The Dark View of Schooling

Bryan Caplan thinks that schooling is not about education. He thinks instead it is about signaling.

Bryan’s view is benign compared with John Holt.

society demands of schools, among other things, that they be a place where, for many hours of the day, many days of the year, children or young people can be shut up and so got out of everyone else’s way. Mom doesn’t want them hanging around the house, the citizens do not want them out in the streets, and workers do not want them in the labor force. What then do we do with them? How do we get rid of them? We put them in schools. That is an important part of what schools are for. They are a kind of day jail for kids.

Thanks to a commenter on this post for the pointer.

Bryan is also mild in comparison with Ivan Illich.

A political program which does not explicitly recognize the need for de-schooling is not revolutionary; it is demagoguery calling for more of the same.

Illich’s DeSchooling Society starts with a chapter “Why We Must Disestablish School,” which opens

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. [Does this foreshadow the classic “not about” post by Robin Hanson?] Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends…

the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence…this process of degradation is accelerated when nonmaterial needs are transformed into demands for commodities; when health, education, personal mobility, welfare, or psychological healing are defined as the result of services or “treatments.” I do this because I believe that most of the research now going on about the future tends to advocate further increases in the institutionalization of values and that we must define conditions which would permit precisely the contrary to happen. We need research on the possible use of technology to create institutions which serve personal, creative, and autonomous interaction and the emergence of values which cannot be substantially controlled by technocrats.

The New Left had its vices. As with the Occupy Wall Street movement, within their smoldering discontent it is difficult to discern how they would address economic organization. In The Mind and the Market, p. 345-346, Jerry Muller writes of New Left icon Herbert Marcuse,

his work, unlike Keynes’, was less than useless in providing tangible institutional solutions. For Marcuse was fundamentally uninterested in institutions, whether economic or political….Marcuse proceeded as if these fundamental issues of modern political and economic life could simply be ignored.

The New Left also bequeathed to us an academy where the oppressed-oppressor narrative becomes the sum of all scholarship. As Muller puts it on p. 344,

Scholarship, in this understanding, was not about objectivity…The model of the professor as critical intellectual, liberating his or her audience from one or another variety of false consciousness, became institutionalized in some academic disciplines, above all literary studies and sociology. Three decades after the zenith of the New Left and the publication of Marcuse’s Essay on Liberation, for example, the annual convention of the American Sociological Association was devoted to the theme of “Oppression, Domination, and Liberation”; it focused on racism as well as “other manifestations of social inequality such as class exploitation and oppression on the basis of gender, ethnicity, national origin, sexual preference, disability and age.”

But one thing I will say for the New Left is that they were not the hard-line statists that we see on the left today. On the contrary, they viewed government technocrats as part of what they called “the system,” and opposition to this system was a centerpiece of New Left ideology.

Ken Kesey, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, coined the term “the Combine” to describe forces of control that deprived people of freedom supposedly for their own good. Interestingly, John Taylor Gatto, another anti-schooling radical, wrote a Cliff Notes version of the novel that emphasized its anti-authoritarian aspects.

I imagine that if universal pre-kindergarten had been proposed by Richard Nixon, the New Left would have denounced the scheme as fascist. In that sense, I miss them.

8 thoughts on “The Dark View of Schooling

  1. Part of my “takeaway” from Illich: Formal schooling was the biggest part of the process that led to social and economic exclusion in community, in general. Where once all of a community was part of these processes, schooling proceeded to compartmentalize them by both activity and time frame so that growing numbers of individuals fell away from these vital processes altogether.

  2. I’m sympathetic.

    Among all the other experiments that are done with K-12, there are two rules that are very strictly adhered to:

    1. It will take 12 years (13 with K).
    2. Students will be in school for 7 continuous hours.

    Thus, the first priority is to make it a public daycare. If they can teach something along the way, great, but that’s a second priority.

    • On point number two it need to be said, and can’t be said enough, that the key is “in school”. I remember one of the biggest arguments I have had in my life with an elementary school teacher who said she “worked teaching the children seven hours a day” … my retort of what exactly were you teaching during recess, lunch, study hall, or nap time wasn’t met well.

      Great post though Arnold.

  3. One thing about schooling (emphasized by Illich) is that it socializes children to think of learning as a competition.

    Think about it. What kind of sick, crazy view is this?

    • Strange to be sure. Among other things, for smart kids it does the strange thing of making success mean doing enough to stay in front, which is sometimes a lot less than they could do. For slower kids, of course it means being hopelessly beat down.

  4. What’s weird is that these views aren’t particularly controversial, at least with educators I knew. (My father was a jr. high school administrator, I knew others.)

    It wasn’t really called “daycare” – but the idea that “the kids have to be in the school and in the rooms” was something communities (via school boards) demanded of schools at least in the 1970s. By the time I was helping to raise a teenager in the 1990s, there was a state law that any abscence from school during the school day had to be reported to parents – motivated by safety issues after a young woman was murdered. So it’s “safe keeping care that lasts all day”.

    And the 7 hours thing is a huge big deal to working folks… Public discussion of what they want often revolves around starting times and end-of-class times.

    As for the purpose – I’ve seen several threads of thought, some inside mainstream school establishment, over several decades, that suggest the real value of school isn’t about “signaling” or “human capital development” but “socialization” – that is, teaching people how to fit into our society. How to be a worker. How to be a consumer. How to maintain your health and fitness. And so on.

    So the claims that schools are meant as “safety daycares” and “indoctronation for participation in society” aren’t all that radical…..

  5. Further evidence to the purpose of school: if the children fail to learn, the school may care but does not take legal action. If the children fail to attend, that is, if the parents don’t make the children attend, they (the parents) are potentially criminally liable.

  6. Although I usually identify as “libertarian,” on education I am much closer to Ivan Illich and John Taylor Gatto than are most libertarians. Karl Hess is one of the few libertarians who also rejected mainstream education.

    Insofar as libertarians aspire to communicate with mainstream economists, they often accept the notion that “human capital” is equivalent to years of schooling. But strictly speaking “human capital” should consist of any expenditures (aka “investments”) in human development that are believed to increase earnings ability later. Insofar as, say, Mormon religious belief puts an individual on a path to greater personal responsibility and better habits, then converting to Mormonism would then be an “investment in human capital.” Or, to take a different example, insofar as experience actually selling products in the real world, even on the street or to other teens, improves one’s sales ability, then those hours spent in real-world sales is a human capital investment.

    Once one begins thinking about human capital in this manner, then much of the activity of “school” begins to seem counterproductive for most students. Entrepreneurship and sales abilities are not developed at all in school classrooms. The ability to live frugally, to understand one’s own abilities and their limits, to build relationships and rapport with people, etc. are not trained in the classroom. Soon one gets to a view of “local knowledge” with respect to human capital that is radically local – and “school” becomes less and less relevant to reality.

    The elites who dictate policy are a self-selected group who have succeeded in the school game, and they then go on to impose it on all others through compulsory schooling and occupational licensing. There is a “class interest” story to be told here, analogous to the story told by Marxists, but this time it is the “class interest” of the intellectuals that oppresses ordinary people who might otherwise have had fulfilling, successful lives.