In the Classroom Policy
Students Are Compelled to Attend School, But Is School Compelling?
May 30, 2018
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Casey Ward

“The right to learn is curtailed by the obligation to attend school” – Ivan Illich from Deschooling Society

“From the moment I could talk, I was ordered to listen” – Cat Stevens from “Father and Son”

The modern school, as a state-regulated, compulsory institution, is built on a model designed in Prussia in the 18th century. Given how much our world has changed in the the intervening years, much in that sentence should give us pause. The reasons behind compulsory education have evolved to meet the needs of subsequent adult populations: to prepare a majority of the population for work as laborers or soldiers; to efficiently assimilate immigrants and/or natives; to combat the growing influence of parochial schools; to increase the number of graduates in STEM fields in response to Russia’s launch of Sputnik; to shrink wealth inequality; to prepare students for college (i.e., more schooling). While this is a partial list, it illustrates that the motivations behind compulsory education reveal school primarily as a means to some pragmatic end, not an end in and of itself. We may agree or disagree with those ends, but it would be folly to believe the institution was founded on loftier ground.

The Prussian, or “factory,” model has gone largely unchanged, however much its reason for existence has. Perhaps even stranger, its existence as a monolithic institution has gone unquestioned by nearly every generation. Sure, radicals such as Illich and A.S. Neill have captivated some parents and young people with their calls for unschooling and deschooling, but the wholesale abandonment of the public school system has not come to pass. Perhaps it’s not so strange after all: it’s more difficult to challenge a paradigm if you yourself are the product of it. Still, if we bothered to ask students about their own learning, would they contend that the continuation of such an institution best serves their own idiosyncratic ends?  

The modern school, at the primary and secondary levels, is an exemplar of segregation – of young people by age and classrooms, of subjects of learning by content area, of the day into class periods, of individuals into educators and learners. It is artificial and inauthentic and, unsurprisingly, it is detested by the majority of those it purports to serve. We do not provide students any freedom to alter the basic structure of this institution, yet we grow frustrated when they act sullen, bored, or stifled.

Teachers often complain about administrative directives, and rightly so. Top-down mandates leave teachers feeling impotent, undervalued, untrusted. They are made to feel, in short, like children. It should go without saying that children also resent such directives, regardless of how well-meaning. It’s important to note that while administrators are the target of everyone’s ire, they are surely not acting with ill intentions. So, too, teachers. Still, the cycle of autocracy continues…

You need not adopt such a radical position as Illich to acknowledge that compulsion adulterates the learning experience.  Plato can be our guide here: “Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion has no hold on the mind. Therefore do not use compulsion, but let early education be a sort of amusement; you will then be better able to discover the child’s natural bent.”

Three ideas:

1) Give students voice and choice in everything that you do – students don’t need to be taught to learn. Also, do not mistake choosing something different from the given curriculum as giving your students choice – you’ve simply replaced an administrative directive with a teacher directive. It’s a fallacy to believe that one can reject authoritarianism while exercising absolute authority in the classroom.

2) Do not ask whether you would want to attend your class (of course you would), but whether individuals who are not yet 18 and are legally obligated to attend your classroom every day of the school year have an intrinsic desire to. This is not theoretical – literally ask them every week.

3) Encourage and celebrate curiosity, even if it relates to topics outside of your perceived curriculum. Remind students that school (from the Greek, meaning leisure) does not have a monopoly on learning.

Entrusting children to chart at least some part of their educational journey will make them more self-sufficient, more assertive and, consequently, less submissive. The thought of relinquishing dominance may initially frighten you (“Students selecting what they read? The horror!”), but ultimately it may liberate you from an unhealthy power dynamic. As a result, your days may be more joyful, more interesting, more educational.

Casey Ward currently serves as the Literacy Teacher Development Specialist at Hillsboro High School. After working in higher education as an instructor of Rhetoric and Composition for six years, he became a Nashville Teaching Fellow and a founding 7th grade teacher at Nashville Prep Charter School. Since then, he has worked for high schools in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) as an English teacher and Nashville Teaching Fellows as a session writer and teacher development coach. Casey is a member of the International Literacy Association. He holds a B.A. in English from Michigan State University and M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The Ohio State University. He also serves as a Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, engaging his colleagues in providing classroom feedback to the Tennessee Department of Education on public education policy issues.

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