. Keep these subjects in separate pockets in your mind and be prepared to switch between them on a moment's notice – never to contemplate them as a totality.
* Never think about anything for more than 50 minutes at a time – brrrrrriiiiing!
* Others will control what, and how, you learn....
The largest impact of such a school system isn't to teach us to read, write, or think (on the contrary, the educrats who originally developed the system considered reading dangerously subversive; too much reading could only open doors into larger worlds and make the peasants discontent). The basics of reading and writing can be taught, as Gatto notes, in about 100 hours – and much of the rest can be learned through experience, experimentation, reading, and living. The 12+ year sentence in school teaches: Don't make connections; don't get deeply engrossed in any one activity; don't pursue any one avenue of inquiry; don't lose yourself in a subject; don't be an individual. And when the authorities ring that bell – you jump....
The official educationists are pushing the system even further toward a Japanese-style system of enforced cramming every waking hour, with a seamless transition from student careerism and shameless brown-nosing to the next forty-odd years of careerism and brown-nosing on the job. And the publick skools' official ideologues increasingly view time outside of school, whether self-organized learning or play after school, the weekend, or the summer vacation, as the enemy--a dangerous intrusion of own-life, in which the child is subject to competing influences capable of subverting the careerist ethos. As I once heard a New York City publick skool official comment on NPR, the present school year is a holdover from the agricultural economy. In these progressive days, the child should be managed by professionals for as many of his waking hours as possible, from (at least) the time he learns to talk until he is capable of functioning as a docile servant of the corporate state.
John Taylor Gatto casts doubt on the official rationale for such hyper-anal scheduling (via lowercase liberty):
Surely in modern technological society it is the quantity of schooling and the amount of money you spend on it that buys value. And yet last year in St. Louis, I heard a vice-president of IBM tell an audience of people assembled to redesign the process of teacher certification that in his opinion this country became computer-literate by self-teaching, not through any action of schools.... Now think about Sweden, a beautiful, healthy, prosperous and up-to-date country with a spectacular reputation for quality in everything it produces. It makes sense to think their schools must have something to do with that.
Then what do you make of the fact that you can't go to school in Sweden until you are 7 years old? The reason the unsentimental Swedes have wiped out what would be first and seconds grades here is that they don't want to pay the large social bill that quickly comes due when boys and girls are ripped away from their best teachers at home too early.
It just isn't worth the price, say the Swedes, to provide jobs for teachers and therapists if the result is sick, incomplete kids who can't be put back together again very easily. The entire Swedish school sequence isn't 12 years, either -- it's nine. Less schooling, not more. The direct savings of such a step in the US would be $75-100 billion, a lot of unforeclosed home mortgages, a lot of time freed up with which to seek an education.
Who was it that decided to force your attention onto Japan instead of Sweden? Japan with its long school year and state compulsion, instead of Sweden with its short school year, short school sequence, and free choice where your kid is schooled? Who decided you should know about Japan and not Hong Kong, an Asian neighbour with a short school year that outperforms Japan across the board in math and science? Whose interests are served by hiding that from you?...
The structure of American schooling, 20th century style, began in 1806 when Napoleon's amateur soldiers beat the professional soldiers of Prussia at the battle of Jena. When your business is selling soldiers, losing a battle like that is serious. Almost immediately afterwards a German philosopher named Fichte delivered his famous "Address to the German Nation" which became one of the most influential documents in modern history. In effect he told the Prussian people that the party was over, that the nation would have to shape up through a new Utopian institution of forced schooling in which everyone would learn to take orders.
So the world got compulsion schooling at the end of a state bayonet for the first time in human history; modern forced schooling started in Prussia in 1819 with a clear vision of what centralized schools could deliver:
1. Obedient soldiers to the army;
2. Obedient workers to the mines;
3. Well subordinated civil servants to government;
4. Well subordinated clerks to industry
5. Citizens who thought alike about major issues.
....Thirty-three years after that fateful invention of the central school institution, as the behest of Horace Mann and many other leading citizens, we borrowed the style of Prussian schooling as our own....
In Prussia the purpose of the Volksshule, which educated 92 percent of the children, was not intellectual development at all, but socialization in obedience and subordination. Thinking was left to the Real Schulen, in which 8 percent of the kids participated. But for the great mass, intellectual development was regarded with managerial horror, as something that caused armies to lose battles.
Prussia concocted a method based on complex fragmentations to ensure that its school products would fit the grand social design. Some of this method involved dividing whole ideas into school subjects, each further divisible, some of it involved short periods punctuated by a horn so that self-motivation in study would be muted by ceaseless interruptions.
There were many more techniques of training, but all were built around the premise that isolation from first-hand information, and fragmentation of the abstract information presented by teachers, would result in obedient and subordinate graduates, properly respectful of arbitrary orders. "Lesser" men would be unable to interfere with policy makers because, while they could still complain, they could not manage sustained or comprehensive thought. Well-schooled children cannot think critically, cannot argue effectively....
The central lesson the student learns in the government schooling system is that nothing is important for its own sake; subject matter is to be learned, and studies pursued, because of their importance to the authority figure who is empowered to paste that gold star on your paper, or to grant or withhold that new line on your resume. As Paul Goodman wrote in Compulsory Miseducation, to the average college junior, for fifteen years
[s]chooling has been the serious part of his life, and it has consisted of listening to some grown-up talking and of doing assigned lessons. The young man has almost never seriously assigned himself a task. Sometimes, as a child, he thought he was doing something earnest on his own, but the adults interrupted him and he became discouraged.
And, as Wolfe says, there's no longer even a respite of five or six years:
Today it's only getting worse. We send our children to government institutions that operate on the same principles we were schooled in. But the poor things don't even get five years of leisure and learning time first. They don't get to lay on the grass and stare up at the clouds for hours. Or play quietly in a corner with bricks or sticks or blocks or mud. Instead, they're assaulted with flashing, hypnotic, rapid imagery from the TV from birth, then are all too often shoved into highly structured, high-performance pre-schools where, once again, the emphasis is on specific skills, group activities, enforced socialization with only one age group, and being measured and judged by social workers, test-makers, mental-health professionals, bureaucrats, and their own incredibly busy parents.
Karen De Coster recently wrote about the effect of preschool on mental development:
As a child, I placed a great premium on quiet-time and time spent alone indulging in my solo interests. Whether the order of the day was creating some new artwork or reading my books, or writing a story or listening to my records, it was something I found necessary for my peace of mind, and for the growth of my intellectual capabilities. After school, I remember running home as fast as I could and bursting into the house, heading straight for my room and all my little tasks that lay before me. It was as much fun planning those activities as it was doing them. I felt a sense of security and comfort, since I knew Mom was there, and therefore, everything was going to be all right. I ran home because I knew it was a place that I wanted to be. Now, kids don't run home to Mom anymore, because they have the latchkey stopover that comes between school and home. The security of Mom may come hours after school is over. During the summer months, for me, it was a whole day of various things to do; things I wanted to do. I never could have survived a moment as a daycare kid.
Can one who grew up like I did even imagine living the chaos of the daycare center life? Gaggles of kids, some screaming and some crying, some fighting and some sick, all letting loose in an atmosphere void of parents, control, or set discipline. Even if there exists a sense of discipline, where can a child get any peace, for instance, to read or write or study, or to develop artistic or musical talents?
There is no peace, for a daycare kid is trapped in a ritual of group games, group projects, and group trips. The activities are planned, as are lunchtime and naptime. Solo time, however, is not planned because it does not exist. A child is forced into this groupthink whether he likes it or not. He has no access to his own "things", his own comforts that he chooses, or his own hobbies. He's there to be babysat and to go along with the rest of the group on its little projects, no matter how uninteresting he may find them. And he is expected to do that for eight, ten, twelve hours a day, every day.
Here's another great piece of commentary on the same subject by Joel Schlosberg:
Last Tuesday's health section of the New York Times had an appalling article, "Tough Day for Kindergartners (and Parents)" by Laurie Tarkan. It's about the unhappiness both children and their parents face when the children begin attending kindergarten; and how this unhappiness is being dealt with only by ever-more-elaborate methods of "greasing the wheels" to make a smoother transition into the system. In the blandly matter-of-fact account of such methods, there isn't the ghost of a suggestion that the system itself is the problem, even as it acknowledges that the new environment is less individualized and breaks up the students' previous relationships with their parents and preschool community. For instance, "not wanting to go to school" is listed as one of the experts' "Signs that the transition may not be going smoothly for a child". Erich Fromm, who had the courage to use psychology to critique rather than reinforce the status quo, pointed out with his concept of an "insane society" that when a society's norms run counter to the conditions for human mental health, what is considered to be normal behavior is actually mental illness.
Could there be a greater indication of how modern kindergartens, with their ever-greater "academic demands" in order to "move the needle on achievement", and their function of breaking kids away from their parents and into an artificial environment before clamping down on them with stricter control in later grades, are the polar opposite of the intentions of Friedrich Froebel when he created the kindergarten?
Wolfe also quotes a great passage from E.P. Thompson on the greater amount of leisure in the days of self-employment:
The work pattern was one of alternate bouts of intense labour and of idleness. A weaver, for example, might weave eight or nine yards on a rainy day. On other days, a contemporary diary tells us, he might weave just two yards before he did “sundry jobs about the lathe and in the yard; wrote a letter in the evening.” Or he might go cherry-picking, work on a community dam, calve the cow, cut down trees or go to watch a public hanging.
It's interesting to consider how many leaders of the English working class movement, also described by Thompson, were self-educated tradesmen: masters and journeymen who had leisure for wide and self-directed reading in the slow spells between runs of work. Self-educated trade union and mutual society leaders were especially common among weavers. The same is true of printers, who often read the books and pamphlets they were setting type for and engaged in all kinds of radical talk in between jobs of work. In this country, our archtypical intellectual gadfly, Ben Franklin, was a self-educated printer. So was Henry George. Of course, any students displaying such tendencies in the publick skools are likely to be diagnosed with ADHD (or worse yet, "Oppositional Defiance Disorder") and drugged with ritalin. Even without ritalin, the schools are quite effective at discouraging any desire to read anything out of anything as inconsequential as mere interest, without first asking "is this going to be on the test?"
public schools , education , leisure , work