Why Is School the Way It Is?


Well-Known Member
Aug 21, 2010
This thread invites discussion of why schools fail children (in both senses of the word fail) -- or even why they do good to children.

For example, the writings and speeches of John Taylor Gatto could be discussed here.

The Underground History of American Education - Wikipedia

Dumbing Us Down - Wikipedia

Writings by Neil Postman could be considered:

Neil Postman - Wikipedia

There's Ivan Illich:

Ivan Illich - Wikipedia

There's John Holt (and "unschooling"):

John Holt (educator) - Wikipedia

And David Guterson (who has written for Harper's magazine on these matters):


Callahan's book is a classic, I suppose:

Education and the Cult of Efficiency

Diane Ravitch (Left Back) is often cited:


Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods:

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Here’s a bit of history of my first school, before my time there in the late 1960s

And this seems to be the only online photo of it
British schools are still based on the 19th century factory model: creating a lot of identical individuals, that is. The word education comes from the same origin as the word ductile; it means to draw out. Alas, most education puts stuff into children. They do need some of that, but the balance is way off.
My day job for most of my life has been in education. I won't miss it when I go.
My own school experience was somewhat hit or miss. I've luckily known the benefits of a teacher incredibly passionate about his subject. That passion made me curious to find out more for myself. On the other hand, I found mathematics (as an example) a purely abstract exercise with seemingly little or no value in the real world. What made things worse was that no maths teacher I ever had bothered to explain the benefits this discipline could give.

It wasn't until I left school to do an apprenticeship (a great deal of which rested on a good understanding of maths) that I was able to say that's the kind of thing we use it for. To me the very fact that I never understood why I was learning maths until it was too late is just utterly ridiculous.

So, in a nutshell, I think schools should explain better why a subject is important to the pupil to encourage a more open mind to learning. Better that than somebody saying because I say so when questioning the validity of a subject.

Also, while passionate teachers are a luxury, it would be better if they were more commonplace. In saying that, I'm sure the system grinds teachers down and most probably start off with a passion for their subject.
I can speak to a little of this from the American point of view as I was a high school Social Studies teacher in my 20's and have grandchildren in school now.

Point 1: It is well and good to say that teachers should explain the "why" of a subject and for Math that is so simple that it should always be done. But when it comes to something like history or economics or many others there are most certainly reasons they should be learned or else they almost certainly wouldn't be in the curriculum. But these reasons as reasonable as it might be to an adult, especially one who does office style work, do not make a great deal of sense to a teenager. I once was explaining why I thought some work was important and the teenager said to me "What gives you the right to decide what's important to me?" --- Good question, and the answer "Because I older, wiser, and better educated isn't going to fly."

Point 2: Passionate teachers. This is a tricky one. I was passionate about my subject, but I was not so passionate but teaching teenagers. Looking back if my passions had been bent the other way I would have been a far better teacher. But even for those whose passion is teaching youth the job can be soul sucking. Here in the States teachers are not held in very high regard in comparison to other places in the world. Those people who are the best and brightest are almost certainly going to go where they get more respect and certainly better wages. A family with two teachers can pretty easily live a middle class life, but if you have one teacher and the other spouse working entry level jobs it's going to be very tough sledding. So there is little incentive to put in the hours and take the abuse that comes your way from teaching teenagers.

I was fortunate in that in the end I wound up preaching (my style is definitely an educational one) and teaching adults. It didn't pay any better than teaching school, but for me it's been a better life.
One of my relatives was a biology teacher and then a schools inspector and had some very exasperated comments.
As a biology teacher he did have his own lab and one of the things he did to teach plant nutrition and growth was put up inch square mesh up the south facing windows, and planted beans in pots of washed sand the whole way along. Each batch of six pots were to illustrate a different point. The sand was watered with nutrient solution, one perfectly balanced as a control, and each of the others deficient in a mineral. The beans were a living illustration of stunted and malformed growth, and you could also see all the symptoms. He said he barely had to teach it as the kids had already seen it.
As an inspector, he came across biology teachers who had kids taking turns to read aloud from the text book.
One school he inspected, the maths class were doing pendulums and so were the physics class. He suggested that the data from the physics class should be used as examples for calculations in the maths class to show how it all joined up. The teachers were blank faced at the idea.
He was a person of considerable energy and enthusiasm and didn't quit, but not everyone can manage that.

I did a little teaching of fencing to kids and one of the other fencers who did it for a living commented that young kids have the attention span of a headless chicken and you should change the subject every three minutes. They also commented that the army fencing instructors, who taught kids like they were squaddies (though in a joking way) went down a treat.

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