School is Prison. Maybe?

A friend sent me this wonderful review of Daniel Willingham’s book Why Don’t Students Like School? Before I write any more, I have to confess that I’ve never actually read the book. I have, however, picked it up multiple times while browsing at the book store, thinking it looked interesting, and then returned it to the shelf with a vague feeling of distaste. I was never quite sure why the distaste, but Peter Gray’s review got at exactly what was bothering me.

My understanding is that the main claim of Willingham’s book is that if teachers just used what cognitive scientists have discovered about learning and child development, they’d engage their students and magically turn them into interested, successful learners. (Keep in mind, that’s my understanding of the book from reading the book jacket, part of the intro, and Gray’s review. I have no idea how well argued Willingham’s claims are or how sensitive he is to the real needs of students, so take this as a springboard to talk about something I want to talk about.) Gray points out that, while Willingham may have some good ideas, he’s completely missing the point. The reason students don’t like school is that School is Prison.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard the school is prison argument, and I have to admit, I have extremely mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, prison is a pretty good description of most people’s experience of school. “School is prison” may be a bit hyperbolic, but not nearly as much as it ought to be. But I usually hear this argument advanced by un/homeschoolers, with the implication that schools are inherently coercive and therefore bad. Our school system largely does rely on coercion to do its thing, so that’s not totally unreasonable.

However, I for one mostly loved school. Does that mean I’m suffering from Stockholm Syndrome? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I was one of those lucky kids who went to atypical schools: Montessori and then a goofy alternative Sudbury-type school that could reasonably be described as “unschooling in a school environment.” It’s easy enough to argue that schools like this don’t really count, because they’re not like prison at all (which is true), but that’s not quite right. I did have to go to school. And I did have to practice my math facts. And do my follow up work. And turn in homework (though admittedly, late homework usually resulted in a conversation about what was going on and when I was going to turn it in, not in bad grades and letters home to my parents).

So the trouble is, I’m not quite sure how or where to draw the line. Yes, I agree that traditional schooling is like prison, or at least is coercive and often cruel. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s quite right to say that that all stems from the fact that kids have to go to school and have to meet obligations (some people–see, for example, John Taylor Gatto–do seem to think this), because that would include a lot of places that I think are both good for kids and loved by kids. So where should we draw the line?

Honestly, at this point, I have no idea. I’m still pondering this one, and I apologize for the rather rambling post. I really don’t know what I think yet.

I’ll also just point out that the approach to education that I most believe in, namely Montessori, actually does use all that stuff cognitive scientists have discovered about learning and child development (though we’ve been using it since long before the cognitive scientists discovered it). I’ll hold off saying anything more about this until I’ve actually read the book and know how Willingham is treating the issues.

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3 thoughts on “School is Prison. Maybe?

  1. I haven’t read his book, but I do know that the concept of hating school is instilled in the youngest children… I can’t tell you how many parents, when picking up their children from pre-school on Friday, tell them: “Hey, aren’t you happy it’s the weekend? You don’t have to go to school for two days!!” Way to send a positive message, parents…

    • superplexa says:

      I was recently observing in a lower el. class where I watched the guide announce that it was a four day week and a bunch of boys start celebrating (quietly, under their breath). I wasn’t sure whether it was because the guide was not very good (which I have NO reason to believe), because for some kids Montessori really isn’t as good a fit as I’d like to think it is, or because they were already so indoctrinated into the idea that school is supposed to suck that their celebration was just reflex.

      Or maybe just making kids go to school really is essentially putting them in prison, even if it’s a really gentle, compassionate, well-designed school.

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