The most powerful lessons are often unspoken. We learn a lot more from people’s actions than their words. Which makes perfect sense- language only developed in the past million years, possibly even as short as 100,000 years ago. But our ancestors have been learning by watching each other’s behavior since long before we developed a common tongue, and long before we achieved the level of consciousness we have today.
The big problem with formal schooling is that students learn more from its structure than its content. We learn much more from the implicit information embedded in the format of our schools than what we are verbally taught. The scary part is, we absorb and accept those implied instructions much easier than something we’re told, because it’s harder to consciously identify and reject them.
Whether intentional or not (and it’s almost certainly intentional), children are being taught some disturbing things in school. They’re not said out loud, they’re not in the textbooks, or on the homework assignments or tested on exams. It’s in the structure of the system.
So I’ll tell you the structural lessons I think I’ve identified, but I’ll admit it’s hard to say exactly how they affect students because they’re not openly discussed. The key point is that structure matters more than content; I’ll give you some examples but you should look at the structure of the system and try to reach your own conclusions. People can argue all day about whether Intelligent Design should be taught, but no one even considers whether teachers should be choosing topics to begin with, or whether students should be graded, or if they should be divided into age groups, or whether they should be required to attend, or whether they should adhere to a dress code, or any of the thousands of assumptions built into the structure of
The biggest structural problem I see is who decides what is taught. Representatives and administrators choose the topics, teachers create their lesson plans, and students are expected to learn what the teacher decides. Students have very, very little say in their education, especially at the young end, but really all the way through college- you make a few choices at the beginning of the semester (if you’re lucky enough to have flexibility in your degree plan) and then you’re forced to follow the professor’s bidding. So people learn that their interests are irrelevant, that someone else knows what they need to know better than they do, that they should shut up and do what they’re told.
That’s an assumption I’m skeptical of. I don’t think anyone knows what the next generation needs to know. I don’t think anyone ever has or ever will, and without a doubt, no group of elected representatives has a clue. We just aren’t smart enough to make predictions about our economy 20 years into the future. So why should adults choose what children learn about?
The generic response is: “If adults didn’t force children to study math or history, they would just play video games instead.” So what? If that’s what the next generation wants to do, that’s what they should do. Why do people think knowledge of math or history is more important than knowledge of the maps in Call of Duty? If the next generation is happy playing video games, then we should restructure society so more video games can be played. I highly doubt that’s all kids would choose to do, but the whole point of education should be to help people make themselves happy. We have to understand what makes them happy before we can even begin figure out what knowledge could help them on their quest.
Next, formal education turns school into a game, complete with grades and rankings. Guess what- when you structure something like a game, people play it like a game. At least for me, school was never about learning. That just wasn’t even part of the equation, it was completely irrelevant to the task at hand. School was only about getting a high score, and you don’t have to learn to do that. In fact, it wasn’t even about getting a high score, it was about getting a good grade while expending minimal effort. I remember making a mathematical formula for it in high school (with help from Andrew Byrd). Performance = Grade/(Time-Invested)2. Obviously this isn’t an appropriate attitude for learning, but that’s what happens when you structure education like a game. So it shouldn’t be at all surprising that people cheat and cram and procrastinate and bullshit, because that’s how you win.
We’re taught that knowledge is obtained from authority. Supposedly the teachers know all the solutions; every problem can be answered by referring to the back of the book or the teacher’s manual. The structure of the system cultivates a God Complex in each of us.
Even worse are the fears instilled by the current paradigm. Schools require the direct submission of students to the adults around them, using all the silly threats that work on children (uh oh, Timmy has to sign the book, or move his name into the yellow- ooooOOOOoooo). We’re taught to be passive, docile, easily manipulated- to
respect fear authority. And if the punishments aren’t enough, they’ll drug you until you can follow orders.
We’re judged constantly, trained to look to others for approval, to seek praise from authority figures. Any deviation from the norm is immediately stamped out- no mustaches, no short skirts, no tank tops, no colored hair, and don’t you dare untuck your shirt in the holy sanctuary of an elementary school. We’re made to conform, and to fear standing out.
The list goes on and on. Whether or not you agree with the problems I pointed out, hopefully you can see how the structure of the system influences the minds of children, and we need to be careful what kids are learning from the situations we put them in.
Amazing TED talk highlighting a lot of these issues:
And if you’ve got a strong stomach, I highly recommend this lecture even though the sound quality isn’t the best: