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1 24th January 03:40
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Default Schooling: Liberation Or Mind Control?

Schooling: Liberation or Mind Control?

By Richard Heinberg

If there were no age-specific and obligatory learning institution,
“childhood” would go out of production. The youth of rich nations
would be liberated from its destructiveness, and poor nations would
cease attempting to rival the childishness of the rich. If society
were to outgrow its age of childhood, it would have to become livable
for the young. The present disjunction between an adult society which
pretends to be humane and a school environment which mocks reality
could no longer be maintained.
- Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1970)

I hated school. I remember feeling that I was being indoctrinated,
that the adults who were in charge of the institution were
deliberately trying to make me stupid and servile. School was prison.

I recall being given an IQ test in the fifth grade. One of the first
of the multiple-choice questions was: “Is a tomato a (a) fruit, (b)
vegetable, or (c) neither of the above?” By that time in my school
career I was well accustomed to providing expected answers instead of
thinking for myself. But this question appeared deliberately
confusing. I asked the teacher if I should give the true answer or the
answer that best matched what I thought I was “supposed” to think. She
said: “You mustn’t ask questions during the test.” I concluded that I
should give conventional responses; consequently I succeeded in
achieving an “average” IQ score.

After two years of college, spent mostly in an informal study of the
neurological effects of cannabis sativa, I abandoned school for good.
A few years later, after I’d gotten education out of my system, I
began to read and learn.

I have few positive things to say about the schooling I received in
the 1950s and ’60s. There were good teachers, to be sure; but the
system in which both teachers and students struggled to come to terms
with one another was utterly deadening. Still, when I see the
obstacles to self-discovery the children of today face, I think my
generation had it easy by comparison. Television, dual-income
families, the evaporation of opportunities for unstructured play, and
generally grim prospects for the world’s future must weigh heavily on
young people’s spirits these days.

Fortunately, there are a few compassionate souls who still care enough
about the young to unmask, and find alternatives to, government

Nature and Nurture: Aboriginal Child-Rearing in North-Central Arnhem
Land, by Annette Hamilton. (Australian Institute of Aboriginal
Studies, 1981),

Annette Hamilton is an anthropologist rather than an educator, and her
book has almost nothing to do with Western schooling. But it is a good
starting point for our discussion, because what she does is to examine
carefully the patterns of parenting and learning among a group of
people who until recently lived as gatherer-hunters. It’s really
unfortunate that this book is unavailable in the United States,
because it provides an enlightening - and devastating - mirror for our
civilized pedagogical practices.

After presenting the details of her research findings, Hamilton draws
conclusions. She notes that while, for Europeans, the needs of the
child are determined by “experts,” in Aboriginal society “the role of
the caretaker is to pay attention to the overt demands of the
infant.... The infant cries, the caretaker feeds. When it is old
enough, it grabs the breast or the food for itself. If it does not
grab for it, it does not want it.... The Aboriginal model trusts the
child’s knowledge of its own states, both physical and emotional. When
a three-year-old is tired someone will carry it. No one says ‘Three-
year-olds are old enough to walk.’ In fact, no one makes
generalizations about children at all. Each child is treated solely on
the merits of its actual concrete situation at that moment.” This sort
of treatment tends to produce confident, secure, self-motivated
adults. In contrast, according to Hamilton,

A sense of helplessness seems to be a feature characterising much of
the modern world’s literature and life. The emphasis on the material
realm has created conditions whereby control over much of the
‘natural’ world has become second nature to humans, while those same
material conditions have meant that infants, biologically much the
same as infants 50,000 years ago, have increasingly been handled in
less and less ‘natural’ ways, and as adults have come to feel less and
less powerful in themselves....

At the very end of Nature and Nurture, Hamilton sadly concludes:

Present material conditions preclude any possibility of a completely
‘natural’ method of child-rearing since the methods are adapted to
hunting and gathering conditions and if applied wholeheartedly to
infants and children in modern urban environments would represent a
danger to their survival, both for physical reasons and because most
parents today have neither the time, the energy, nor the emotional
resources to permit their children to exist in such an autonomous

Dumbing Us Down, by John Taylor Gatto (New Society, 1992), $9.95,
paperback; “Origins & History of American Compulsory Schooling,”
interview of John Gatto by Jim Martin, in Flatland #11 (1994).

The fact that John Taylor Gatto was the 1991 recipient of the New York
State Teacher of the Year Award is remarkable, since what he has to
say can be of little comfort to the educational bureaucracy. “It is
time,” he said in his speech at the award presentation, “that we
squarely face the fact that institutional schoolteaching is
destructive to children.” The essence of Gatto’s message is well
summarized in the following excerpt from his book:

I’ve come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human
quality, probably natural to most of us. I didn’t want to accept that
notion - far from it - my own training in two elite universities
taught me that intelligence and talent distributed themselves
economically over a bell curve.... the trouble was that the
unlikeliest kids kept demonstrating to me at random moments so many of
the hallmarks of human excellence - insight, wisdom, justice,
resourcefulness, courage, originality - that I became confused. They
didn’t do this often enough to make my teaching easy, but they did it
often enough that I began to wonder, reluctantly, whether it was
possible that being in school itself was what was dumbing them down.
Was it possible that I had been hired not to enlarge children’s power,
but to diminish it? That seemed crazy on the face of it, but slowly I
began to realize that the bells and the confinement, the crazy
sequences, the age-segregation, the lack of privacy, the constant
surveillance, and all the rest of the national curriculum of schooling
were designed exactly as if someone had set out to prevent children
from learning how to think and act, to coax them into addiction and
dependent behavior.

Bit by bit I began to devise guerrilla exercises to allow the kids I
taught - as many as I was able - the raw material people have always
used to educate themselves: privacy, choice, freedom from
surveillance, and as broad a range of situations and human
associations as my limited power and resources could manage. In
simpler terms, I tried to maneuver them into positions where they
would have a chance to be their own teachers and to make themselves
the major text of their own education.

If compulsory schooling is such a lousy idea, why did it catch on?
Gatto notes that “Modern schooling as we now know it is a by-product
of 1848 and 1919, when powerful interests feared a revolution among
our own industrial poor.” Actually, the system was pioneered in
Prussia in the early nine****th century, then exported. In his
interview in Flatland, Gatto traces how the American economic elite
(led by men like Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan) systematically
promulgated the U.S. compulsory school system as a way of controlling
the population so that it would present a minimal threat to the owners
of the means of production, and instead form a docile, dependent work
force. In 1776, 85% of Americans had independent livelihoods; by 1840
the number was still 70%. Today, of course, the idea that everyone
should have a “job” (that is, that they should be employed by someone
else) is considered self-evidently humanitarian. But only people whose
self-will has been sufficiently domesticated can fit into the social-
economic machine. It is our schools’ purpose to make sure not only
that young people are fitted for employment, but that they regard the
status of being employed as necessary and as an ideal to strive for.

In order to accomplish their goal, Carnegie et al. realized that they
would first have to do away with the one-room school. “The one-room
school had a mixture of six or seven ages simultaneously,” says Gatto
in his Flatland interview. “Everybody got the same work but the
teacher didn’t teach. The teacher only taught a few kids, who taught a
few kids, who taught a few kids. There was this tremendous powerful
interdependence, where terrific confidence of talking to people older
than you was developed in the course of the school day. There was
concern for people younger than you. There was responsibility. It was
almost a cost-free institution, and it worked splendidly, but it had
to be eliminated because it doesn’t subordinate the professional
staff. There are no principals, or superintendents, or assistant

As of 1910, the one-room school was mostly a thing of the past and

nationwide. By 1990, the number of school boards in the county had
dropped from 140,000 to about 15,000; meanwhile, funds available to
schools had exploded. Today, “Foundation agents are wandering the
halls of state legislatures, key businesses, key teacher colleges,
writing a tight script to seal the loopholes that have prevented
Andrew Carnegie’s dream [of governmental control through universal
education and licensure, which he set forth in 1890 in a group of
essays collectively titled “The gospel of Wealth”] from being

What about the future of institutionalized schooling? Gatto sees
“Goals 2000,” President Clinton’s plan for educational reform, as just
a refinement of the existing system. Likewise the school voucher
program, which is appearing increasingly on state initiatives: “It’s
inevitable. From the institution’s perspective the voucher system is
much more desirable than the tax credit system. You can spend your
voucher in any school that’s been certified by the state legislature
as okay, and right there you have the catch-22. It will be a looser
form of control and maybe because of that much more effective. That’s
the diabolical part of voluntary national testing.”

In Their Own Way, by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. (Tarcher, 1987), $8.95,

Thomas Armstrong is a former learning disabilities specialist who no
longer believes in learning disabilities. “After teaching for several
years in public and parochial special education classes... I realized
I was going nowhere with a concept that labeled children from the
outset as handicapped learners. I also began to see how this notion of
learning disabilities was handicapping all of our children by placing
the blame for a child’s learning failure on mysterious neurological
deficiencies in the brain instead of... our systems of education.”

In his book In Their Own Way, Armstrong dissects the idea that some
children are “learning disabled,” tracing the history of the concept
back to the early 1960s. He turns the label on its head, showing that
many children pigeonholed as dyslexic, hyperactive, or underachieving
are in reality merely the possessors of talents our schools fail to
recognize. For example, “dyslexic” students often excel in three-
dimensional spatial visualization, and special education children
referred for learning and emotional problems often show high levels of
imagination. “In my own classes for the ‘learning handicapped,’” notes
Armstrong, “I had an amazing group of children: a boy who held the
national freestyle swim record in his age group, a girl who was a
model for a national department store chain, gifted artists and
writers, a psychic child, expert storytellers, superior math students,
and many other talented human beings.”

In other cultures, children with such abilities would be valued and
encouraged every step of the way. Unfortunately, however, our
educational system favors only one learning style, and insists that it
be developed in the classroom setting (desks in neat rows, instruction
via lecture) and that it be measureable by standardized tests (which
place unique individuals along a hypothetical “bell curve”). When a
child entering school fails to meet the system’s expectations,
teachers and parents soon begin to focus nearly all their attention on
the child’s “disability”; meanwhile, the child becomes “defective
merchandise sent back to the shop for repairs,” and may remain stuck
in a cycle of learning failure for the rest of her school days,
concentrating her energy on the perceived deficiency rather than on
the development of existing talents.

If it were only an indictment of the “learning disabilities industry,”
Armstrong’s book would be an invaluable contribution. But his ****ysis
of the problem merely sets the stage for nine chapters filled with
solutions - specific ways to engage each child’s unique learning
style. Basing his proposals on Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s
discovery that there are at least seven different kinds of human
intelligence, Armstrong offers practical advice for recognizing and
cultivating the child’s linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial,
musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and int****rsonal
abilities. He outlines seven ways to motivate the child (gauged to her
or his learning style), and “seven different ways to teach anything.”
Most of his comments are directed to parents (what to do if your child
is “diagnosed” as “learning disabled”), but there is a gold mine of
information here for teachers as well (for example, how to teach to a
different intelligence each day).

One chapter offers ways to “make learning physical,” engaging the
entire body in the educational process and eliminating bodily stresses
during study periods. Another deals with cultivating the imagination
in learning, showing how imagination need not wither with the passing
of childhood. Armstrong urges teachers to “teach with feeling” by
finding ways to express and transform feelings through art. He also
tells how to create a “learning network,” or support system, for the
child’s academic life. He counsels patience and positive beliefs, and
gives specific advice on how to create and maintain these attitudes.
Armstrong also addresses the roles of diet, atmosphere, time, and
(lack of) noise in learning.

Awakening You Child’s Natural Genius, by Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D.
(Tarcher, 1991), $12.95, paperback

This book is, in many respects, an extension of In Their Own Way. It
is a reference manual, handbook, and guide for parents who want to
help their children realize their full potential as natural learners.
The goal of the book is not to turn each child into a little prodigy
by force-feeding abstract knowledge, but to support “the intrinsic
drive for mastery that is every child’s birthright.” Each child, says
the author, is a born learner, open to new experience and eager to
explore and create. We are all “born to be brilliant.”

Armstrong begins by tracing the barriers to natural learning -
competition, testing, grades, stress, shame, boredom, dull textbooks,
bland teachers, student labeling, and educational tracking. Part of
the process of awakening the child’s natural genius consists of
removing these externally imposed obstacles. In a chapter titled “The
School: Bridge or Barricade to Life?”, the author contrasts real-life
learning with school learning (in real life, learning “takes place
directly through interaction with experiences and objects in their
natural context,” while in school “learning takes place indirectly
through talking, thinking, reading, and writing about experiences and
objects”). Unfortunately, while the public is aware that there is
something dreadfully wrong with our schools, reforms usually take the
direction of bigger course loads, longer school days, and tougher
graduation requirements. According to Armstrong, “the American
educational system is in danger not because the school day is too
short or there is not enough mathematics in the curriculum, but
because our classrooms have become emotional wastelands.” The author
advises parents how to evaluate their children’s school and how to
work for change in the school system.

However, fixing what’s wrong with our schools is not the focus of the
book. Armstrong’s main concern is to help parents understand how
children learn naturally so that they can nurture the process.

The book is divided into five sections. The first explores “The
Learning Triad: Child, Home, and School.” In it, we come to understand
“the developmental stages of genius in learning,” and how families and
schools help or hinder the learning process.

Section Two is a guide to innovative approaches for helping the child
develop an interest in reading, math, science, and history. In the
chapter on reading, for example, the author downplays the usefulness
of phonic drills (“such a disconnected approach to reading threatens
to turn our kids into paper-pushing bureaucrats and assembly-line
robots instead of clear-thinking readers”) and suggests instead that
“the child emerges into literacy by actively speaking, reading, and
writing in the context of real life.” He advocates a “whole-language”
approach to literacy, in which reading, writing, spelling,
handwriting, and grammar are taught as “one seamless process of
communication,” and in which “children spend their time, not hunched
over worksheets, but actively involved in reading and writing about
things that passionately concern them.”

The third section stresses the vital role of free, unstructured play
in children’s emotional, social, and mental development. “Play,” says
Armstrong, “is nature’s way of f****ng fresh evolutionary
possibilities.” Sadly, unstructured play is on the decline in our
culture as our children find their leisure time increasingly
regimented. Television and computer-based games are, of course, part
of the problem; another is the substitution of organized, competitive
sports for made-up games in which children use their own imaginations
and spontaneously investigate social roles. Armstrong offers
constructive advice for “what parents can do with toys,” and how to
encourage free play. He also devotes chapters in this section to
nurturing the child’s musical and artistic expression and includes a
cautious guide to the use of television and computers as learning

Section Four addresses the challenges faced by children who don’t fit
into the system. The material here follows closely on that in In Their
Own Way - outlining Howard Gardner’s seven kinds of intelligence,
suggesting alternatives to standardized testing, and offering guidance
for cir***venting the “learning disabilities” trap. Readers of
Armstrong’s earlier book will not, however, find this section entirely
redundant, as it is updated and differently organized.

In the fifth section, the author explores “educational systems that
work” - Waldorf and Montessori schools, as well as Superlearning and
peer teaching. After describing each of these systems, Armstrong
offers advice on how to use at home the basic principles on which it
is based. I would have appreciated more discussion of home schooling
here, but there are other resources available, such as the magazine
Growing Without Schooling (2269 Mass. Ave., Cambridge MA 02140), and
John Holt’s book Instead of Education.

The Radiant Child, by Thomas Armstrong (Quest Books, 1985), $7.95,

At the age of nine, the great Lakota prophet Black Elk had a vision of
the healing of his people. It would guide him throughout the rest of
his life, and would later be recorded by ethnologist Joseph Niehardt
and commented upon at length by mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Other children have spiritual experiences too, though usually not as
dramatic as Black Elk’s. Are these experiences the result of
hallucinations and infantile obsessions? Or are children capable of
genuine spirituality? This is no small question: it is one that has
exercised the greatest poets, philosophers, and psychologists. And it
is the hub on which the discussion in The Radiant Child turns.

Jesus said that “whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a
child will never come to it”; Lao Tze observed that “one who is
weighty in virtue resembles an infant child.” In his famous poem “Ode:
Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,”
Wordsworth wrote:

....trailing clouds of Glory do we come

From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

William Blake felt similarly; like Wordsworth, he saw childhood as a
time when perception is clear and fresh, full of wonder and amazement,
and the infant as the bearer of otherworldly grace.

Freud, on the other hand, viewed infants as masses of primitive
instincts. Later, the behaviorists would regard the newborn as a
“blank slate” on which culture and experience inscribe their
influences. And the cognitive psychologists (including Piaget) would
theorize that the infant possesses only a bundle of undeveloped
sensorimotor structures that by adolescence will mature into abstract
thinking. “So who is right,” asks Armstrong, “the behaviorists or
Wordsworth? Freud or Christ?”

The Freudian/behaviorist/developmentalist side of the debate is well
represented in the contemporary psychological and educational
literature, but these days there are few who speak for the child as a
spiritual being. Armstrong is one: “Emotional expressiveness,
spontaneity, and imagination,” he says, “are well-known
characteristics of childhood. However, what I am pointing to... goes
beyond these qualities. I am suggesting that children have access to
experiences which are not merely the product of fantasy, that children
are capable of levels of perception into what Abraham Maslow called
‘the farther reaches of human nature.’”

The author makes it clear that he is not proposing that babies are
bundles of undiluted spirituality. He proposes two ways of looking at
children - as spirit coming down into flesh, and as bodies developing
expressive and cognitive abilities - and insists that both views are

Armstrong goes to some length to explain and take issue with
transpersonal psychologist Ken Wilber’s “pre-trans fallacy” as applied
to childhood development. Wilber has claimed that many theorists make
the mistake either of reducing adult transpersonal experiences to
infantile origins (as did Freud, who regarded all religious
experiences as fantasies), or of exalting infantile experiences of pre-
personal unity to transpersonal status (as, in Wilber’s view, did
Wordsworth, Bergson, Jung, and others who regard the child as capable
of spiritual insight). Wilber agrees with Maslow, who believed that
“The child is innocent because he is ignorant.” However, Armstrong
points out that if the infant is incarnating from spiritual realms (as
he believes is the case), then some recollection of that transpersonal
reality may persist, allowing the child access to genuine and
occasionally profound religious experiences for which no groundwork
could have been laid in the present life. This is what the poets see
in childhood - and what the developmental psychologists miss.
Armstrong argues that the child comes into the world “with the
acquired experience of many lifetimes of existence within its psyche.”

Fortunately, the author is careful not to sentimentalize. He
recognizes that “radiant” children can also be exuberantly physical,
selfish, impetuous, and headstrong. “Belonging to both heaven and
earth, the radiant child dances into our lives as a bridge between
dark and light, body and spirit, ego and Self, the individual and God.
The radiant child spans and sings this wholeness in every fiber. We
would all be wise to listen. Even better to sing and dance along!”

The Everyday Genius: Restoring Children’s Natural Joy of Learning -
And Yours Too, by Peter Kline (Great Ocean, 1988), $12.95, paperback

Peter Kline is a pioneer in the development of the ideas of Bulgarian
educator Ge**** Lozanov. The Lozanov method is known in this country
by several names, including Superlearning, Optimalearning, whole brain
learning, and holistic learning. Kline prefers to call it integrative
learning. It is based on recent investigations into the human growth
process and the functioning of the brain, and there is abundant
evidence that it helps both children and adults learn more and faster,
and that it helps make learning fun.

As Kline underlines at the outset, learning is inherently an absorbing
activity. People who are involved in learning about something they are
passionately interested in don’t have to be coaxed; typically, they
are so pleasurably involved in what they are doing that they lose
track of time.

In his experiments in the early 1970s, Lozanov discovered that
teaching (in the usual sense) insults the mind. We are accustomed to
teaching by telling people what to do and how to do it; but this only
deadens curiosity and creates confusion. Why not instead find out what
the person wants to learn, give an overview of the scope of
information available, and then begin filling in details? Kline gives
the example of how an innovative teacher helped a group of miners
learn to read. First, the teacher asked the miners about themselves,
tape recorded their stories, transcribed them, and asked each miner to
read his own words. “The man would labor over the first few words
before recognizing them. Then he would usually exclaim, ‘Well, now,
these are my words.’ After that, the words would begin to flow from
his mouth and take on some of the cadence of a man speaking, not just
an awkward reading.” The next step was to find out what the miners
wanted to read - which turned out to be instruction manuals for their
equipment. Instruction manuals are not easy reading, but the miners
were motivated and learned to read them remarkably quickly. One
wonders whether they would have done as well with **** and Jane.

Kline believes that every person’s potential for learning is virtually
limitless, and that - given an educational program whose top priority
is producing natural learners rather than obedient factory workers -
it is possible for an entire society to blossom with creativity. “In
our time,” he writes, “excellence is not a priority. Because we have
been primarily interested in the futile search for security, we have
spent our private funds on the ac***ulation of property and wealth as
opposed to experience and education, while public funds have
maintained the economy and defense industry. They might instead be
used to develop the highest possible level of cultural excellence.” In
most contexts, this might come across as a utopian fantasy. But here -
given that Kline is laying before us proven ways to ignite anyone’s
passion for learning - we are in fact being presented with a
thoroughly realizable, practical alternative to civilization as we now
conceive it. It is truly sickening to think how much human potential
is currently being wasted, how many lives are being spoiled, by our
schools’ systematic suppression of the spontaneous joy of learning. As
I read The Everyday Genius, I found myself longing for the kind of
society that would result if only the natural genius of every child
were respected and nurtured. Kline shows that we can have such a
society, if only we will alter our priorities and open ourselves to
the joy of self-discovery.

Related resources: Motherwork magazine, PO Box 23071, Winnipeg MB R3T
2B0, Canada; Unschooling Ourselves newsletter, PO Box 1014, Eugene OR
97440, USA.

Richard Heinberg is the author of Memories and Visions of Paradise:
Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age (Quest Books: 1995),
Celebrate the Solstice: Honoring the Earth’s Seasonal Rhythms Through
Festival and Ceremony (Quest Books: 1994), and A New Covenant With
Nature. He also publishes MuseLetter, an excellent monthly newsletter
exploring issues in cultural renewal. For further details, visit

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 39, November-December 1996
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