, you should examine your own educational past in order to make a larger argument about what you see to be the root problem (or problems) of our educational crises. In pondering your
educational past, you should obviously think about your formal education (schooling). Your purpose in this essay is to convince readers of your view by showing them how the experience(s)
affected you and led you to form a specific view of or opinion about education, and/or an opinion about why, in general, Americans remain happily undereducated or happily poorly educated.
You need to incorporate information from at least two of the sources we’ve read this semester to make your argument (document it, of course), but you will also need to develop evidence by
drawing upon your own experiences, observations, and critical thinking. Unless you get permission from me, you are to use only the assigned texts for your sources, no additional sources. Your
essay should be no shorter than four full, double-spaced pages, excluding the Works Cited page.
I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best,
and during that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world,
and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they alwa ys gave the same
answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it.
They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers
didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clear ly weren’t interested in learning
more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.
Boredom is the common condition of schoolteachers, and anyone who has spent time in a
teachers’ lounge can vouch for the low energy, the w hining, the dispirited attitudes, to be
found there. When asked why they feel bored, the teachers tend to blame the kids, as you
might expect. Who wouldn’t get bored teaching students who are rude and interested only in
grades? If even that. Of course, teachers are themselves products of the same twelve- year
compulsory school programs that so thoroughly bore their students, and as school personnel
they are trapped inside structures even more rigid than those imposed upon the children.
Who, then, is to blame?
We all are. My grandfather taught me that. One afternoon when I was seven I complained to
him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me that I was never to use that
term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The
obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn’t know
that were childish people, to be avoided if possible. Certainly not to be trusted. That episode
cured me of boredom forever, and here and there over the years I was able to pass on the
lesson to some remarkable student. For the most part, however, I found it futile to challenge
the official notion that boredom and childishness were the natural state of affairs in the
classroom. Often I had to defy custom, and even bend the law, to help kids break out of this
The empire struck back, of course; childish adults regularly conflate opposition with
disloyalty. I once returned from a medical leave to discover that all evidence of my having
been granted the leav e had been purposely destroyed, that my job had been terminated, and
that I no longer possessed even a teaching license. After nine months of tormented effort I
was able to retrieve the license when a school secretary testified to witnessing the plot unfold.
In the meantime my family suffered more than I care to remember. By the time I finally
retired in 1991, I had more than enough reason to think of our schools – with their long – term,
cell – block- style, forced confinement of both students and teachers – as virtual factories of
childishness. Yet I honestly could not see why they had to be that way. My own experience
had revealed to me what many other teachers must learn along the way, too, yet keep to
themselves for fear of reprisal: if we wanted to we could easily and inexpensively jettison the
old, stupid structures and help kids take an education rather than merely receive a schooling.
We could encourage the best qualities of youthfulness – curiosity, adventure, resilience, the
capacity for surprising insi ght – simply by being more flexible about time, texts, and tests, by
introducing kids to truly competent adults, and by giving each student what autonomy he or
she needs in order to take a risk every now and then.
But we don’t do that. And the more I asked why not, and persisted in thinking about the
“problem” of schooling as an engineer might, the more I missed the point: What if there is no
“problem” with our schools? What if they are the way they are, so expensively flying in the
face of common sense and long experience in how children learn things, not because they are
doing something wrong but because they are doing something right? Is it possible that
George W. Bush accidentally spoke the truth when he said we would “leave no child
behind”? Could it be that our schools are designed to make sure not one of them ever really
Do we really need school? I don’t mean education, just forced schooling: six classes a day,
five days a week, nine months a year, for twelve years. Is this deadly routine r eally
necessary? And if so, for what? Don’t hide behind reading, writing, and arithmetic as a
rationale, because 2 million happy homeschoolers have surely put that banal justification to
rest. Even if they hadn’t, a considerable number of well – known Americans never went
through the twelve – year wringer our kids currently go through, and they turned out all right.
George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln? Someone
taught them, to be sure, but they were not products of a school sy stem, and not one of them
was ever “graduated” from a secondary school. Throughout most of American history, kids
generally didn’t go to high school, yet the unschooled rose to be admirals, like Farragut;
inventors, like Edison; captains of industry, like Carnegie and Rockefeller; writers, like
Melville and Twain and Conrad; and even scholars, like Margaret Mead. In fact, until pretty
recently people who reached the age of thirteen weren’t looked upon as children at all. Ariel
Durant, who co- wrote an enormo us, and very good, multivolume history of the world with
her husband, Will, was happily married at fifteen, and who could reasonably claim that Ariel
Durant was an uneducated person? Unschooled, perhaps, but not uneducated.
We have been taught (that is, sc hooled) in this country to think of “success” as synonymous
with, or at least dependent upon, “schooling,” but historically that isn’t true in either an
intellectual or a financial sense. And plenty of people throughout the world today find a way
to educat e themselves without resorting to a system of compulsory secondary schools that all
too often resemble prisons. Why, then, do Americans confuse education with just such a
system? What exactly is the purpose of our public schools?
Mass schooling of a compulsory nature really got its teeth into the United States between
1905 and 1915, though it was conceived of much earlier and pushed for throughout most of
the nineteenth century. The reason given for this enormous upheaval of family life and
cultural traditi ons was, roughly speaking, threefold: