I’ve been in the education industry now, off and on (but mostly on) since 2007, in a range of capacities: substitute teacher in public high schools, teacher’s assistant in a large public research university, an instructor in a tiny historically black private college, and, in a couple months, a grad student and TA at a wealthy private research university. Besides my work as a teacher I have experienced a wide range of educational settings as a student: a small private school (kindergarten, though because of my family moving, I never officially graduated), followed by a couple of years in public school. I disliked school and my parents, thanks be to God, didn’t compel me to continue a compulsory public education, and instead let me be homeschooled. Homeschooled is a bit of a misnomer, since my childhood and adolescent education took place in lots of different settings and with lots of different teachers, besides my day-to-day ‘formal’ curriculum. I learned painting and woodcarving under the relatively informal and very personal tutelage of wonderful, experienced teachers; I spent a great deal of time hiking and exploring and camping; I participated in a (rather disorganized and not very badge-driven) Boy Scout group and in 4H; I joined a railroad history group; sat in on graduate classes in history my father was taking (and used the university library); and so on. That I have turned out a market anarchist is not really a surprise when I reflect on it: had I been forced to spend most of my waking hours in a state institution of mass education, my political, economic, cultural, and religious views would probably be much more ‘mainstream’ and malleable to State and Capital. Which is, I suppose, the point, whether intentional or unintentional. But more on that question later.
Now that I’ve briefly set out the history of my own experience with teaching and education, I’d like to reflect a little on some of the lessons I’ve learned (pun intended) over the past several years, focusing primarily on my experiences as a teacher. First, my experience in public primary-school education, the most limited of my experiences, lasting for a semester plus a few extra weeks in the second semester. I had recently finished my bachelor’s degree and wanted to begin grad school, but knew that I needed to begin learning Arabic. I also wanted to do some more traveling, so I decided to go abroad to study Arabic. In order to pay for said expedition, I took up a couple of jobs and lived with my parents; in addition, my father was deployed to Iraq so I felt a certain imperative to stay at home with my mother and youngest brother. Anyway, I took a job working for a shoestring budget skating rink; once the school year rolled around I signed up for substitute teaching, which in Mississippi at least does not require any rigorous training. I ended up teaching at a couple of schools on a regular basis: a semi-rural, semi-urban high school, and the so-called alternative school, the holding cell for ‘troubled’ students, which as often as not meant the less nasty alternative to jail. I briefly subbed at another high school but lost out on that after pissing off a rabidly militaristic and neocon civics teacher, in my first taste of being blacklisted. But that’s another story.
What follows are some of my observations from this period; none are groundbreaking (as I would later discover, much of what I learned has already been uncovered and discussed by other radical thinkers, Ivan Illich chief among them), yet the entire structure is generally accepted as a given in industrialized Western society, despite the almost blindingly obvious harms inherent in it. I cannot of course hope to list more than fraction of these harms- there are plenty of others I could enumerate. Rather I will stick to those I saw up-close, and even was forced to participate in. Also, do realize that I do not aim to incriminate any one individual, even those who were, even by the standards of the system, particularly atrocious. Rather, it is the system as a whole that I have come to condemn, the structures and procedures whose operation is not dependent upon any one person’s will or intentions.
To preface the particulars: my overall conclusion was that compulsory education is an incredibly anti-social method. Students, far from being encouraged to interact in anything resembling a free environment, find themselves, day after day, in an environment that is at once highly structured and regimented, from arriving on the bus to processing into classrooms to the punctual division of the day into timed blocks, with brief interludes of liberty in between. Students are sorted into age groups, evaluated according to performance on (increasingly centrally directed and evaluated) tests, ranked further within their age groups. Disciplinary figures are everywhere, threatening some form of more direct coercion or another. This does not mean that the students respect these impositions of authority and regimentation: in fact, they tend to resent it, and try to find ways of evading it at all turns, all the while both fearing this authority and internalizing its inevitability (as they see it, as they are drilled to see it). Students organize themselves within the interstices of the regimented day, and they extend these organizations beyond the school day. Sometimes the pent-up aggression at continual coercion bursts into open acts of belligerence, even violence, usually against each other, sometimes directed at teachers. Far from creating order, the system tends towards barely contained disorder. Substitute teachers are soft targets for strategies of evasion, though I was able for the most part to at least keep my classrooms civil, if not exactly engaged in meaningful learning.
Which brings me to another consistent pattern: the amount of ‘busy work’ designed to keep students occupied, and the complete lack of instruction in some classes. The latter reflects what I imagine, though don’t know to be, a regional variation: football and to a lesser extent basketball coaches who also teach are notoriously exempt from any standards. But neither of these problems strikes at one of the central, maybe the central, evil of the entire system, an evil that I dealt with while subbing and one I continue to deal with in colleges and universities. Simply put, students are taught to associate learning with coercion. The things that we in the humanities hold dear- literature, history, philosophy, music- become, for the average student, weapons in the hands of a power structure that operates on them day after day, year after year. I know because I had to yield them as such for this job- certainly, I was able to engage the students voluntarily, more or less, on many occasions; I tried as often as I could to avoid the tactics I saw being employed by full-time faculty. Yet even I, in order to keep things moving through the day, to go from one period to the next, as often as not had to effectively compel students to read their Shakespeare (which most of them did not understand at all, but it was on the day’s schedule) or whatever it was at hand.
For the especially bright students, or the well-connected and favored ones, all of this may not be an especially terrible experience. For them- especially the brighter kids- it is the broader anti-social atmosphere of high school that chafes them: asinine teachers, bullies, the grind of busy work, of confinement to a standardized (industrialized!) curriculum, the creation and clashing of cliques. They manage to disassociate learning with the coercive structure, or discover ways of learning that lie outside of the school’s control. For the rest, learning is physically imprinted in them (through these bodily actions, day after day after day) as an activity imposed from the outside, a method of control, humiliation even. That they reject all semblance of ‘higher culture’ upon escaping from the educational structure is not surprising; even for those who do not reject all learning, their further experiences with educational structure are forever imprinted by their years of experience in school. It is not that they reject the necessity of school: they’ve had it drilled into them, year after year; nor do they reject the authority, which they have also had drilled into them year after year. Rather, they resent it, chafe under it, and, crucially, do not desire learning. The world of learning has little or no wonder available to it; the discipline and tests and ranking and regimentation have crushed it out of them.
It is this crushing of desire and wonder, this awful associate of learning with a system of continual coercion, that I find most destructive. Certainly, for those of us teaching in colleges and universities, we face student bodies that are often times close to functional illiteracy, or who are at the very least incapable of most of the skills necessary for basic humanities courses (I can say nothing of math and science, but I would not be surprised if a similar situation obtains there as well). Opening discussions in class (which is a primary task among teacher’ assistants) is doubly difficult: the students have rarely read the assigned material nor do they especially comprehend it. If one can get them to discuss, it is nearly impossible to engage them, since they will not- in class at least!- counter-say a teacher, not without lots of urging. They do not love the authorities over them, nor do they respect them, but they will not gainsay them. For a teacher’s assistant trying to stimulate a discussion about the Venerable Bede, it’s a depressing scenario, but one repeated over and over again. But for an operator of the authority of state or corporate capital, it’s the perfect scenario: unhappy subservience, but unquestioning subservience.
But before I spin off another tangent, let me return to, and end with, the most troubling environment in which I worked, the alternative school. These were students who had been caught in the teeth of the system, and were being slowly shredded to bits. The threat of actual prison- juvie, then adult- was always over their heads. Many of them- freshmen, sophomores, mind you- had lost count of the number of times that had been hauled in by the cops or disciplinary officers. The roots of their problems were various: most came from deeply troubled homes, nearly all had been caught in the crossfire of the drug war, all, so far as I could tell, were from chronically poor backgrounds. Their lives were chronicles of all the state institutions that wage war on the poor: prisons, judges, schools, welfare programs, the projects, cops, alongside the ugly constant of disordered families and utterly fragmented communities, wracked by drugs, poverty, and violence. None of these programs had ‘helped’ them, nor were they supposed to, of course. The alternative school, as I mentioned above, was for the most part a last stop, a last ditch effort. Certainly, in terms of school structure and daily procedure, it heightened the coercive nature of schooling: pat-downs, metal detectors, locks on everything, constant surveillance. Not that I entirely minded it, mind you- some of these kids had committed violence in the past, and for a skinny white twenty-something guy having backup nearby gave a measure of reassurance. That said, the environment in the actual classrooms was, in some ways, less coercive and oppressive than in ‘normal’ schools. Certainly, some of the teachers seem to have missed out on a career as prison-guards, but they were the exception- the teachers were, for the most part, genuinely kind and decent. Classes were relatively loosely organized, compared to ‘normal’ school, and since classes were (for reasons of security probably more than anything) small I got to know the students and other teachers pretty well. Some of my most enjoyable times of teaching took place there, in large part I think because my class periods gave the students a little glimpse outside of their otherwise deeply disordered lives shuttling between one coercive authority after another, with stops in utter disorder and violence in between. Teaching tended to be relatively informal; sometimes I would just read passages from books to my students, stopping to gloss difficult bits. It was also a heartbreaking experience: here were kids who had already been passed through the larger educational and judicial mills, and- I knew in the back of my head- were almost certainly going to end up behinds bars, or murdered, or dead from an overdose or cop’s bullet or alcohol, or living in cyclical poverty. I could offer my miniscule cup of compassion, but that was it.
To be sure, all is not terrible: I came across plenty of bright spots as well, smart and engaged students, students who refused to simply swallow everything fed them, teachers who genuinely loved to teach and even managed to impart some of their love of learning to their students. Certainly the anti-social and anti-learning tendency of compulsory, centralized education does not always destroy learning and creativity and so on- it’s not an utterly total system, nor an always consistent or homogenized one, thank God. Some components are far more negative than others, and individual teachers, students, and others can make a considerable difference. But for all of the particular and personal examples one can summon the overall system looms supreme and ultimately dominating, operating just as well- perhaps better- with these positive blimps in the radar existing. The system does not need mere reforms, as politicians of both statist parties will content: it needs to be demolished, and teaching and learning need to be re-imagined and re-built from the ground up.