School is bad for kids

School is a prison that’s damaging our kids, argues Peter Gray on Salon. A psychology professor at Boston College, Gray is the author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self Reliant, and Better Prepared for Life.

“Children learn most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school,” Gray writes.

The top-down, teach-and-test method, in which learning is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than by curiosity or by any real, felt desire to know, is well designed for indoctrination and obedience training but not much else.

Most students “lose their zest for learning” — especially in math and science — by middle or high school, he writes.

. . . people of all ages learn best when they are self-motivated, pursuing questions that are their own real questions, and goals that are their own real-life goals. In such conditions, learning is usually joyful.

Children’s “amazing drive and capacity to learn” is turned off by coercive schooling, Gray argues. Our schools teach children “that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.”

When children direct their own learning, their “natural curiosity and zest for learning persist all the way through childhood and adolescence, and into adulthood,” he writes.

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More homeschooling families are encouraging self-directed learning, he writes. Others are turning to “democratic” schools where children educate themselves, while having opportunities to socialize. For example, the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass. lets students, who range in age from 4 to about 18, do what they wish all day, as long as they don’t break school rules designed to keep peace and order.

Sippican Cottage agrees: Public schools are “reeducation camps for people that weren’t educated in the first place, maybe, or little prisons, or pleasure domes for creepy teachers, or places where tubby women work out their neuroses about eating on helpless children at lunchtime — but there’s not much schooling going on in school.”

When a California principal told students to drop to one knee before being dismissed, parents protested and the policy was abandoned. What some called “taking a knee,” others saw as kneeling before the principal.

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  1. Xarthagorous, Slayer of Ignorance says:

    Looks like Ph.D.s are being handed out to anyone on the street anymore.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    1. No doubt people learn better when they are “self-motivated” but if motivation was all it took, everyone would have six-pack abs and an almost complete absence of fat tissue. Some things are hard, including math and science beyond a certain point, and some external motivation is required by a lot of people.

    2. Look at pictures of elementary school students and high school students. Do you notice any differences? High school students are still curious–but what they are curious about has changed a great deal. The new things they are interested in are largely not covered in academic subjects. If you allow them to pursue whatever they are interested in, I suspect that, at the end of their 12 years, they will not have covered vast amounts of the state-mandated curriculum.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Mr. Sweeny saith: “… I suspect that, at the end of their 12 years, they will not have covered vast amounts of the state-mandated curriculum.”

      To which the only reply is…

      Quel shame.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        Oh, say more! Are you suggesting that it would be a good idea to simply take those “vast amounts of the state-mandated curriculum” and remove the requirement for everyone?

        • Michael E. Lopez says:

          Let’s just say that “State-mandated curriculum” isn’t a term of endorsement in Lopez-land.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            You have made me curious. Where would the Lopez-land curriculum come from and what would it consist of?

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Send me your email and I’ll tell you. I don’t want to clog the comments section.

            My email address is “mlopez” AT “mail” DOT “wesleyan” DOT “edu”, without the quote marks.

  3. Wow, everything old is new again. I had this volume with a similar theme (but different reasoning) back in the day:

  4. Robert Pondiscio says:

    “Nothing at all is worst of all.”

    I guess I’m closer than most to seeing unschooling as not materially different than “nothing at all.” But my larger beef is I’m overtired of news outlets trolling with outrageous heds and staking out extreme positions. Regardless of this professor’s rationale, which he is entitled to, the framing of this by Salon is surely aimed at one-upping rival Slate for it’s recent “Private School Parents Are Bad People” nonsense.

    I remain a staunch supporter of homeschooling and admire the purposefulness of active parents who resolve to give their kids the education their local schools cannot or will not provide. Unschooling? Again, it’s your kid, not mine. If you believe that your child will intuit her way to a well-educated adulthood via some Rousseauean fantasy, be my guest.

    But comparing schools to prisons and education to indoctrination is not a helpful way to convince others to do so.

    • And yet the comparison has validity.

      Mandatory attendance policy, theoretically backed up by truancy officers, certainly is suggestive of prison. Convincing kids that education’s a good idea is a tougher proposition when the subtext is always “but we don’t really care whether you think it’s a good idea, you’ll attend anyway”.

      Oh, and indoctrination’s so obviously a part of any public education system that in some areas it’s the primary reason people pay attention to public education. Whether you’re touting intelligent design or the wonders of socialism catching them young is a good way to improve your political fortunes.

  5. Without taking a position on “Sumerhill Part Deux”, learning did occur before the advent of schools and long before mandatory attendance was a twinkle in the eye of some priest/politician/monarch.

    There’s some science yet to be done to uncover the dynamics of learning that’s been rendered immaterial by the obvious political value of indoctrination and the indifference to results that’s a gratifying extension of politics. Perhaps as the public education system loses its overwhelming dominance of the education system those dynamics can be used to inform how education is conducted.

  6. And yet there’s so much evidence in support of the proposition not the least of which is the rhetorical scat-slinging to which supporters of public education inevitably descend.

  7. Michael E. Lopez says:

    In the first place, I’m more concerned with truth than balance — and you should be, too.

    And in the second place, you’re being uncharitable: he didn’t just say “School is bad for kids.” There’s a whole article there explaining what he means.

    I take it that what is *really* going on here with this article is something like this:

    “Parents are good for kids.”
    “School is bad for kids.”
    “Nothing at all is worst of all.”

    So if the parents aren’t going to do their jobs, well, it will fall to the schools. An imperfect tool, a possibly harmful tool, but still better than nothing.