April 2013
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The Mind Prison System

In a recent, in-depth, late night/early morning conversation with my friends, I received a maddening and tragic realization about the horror of the state education system. Now, I’m already fully aware of alternative methods of teaching, and the systemic critiques of John Taylor Gatto in his books “Weapons of Mass Instruction” and the “Underground History of American Education”, as well as the promise of private education as demonstrated in studies by James Tooley and alternative curriculums such as Montessori and Waldorf. I’ve also personally felt that the current schooling system has slighted me in a large, unforgivable, and unredressable way.

Before beginning my lambasting of the system, let me first state, for the record that many people consider me, and I consider myself to be of above average intelligence. I don’t have a reliable measure on how far my abilities deviate from the norm, but online IQ tests have pegged me at 2 sigma, while knowledgeable and trustworthy friends have subjectively assessed me at 4 sigma. Given this situation, I focus my grievances on the ways in which a system of schooling slights the promising half the population, the insidious mechanisms through which humanity has conspired to rob itself of productivity.

My Story

I recall as a child, and I see in my nephew and all children, a natural inquisitiveness about the world. A curiosity for exploration, and inclination to playfulness. I’m fortunate that both my parents value education and they continuously challenged my abilities as I grew up, by playing mindful games: linguistic puns, humorous associations, tricks of numerical calculation, and pattern matching. Though not as focused as a homeschoolers curriculum, these daily games played whenever and wherever the opportunity arose serve as their own immediate reward. Eventually, and I think by design, the public system of schooling destroys this playfulness and nullifies curiosity.

I hold my friends in very high esteem for their abilities to recollect moments of childhood, and early realizations of the criminality of adult conformist behavior. My overactive garbage collector has left few memories, but I do recollect one year in elementary school they built a computer lab of nice shiny new macintoshes. Being in the lower middle class, my family could not afford a computer at home, despite my immediate enamoration with these wonderful machines. The internet had not yet escaped its confines from government labs and universities, so most people did not have a need for a computer at home, though many had one at work for typing documents.

I strongly suspect that the school installed a computer lab through some government initiative. I don’t recall making many class trips to the lab, but those we did make occurred under the guise of “learning how to use” a computer. One day, we received instruction in how to program something analogous logo the turtle. Even given my youthful state, I could recognize that the teacher possessed far less comfort with these machines than myself. I will not claim that I immediately understood the machine’s operational design, nor will I claim that I naturally knew how to program the poor turtle. But I distinctly felt compelled to explore what it could do, to play with it endlessly. However, my queries landed on unprepared ears, for my instructor, a friendly, endearing, and supportive elementary teacher, did not possess an algorithmic mind.

I think the system has tragically placed my elementary teacher in a very awkward role, and will retrospeculate why. Her inability to answer my exuberant yet detailed questions, undermines, in her eyes, a relationship of authority. I saw this uncertainty as she read through the programming script at the beginning of the lesson. I picked up on her fear that one of us untrained kids would, through ignorance and accident, cripple one of the expensive machines. My eagerness demanded that I try to learn more, yet, she remained only one teacher to many rambunctious elementary pupils. Logistically, my cries for attention could not be met. Even if the time had been available though, her own ignorance about programming, would not permit my satisfaction. She could not provide knowledge she herself did not possess.

The class wasted much of the learning hour on administrivia: travel to and from the computer lab and a slow, synchronized progression through a script. I estimate that I may have had about 15 minutes of free exploration, in which I realized that logo could draw really awesome spirographs, but did not have time learn any of the patterns behind the pictures. If given an instruction manual, I could have stayed for hours exploring the programming medium. Instead I don’t remember ever returning to the lab to play with logo, though I have a few memories of drawing and painting programs and of word processing.

The Lessons

Curiously, all of the good parts of this story, the eager and inquisitive student, basically friendly teacher, the school’s purchase of a new resource, serve to illuminate through stark contrast the insidious failures of schooling as a state system.

I consider the computer lab initiative to be a colossal failure and waste of resources. I still love all my early memories of computer interaction, and am grateful to have been given the opportunity, but we should realize that the scripted lessons I received did not build that attraction. In fact, were I not naturally curious about computers, the initiative would likely have resulted in a strong disinterest. Were I now to design an instructional method guaranteed to generate loathing of a particular subject, I would surely compose it as a scripted, involuntary, and regimented exercise, timed too short for any deep explortion and involving no connections to other topics. My experience in school contains all of these elements. Each one of my criticisms could easily fill an entire book chapter, and worse: they mutually support each other in a tangled system of mind killing.

Lesson 1: The Subjective Isolation

Recall that I had my experience of programming in a room specifically designed for this purpose. In contrast, today we all use computers as part of our daily lives. I do not recall that the instruction I received had anything to do with our other assignments or busy work. Quite frankly, even with my excitement to use the computers, I do not remember any attempt at connection to other topics, or non-committal verbiage regarding the reason why we should feel utility from the instruction. “It’s not that I feel that school is a good idea gone wrong, but a wrong idea from the word go. It’s a nutty notion that we can have a place where nothing but learning happens, cut off from the rest of life.”(John Holt)

Lesson 2: The Hourly Decimation of Attention

Observe the natural growth of any child to see that learning does not occur in hourly intervals. The school system decimates the day into instructional hours and stuffs each with filler content. Elementary mathematics seems especially amenable to this method of mental destruction, so I don’t wonder that most people claim to “hate math”. We teach computational algorithms (i.e. the process of 3-digit multiplication and long division) using blatantly artificial drills. Those who don’t understand the process become flummoxed and frustrated by the demand to perform, while those who do quickly take to the subject, despise the pointless repetition.

Lesson 3: The Unminding Grades

I have a developed science background and certainly do value measurements of progress, but I think an emphasis on learning metrics can do far more damage than most people realize. Psychologists have shown that the promise of reward (usually a small nominal figure in studies) can actually handicap creative problem solving ability. The disadvantage only increases under time pressure. My 3yr old nephew will do mental work for compliments, and I see no reason for an explicit system of grading when teaching him a new skill. The system of rewards distracts from the topics being learned. Far from serving as an encouragement, grades rapidly morph into a mechanism for discrimination and uncooperative competition. As an instructor at university, I can factually say that most students focus on these silly metrics at the expense of course content, undermining the entire purpose of their attendance. Fortunately, in my story above, my teacher only privately recorded subjective grades based on participation, not accomplishment or skill. “When Students cheat on exams it’s because our School System values grades more than Students value learning.”(Neil deGrasse Tyson)

Lesson 4: The Caste Classes

I endured not only a division of my day, but also age-based segregation. The school herded me into a class shared only by those my same age, regardless of our skills, abilities, interests, and inclinations. This arrangement prevents the older from teaching younger, interfering with supportive community development. In a feat of Orwellian doublethink, the system stratifies children on the presumption that doing so avoids incidences of bullying, tragically failing to see that the opposite occurs. Throughout my earliest years this regimentation subtly breeds class-based rivalry and discrimination. Relentlessly, the age-group marches through the same instructional material at the same time.

Lesson 5: Respect my Authoritah!

Finally, I end with the most grovelling lesson learned from this system: Thou shalt respect authority. The authority will reward you with grades, punish you with detention, reprimand you for thinking out of place, etc. Even with quite friendly teachers, I understood that I needed to seek permission for biologic functions. Today, I’m handicapped with fears of being incorrect, fears that impeded my desire to practice entrepreneurial activities, fears that make my desire for independence an internal struggle. As a university instructor, I saw the same learned fears in my students: they feel afraid to contact me for assistance, afraid to speak up in class, afraid to explore the material lest they make a mistake. They regarded me as a fount of knowledge and felt slighted if I told them to figure things out for themselves. It propagates a rigid credentialism, that reinforces conformity in stark contrast to growth and development.


As fortunate as I was to have a great many wonderful and dedicated teachers, I still feel held back, that the system has destroyed my full potential. Worse than the tens of millions killed under Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, we have the systematic crippling of billions of young minds. Tragically, the masses graduating this institution emerge with such mental handicap, they cannot imagine any other world. For the unfortunate few that escape with some creative neurons intact enough imagine better, most of them lack the motivation to pursue promising alternatives. Insidiously, the schooling system mechanically presses diverse minds into those few and crude molds that describe the unthinking cogs which it requires for its own preservation. It generates caretakers, like Nurse Mildred Ratched, unable to see the damage they propogate. The more that I reflect back on it and my experience of mental starvation, the more the ramifications fill my mind with feelings horror. Being myself educated in a government school, I lack the language skills with which to fully express the depth of internal rage that this tragedy continues over so many generations.

Update: I checked the dictionary, English simply doesn’t have the words for this horror, this horror.

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