Village Learning Center

Democracy - Community - Pursuit of Happiness

The Village Sudbury School is democratically run by students and staff. Students pursue whatever subjects interest them, in groups or individually, and learn informally along the way -- even as they play.

Education Industrial Complex

Education Industrial Complex

This phrase comes across as hyperbolic. “Sure,” you may counter, “there is too great a focus on testing, and some schools go too far with punitive zero tolerance policies, but these are temporary policy issues. There are also promising best practices being spread by teachers who believe in making their lessons more engaging, assessments more authentic, and curriculum more relevant to students’ lives.”

Photo by Richard Phillip Rucker, used under Creative Commons license

Photo by Richard Phillip Rucker, used under Creative Commons license

On the surface, these assertions seem true. I started teaching high school in 2000, and have experienced varying degrees of freedom to deviate from the standardized curriculum. Things changed for me this past year. I have worked for a year now as a substitute in all grades, K-12, and some fundamental problems I had been wondering about became clear to me.

Up to now, I had been planning on doing my best to open a Sudbury school, but meanwhile to continue looking for full time teaching jobs, which would be my backup plan if my school were unsuccessful. But based on what I’ve seen in the past year, and I think many others in the Sudbury and unschooling movements have experienced this, I just can’t. I’d rather take an entry level position in almost any other field. (To be fair, there are plenty of other unethical industries I would also avoid.)

Things I can never unsee #1: A local elementary school where kindergarteners are only allowed to run in a small circle during recess. I will never stop being sad about it. Now that half day kindergarten programs are phased out, children spend most of their day completing worksheets or sitting on assigned spots on a rug repeating after the teacher. Each week, the entire student body is required to shout “WE ARE (name of school) STUDENTS AND WE ARE GOING TO COLLEGE” during morning assembly.

At my last school, students were all “climbing the mountain to college.” It’s unrealistic and it makes kids uninterested in academia feel like they don’t count. When I was in school, this funneling into college felt entrapping but I didn’t know about other options. I enjoyed college, but I often wish I’d known about apprenticeships and other options, because I really enjoy working with my hands and in a variety of settings.

I ended up as a teacher because, even though I had dropped out of high school, I had been taught to think that a college degree was the only alternative to being a near homeless minimum wage earner. Overall, my college experience was great. I learned a lot in a way I hadn’t in earlier years, and thrived on stimulating discussions and debates both in and out of class. Because of the radical political activism I was involved in as a youth, I chose a major in Political Science. I didn’t want to run for office, and being a lawyer or public administrator sounded boring, so I figured I could be most effective as a public school teacher.

Over ten years of teaching, I came to realize I was teaching my students more about obedience than any academic topic. Compulsory education is a giant system of brainwashing, and it’s a huge industry. Many early childhood education workers, teacher’s aides, and plenty of teachers and administrators are shockingly ignorant and seem like they are in the business because they like bossing kids around. It’s awful to watch them punishing, shaming, and controlling young people. There are plenty of smart and caring educators as well, but it seems to be the control and punishment types who dominate, and why shouldn’t that be? It is a system founded on coercion. No matter how progressive or innovative the curriculum, students are there whether they like it or not, and even in the most open of public schools, staff play the role of police and prison guard.

Things I can never unsee #2: Last week, I witnessed a circle of adults standing around a twelve year-old boy who was weeping. The school secretary was lecturing the boy’s parents about how they could face severe penalties if they didn’t improve their son’s school attendance. She asked the boy whether he wanted to get his parents into legal trouble. When I passed by the scene a few minutes later, the boy was sobbing uncontrollably, as his father patted him on the back in an attempt to comfort him and the school officials stood around with a combined look of concern but also satisfaction. Although many progressives insist that compulsory education and standardized public schools are the best way to fight against socioeconomic inequality, public schools actually end up perpetuating inequality. For more, see this summary of Jean Anyon’s “Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum.”