How the Public Schools Kill Dreams and Mutilate Minds

It is not enough to increase the efficiency of our schools and colleges. The objective must be to create and maintain a humane society. So says Charles Silberman in this first of three installments from a major new examination of the schools. In this issue he documents how the system educates for docility, not for living. The material is adapted from Crisis in the Classroom, to be published in September by Random House.


The most deadly of all possible sins,” Erik Erikson suggests, “is the mutilation of a child’s spirit.” It is not possible to spend any prolonged period visiting public schools without being appalled by the mutilation visible everywhere: mutilation of spontaneity, of joy in learning, of pleasure in creating, of sense of self. The public schools, those “killers of the dream,” to appropriate a phrase of Lillian Smith’s, are the kind of institution one cannot really dislike until one gets to know them well. Because adults take the schools so much for granted. they fail to appreciate what grim, joyless places most American schools are, how oppressive and petty are the rules by which they are governed, how intellectually sterile and aesthetically barren the atmosphere, what an appallinglack of civility obtains on the part of teachers and principals, what contempt then unconsciously display for children children.

And it need not be! Public schools can be organized to facilitate joy in learning and aesthetic expression and to develop character—in the rural and urban slums no less than in the prosperous suburbs. This is no utopian hope; there are models now in existence that can be followed.

What makes the change possible, moreover, is that what is mostly wrong with the public schools is not due to venality, or indifference, or stupidity, but to mindlessness. To be sure, teaching has its share of sadists and clods, of insecure and angry men and women who hate their students for their openness, their exuberance, their color, or their affluence. But by and large, teachers, principals, and superintendents are decent, intelligent, and caring people who try to do their best, by their lights. It they make a botch of it, and an uncomfortably large number do. it is because it simply never occurs to more than a handful to ask why they are doing what they are doing—to think seriously or deeply about the purposes or consequences of education. Thiss mindlessness—the failure or refusal to think seriously about educational purpose, the reluctance to question established practice—is not the monopoly of the public school: it is diffused remarkably evenly throughout the entire educational system, and indeed the entire society.

The solution must lie in infusing the various educating institutions with purpose; more important, with thought about purpose, and about the ways in which techniques, content, and organization fulfill or alter purpose. And given the tendency of institutions to confuse day-to-day routine with purpose, to transform the means into theend itself, the infusion cannot be a one-shot affair. The process of self-examination, of “self-renewal. “ to use John Gardner’s useful term, must be continuous. We must find ways of stimulating educators—public school teachers, principals, and superintendents; college prolessors, deans, and presidents; radio, television, and film directors and producers; newspaper, magazine, and TV journalists and executives — to think about what they are doing, and why they are doing it. And we must persuade the general public to do the same.

Students need to learn far more than the basic skills. Children who have just started school may still be in the labor force in the year 2030. For them, nothing could be more wildly impractical, than an education designed to prepare them for specific vocations or professions or to facilitate their adjustment to the world as it is. To be practical, an education should prepare a man for work that doesn’t yet exist and whose nature cannot even be imagined. This can be done only by teaching people how to learn, by giving them the kind of intellectual discipline that will enable them to apply man’s accumulated wisdom to new problems as they arise, the kind of wisdom that will enable them to recognize new problems as they arise.

by Charles E. Silberman

Education should prepare people not just to earn a living but to live a life: a creative, humane, and sensitive life. This means that the schools must provide a liberal, humanizing education. And the purpose of liberal education must be, and indeed always has been, to educate educators—to turn out men and women who are capable of educating their families, their friends, their communities, and most important, themselves.

Of what does the capacity to educate oneself consist? It means that one has both the desire and the capacity to learn for himself, to dig out what he needs to know. It means that one has the capacity to judge what is worth learning. It means, too, that one can think for himself, so that he is dependent on neither the opinions nor the facts of others, and that he uses that capacity to think about his own education, which means to think about his own nature and his place in the universe—about the meaning of life and of knowledge and of the relations between them. “ To refuse the effort to understand,” Wayne Booth, dean of the College of the University of Chicago, argues, “is to resign from the human race.”You cannot distinguish an educated man, he continues, “by whether or not he believes in God, or in UFO’s. But you can tell an educated man by the way he takes hold of the question of whether God exists, or whether UFO’s are from Mars.”

To be educated in this sense means also to know something of the experience of beauty, if not in the sense of creating it or discoursing about it, then at the very least, in the sense of being able to respond to it—to respond, that is to say, both to the beauty of nature and to the beauty of the art made by our fellowmen.

To be educated also means to understand something of flow to make our intentions effective in the real world, of how to apply knowledge to the life one lives and the society in which one lives it. The aim of education, as Alfred North Whitehead has written, “is the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge.” Indeed, “a merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.”

In all of this, the schools fail utterly and dismally. They fail in another and equally important way. Education is not only a preparation for later life; it is an aspect of life itself. The great bulk of the young now spend a minimum of twelve years in school; with kindergarten attendance, and now preschool programs, becoming more widespread, more and more of the young will have spent thirteen to fifteen years attending school by the time they have finished high school. The quality of that experience must be regarded as important in its own right.

The most important characteristic that nearly all schools share is a preoccupation with order and control. And one of the most important controls is the clock. Things happen because it is time for them to occur. This means that a major part of the teacher’s role is to serve as traffic manager and timekeeper, either deciding on a schedule himself or making sure that a schedule others have made is adhered to.

Several things follow from this. Adherence to a timetable means that a great deal of time is wasted, the experiencing of delay being one of the inevitable outcomes of traffic management. No one who examines classroom life carefully can fail to be astounded by the proportion of the students’ time that is taken up just in waiting. The time is rarely used productively. Hence in the elementary grades, an able student can be absent from school for as long as two to three weeks and, quite literally, catch up with all he has missed in a single morning.

Adherence to the schedule also means that lessons frequently end before the students have mastered the subject at hand. As Herbert Kohl points out, “the tightness with time that exists in the elementary school has nothing to do with the quantity that must be learned or the children’s needs. It represents the teacher’s fear of loss of control and is nothing but a weapon used to weaken the solidarity and opposition of the children that too many teachers unconsciously dread.”

ITEM: An elite private school in the East, once a bastion of progressive education. A fifthgrade teacher is conducting a mathematics class, demonstrating a technique for quick multiplication and division by recognizing certain arithmetic patterns. A few students grasp the point instantly; a few ignore the teacher altogether; most struggle to grasp the concept. Just as they are beginning to catch on—mutterings of “I get it, I get if,”“I think I see,” “Oh, that’s how it works’ can be heard all over the classroom—the lesson ends. No bell has rung; bells would violate the school’s genteel progressive atmosphere. But the time schedule on the board indicates that math ends and social studies begins at 10:40, and it is now 10:37; the teacher tells the children to put away the math worksheets and take out their social studies texts. Some of the children protest; they’re intrigued with the patterns they are discovering, and another five or ten minutes would enable them to consolidate what they have only begun to grasp. No matter; the timetable rules.

ITEM: All over the United States, that last week of November, 1963, teachers reported the same complaint: “I can’t get the children to concentrate on their work; all they want to do is talk about the assassination.”The idea that the children might learn more from discussing President Kennedy’s assassination—or that, like most adults, they were simply too obsessed with the horrible events to think about anything else— didn’t occur to these teachers. It wasn’t in that week’s lesson plan.

It is all too easy, of course, for the outsider to criticize. Unless one lias taught (as this writer and members of his staff have), or has studied classroom procedures close up, it is hard to imagine the extent of the demands made on a teacher’s attention. Philip W. Jackson’s studies of teacher-student interchange, for example, indicate that “the teacher typically changes the focus of his concern about 1,000 times daily,” with many shifts of interest lasting only a few seconds, most of them less than a minute.

There are occasions when it is wise to depart from the lesson plan—surely the assassinations of a President, a distinguished civil rights leader and Nobel Laureate, and a senator contending for the presidency are such occasions—but there are also times when the teacher may be well advised to resist the seduction of talking about the day’s headlines.

The trouble, then, is not with the schedule or the lesson plan per se, but with the fact that teachers too often see them as ends in themselves, rather than as means to an end. Even when children are excited about something directly related to the curriculum, teachers ignore or suppress the interest iF it is not on the agenda for that period.

ITEM: A scholar studying curriculum reform visits a classroom using a new elementary science curriculum. Arriving a few minutes before the class was scheduled to begin, he sees a cluster of excited children examining a turtle with enormous fascination and intensity. “Now children, put away the turtle,” the teacher insists. “We’re going to have our science lesson.” The lesson is on crabs.

The tyranny of the lesson plan in turn encourages an obsession with routine for the sake of routine. School is filled with countless examples of teachers and administrators confusing means with ends, thereby making it impossible to reach the ends for which the means were devised.

ITEM: A fourth-grader is discovered by his parents to have abandoned reading E. B. White and the Dr. Doolittle books in favor of Little Golden Books—at his teacher’s request. The young teacher—a dear, sweet, loving human being —explains that students are required to submit a weekly book report on a 4 x 6 filing card. If the student were to read books as long as Charlotte’s Web or Dr. Doolittle, he wouldn’t be able to submit a weekly report, and his reports might be too long to fit on the file card. “I urged him to continue reading those books on his own.”the teacher explains, “but not for school.”The youngster does not continue, of course; he has learned all too well that the object of reading is not enjoyment, but to fill out file cards.

ITEM: A suburban community boasts of its new three-million-dollar elementary “school of the future,” with classrooms all built around a central library core, which one piece of promotional literature describes as “the nerve center of all educational processes in the school.”There is not even a full-time librarian, and children are permitted to use the library only during scheduled “librarv periods,”when they practice takingbooks from the shelves and returning them. They are not permitted to read the books they take off the shelves, however; they are there to learn “library skills,”and the librarian will not permit them to “waste time.”Nor are children permitted to borrow books to read over Christmas or Easter vacation; the librarian wants her books “in order.” If a parent protests vigorously enough, the librarian makes an exception—alter warning the child that “you’d better take care of that book and bring it back on time.”

ITEM: A junior high school in a West Coast city. The day after a student has thrown a book out of a classroom window, a distinguished professor of education doing research in the school reports, all the teachers received a memorandum from the principal: “Please keep all books away from students.”

ITEM: With considerable fanfare, a New York City school district introduces what it calls “The Balanced Class Project" in a neighborhood containing a rich mixture of black, white, and Puerto Rican youngsters. The experiment, which involves heterogeneous grouping of children in classes, is designed to demonstrate the values of diversity. But instead of the English-speaking youngsters learning Spanish from their Puerto Rican classmates and teaching them English in turn, all children are taught French.

Administrators tend to be even guiltier of this kind of mindlessness and slavish adherence to routine for the sake of routine. It is, in a sense, built into their job description, and into the way in which they view their role. Most schools are organized and run to facilitate order; the principal or superintendent is considered, and considers himself, a manager whose job is to keep the organization running as efficiently as possible.

This preoccupation with efficiency, which is to say, with order and control, turns the teacher into a disciplinarian as well as a timekeeper and traffic manager. In the interests of efficiency, moreover, discipline is defined in simple but rigid terms: the absence of noise and of movement. “’When we ask children not to move, we should have excellent reasons for doing so,” the English psychologist and educator, Susan Isaacs, of the University of London. argued in 1932. “It is stillness we have to justify, not movement.” But no justification is offered or expected. Indeed, there is no more firmly rooted school tradition than the one that holds that children must sit still, at their desks, without conversing at all, both during periods of waiting, when they have nothing to do, and during activities that almost demand conversation. Yet even on an assembly line, there is conversation and interaction among workers, and there are coffee breaks and work pauses as well.

ITEM: A new suburban elementary school is being hailed in architectural circles for its “open design.” The building has no corridors; the sixteen classrooms open instead onto “project areas” with worktables, sinks, et al., connected to a central library core. What the architects don’t know, however, is that in most classrooms, the project areas go unused: if some children are in the project area and some are in the regular classroom, the teacher might not be able to see every child, and so some of them might be carrying on a conversation without detection.

ITEM: In lecturing the assembled students on the need for and virtue of absolute silence, an elementary school principal expostulates on the wonders of a school for the “deaf and dumb” he had recently visited. The silence was just wonderful, he tells the assembly: the children could all get their work done because of the total silence. The goal is explicit: to turn normal children into youngsters behaving as though they were missing two of their faculties.

ITEM: A high school in a New England city is very proud of its elaborately equipped language laboratory, with a new “Random Access Teaching Equipment” system touted as “tailored to the individual student’s progress, as each position permits the instructor to gauge the progress of all students on an individual basis. To make sure that its expensive equipment is used properly, the high school gives students careful instructions, among them the following:

No one is an individual in the laboratory. Do nothing and touch nothing until instructions are given by the teacher. Then listen carefully and follow directions exactly.

■ The equipment in the laboratory is not like ordinary tape recorders. The principles involved are quite different. Please do not ask unnecessary questions about its operation.

■ You will stand quietly behind the chair at your booth until the teacher asks you to sit. Then sit in as close to the desk as possible.

The instructions for the lab assistants are equally explicit. They include the following:

1.Keep watching the students all the time.

a) By standing in the middle of the lab on window side you can see most of the lab.

b) Walk along the rows to make sure all arms are folded; politely but firmly ask the students to do this.

ITEM: A first-grade classroom has the following sign prominently posted:


1. Keep your hands at your sides.

2. Raise your hand to speak.

3. Be polite and kind to all.

4. Fold hands when not working.

The sign does not indicate how a child can fold hands that are required to be at his side.

The obsession with silence and lack of movement is not limited to American schools, of course; it is a characteristic of schools everywhere.

ITEM: From Socialist Competition in the Schools, a Soviet manual for “school directors, supervisors, teachers, and Young Pioneer leaders” prepared by the Institute on the Theory and History of Pedagogy at the USSR’s Academy of Pedagogical Sciences. The manual begins with instructions for the teacher standing before the class on the first day of school:

It is not difficult to see that a direct approach to the class with the command, “All sit straight” often doesn’t bring the desired effect since a demand in this form does not reach the sensibilities of the pupils and does not activate them.

In order to “reach the sensibilities of the pupils” and “activate them” according to principles of socialist competition, the teacher should say, “Let’s see which row can sit the straightest.”

In the United States, training in sitting still begins in kindergarten, the function of which is, in large measure, to instill the behavior patterns the rest of the school demands.

ITEM: The report card which a well-to-do suburban school system uses for kindergarteners grades the five-year-olds on their “Readiness for First-Grade Work.” Readiness involves some seventeen attributes, the first three of which read as follows:

1. Sits still and works at assigned task for 15 to 20 minutes.

2. Listens and follows directions.

3. Displays good work habits.

The fourth attribute is “Has intellectual curiosity.”

Moreover, despite the fact that schoolchildren work in very close quarters, silence is demanded, and the pupils are required to ignore those around them.

ITEM: An art teacher, conducting a class for fourth-graders, orders all children to put their crayons away for the rest of the period. The offense: some children who had finished the pictures they were drawing were showing their pictures to their neighbors. (Crayons were being used because the principal had forbidden the use of paints, for fear that the paint might spill on the carpeting with which the floors in this brandnew school are covered.)

Silence is demanded even when students are moving from one class to another.

ITEM: A visitor asks a junior high school principal why his school’s twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-year-old students are required to “line up” in each classroom before being permitted to leave for the next class. “Didn’t you notice bow narrow our balls are?” he replies. “Yes/ the visitor answers. “But I also noticed that the youngsters abandon the single lines as soon as they leave the classroom.”The principal thinks for a minute, then announces his solution: ‘I guess we’ll have to get more marshals to patrol the halls.”

ITEM: In that same school system, the principal of the elementary school serving the city’s wealthiest neighborhood insists that all students carry their books in their left hand when going from room to room. Asked why, the principal looks surprised—apparently no one had ever asked that question before—and after some hesitation and fumbling, explains that the children need to have their right hand free to hold on to the banisters to avoid falling when going up or down stairs. And besides, he adds, if children were permitted to carry books in their right hand, they might hang them against, and thus damage, the steel coat lockers that line some of the halls. (The students are also required to walk only on the right side of the corridors and stairs.)

The ban on movement extends to the entire school. Thus, students in most schools cannot leave the classroom, or the library or the study hall, without permission, even to get a drink of water or to go to the toilet, and the length of time they can spend there is rigidly prescribed. In high schools and junior highs, the corridors are usually guarded by teachers and students on patrol duty, whose principal function is to check the credentials of any student walking through. In the typical high school, no student may walk clown the corridor without a form, signed by a teacher, telling where he is coming from, where he is going, and the time, to the minute, during which the pass is valid. In many schools, the toilets are kept locked except during class breaks, so that a student not only must obtain a pass but must find the custodian and persuade him to unlock the needed facility. There are schools, of course, where some of these arrangements have a rational basis: where school authorities are legitimately concerned about the intrusion of outsiders, where traffic in heroin and other narcotics is brisk. But these regulations began long before schools had any drug problem: they have obtained for as long as anyone can recall. Even during periods when students do not have a class, they must be in a study ball or some other prescribed place. It is a rare school, for example, in which students are permitted to go to the library if they have a free period; the library is open to them only if they have an assigned “library period,” or it they manage to wangle a pass for that purpose from the librarian or some other person in authority.

ITEM: Erom an article in the September, 1 Today’s Education, one _ of a series “presenting the handling of a troublesome classroom incident by a teacher”: “Last year the facultv of our high school adopted a plan to control excessive loitering in the halls. Each teacher received a hall pass for his room—a good-sized piece of wood, painted bright yellow, marked with the room number. No student was allowed to leave the room without the pass, and the pass was issued only for trips to the rest room or the nurse’s office. ... In a few minutes, a boy got the pass from me in order to go to the rest room. I would never have noticed that he hadn’t returned within a reasonable period of time if another student hadn’t asked for the pass.” (The boy was delayed because he had to use a toilet at the opposite end oi the building; workmen were making repairs on the one nearby.)

ITEM: Over an elementary school’s PA system comes the principal’s announcement: “Children are not using the lavatories correctly. No child may be out of his room for more than three minutes.”

I hese petty rules and regulations are necessary not simply because of the importance schoolmen attach to control—they like to exercise control, it would seem, over what comes out of the bladder as well as the mouth—but also because schools, and school systems, operate on the assumption of distrust.

“ The school board has no faith in the central administration, the central administration has no faith in the principals, the principals have no faith in the teachers, and the teachers have no faith in the students,” Christopher Jencks observes. “In such a system it seems natural not to give the principal of a school control over his budget, not to give the teachers control over their syllabus, and not to give the students control over anything. Distrust is the order of the day.”

ITEM (from an N.E.A. volume on Discipline in the Classroom): “May an old hand give a beginning teacher some tips about keeping classroom discipline? I have found these procedures helpful:

. . . Plan the lesson. Be ready to use the first minute of class time. If you get Johnny right away, lie has no time to cook up interesting ideas that do not fit into the class situation, [Emphasis in original.]

The result, of course, is that the classroom becomes a battleground, with students and teachers devoting an inordinate amount of energy to the search for ways of outwitting one another.

ITEM (from Discipline in the Classroom) :

“Avoid standing with your back to the class for any length of time. II you do, you may invite disorderly conduct. Learn to write on the board with only your right shoulder toward the board. Student attention tends to be focused on what you are writing if the words are not obscured by your body. Whenever possible, anything you need to put on the board should be written before class time. . . .”

“Avoid emotion-charged topics. Discussing them may lead to an argument so explosive that fighting can result. Until a group has achieved enough maturity to keep itself under control, it is better to risk boredom than pandemonium.”

But how can a group “achieve enough maturity to keep itself under control” if its members never have an opportunity to exercise control? Far from helping students to develop into mature, self-reliant, self-motivated individuals, schools seem to do everything they can to keep youngsters in a state of chronic, almost infantile, dependency. The pervasive atmosphere of distrust, together with rules covering the most minute aspects of existence, teaches students every day that they are not people of worth, and certainly not individuals capable of regulating their own behavior.

ITEM: A precocious sixth-grader has become attached to a particular pencil, now down to a small stub. His teacher orders him to use a larger pencil; the youngster politely informs her that so long as his work and bis penmanship are satisfactory (lie is receiving A’s on all his work) , what pencil he uses is a matter for him to decide. The teacher sends him to see the principal, who summons the boy’s parents for a conference to discuss his “disobedience.”

Even when schools set out to develop self-direction, they seem incapable of letting go the traces.

ITEM: A Southern high school has received a national award as its state’s “Pacemaker school of the year “ for its innovative climate, in which the school “seeks to provide an atmosphere in which the student will be motivated toward self-direction.” As the school ‘s handbook adds, “Selfdirection cannot be taught but must be experienced.” Discipline is regarded “as a learning process by which the student is guided in the development of self-control and in the recognition of his responsibilities to himself and to the group.” But the school’s regulations include the following:

Students should move from one area to another within a four minute period following the module tone. There will be no movement through the halls, nor will any student he in the halls, except by written permission from a teacher, at any time other than during the four minutes following the module tone. . . .

General propriety rules out boisterousness, excessively loud talking in the talking commons, failure to be seated while in the commons area (not more than four at a small table, eight at large tables) , running in the building, throwing trash on the floor, and all other areas displaying lack of selfdiscipline.

More important, schools discourage students from developing the capacity to learn by and for themselves; they make it impossible for a youngster to take responsibility for his own education, for they are structured in such a way as to make students totally dependent upon the teachers. Whatever rhetoric they may subscribe to, most schools in practice define education as something teachers do to or for students, not something students do to and for themselves, with a teacher’s assistance. “Seated at his desk, the teacher is in a position to do something,” Jackson reports. “It is the teacher’s job to declare what that something shall be.” (Emphasis added.) “It is the teacher who decides who will speak and in what order,” and ii is the teacher who decides who will have access to the materials of learning. The result is to destroy students’ curiosity, along with their ability—more serious, their desire—to think or act for themselves.

ITEM: A large suburban high school informs its juniors that they will he able, the following year, to pursue a course of independent study on a topic of their own choosing, under faculty guidance, in lieu of a conventional course. In a class of eight or nine hundred, half of whom will be going to college, and in a year in which “relevance” has become an almost universal student catchword and demand, only three students bother to apply. The school has done its job well!

At the heart of the schoolmen’s inability to turn responsibility over to the students is the fact that the teacher-student relationship in its conventional form is, as Willard Waller states, “a form of institutionalized dominance and subordination. Teacher and pupil confront each other in the school with an original conflict of desires, and however much that conflict may be reduced in amount, or however much it may be hidden, it still remains. The teacher represents the adult group, ever the enemy of the spontaneous life of groups of children. The teacher represents the formal curriculum, and his interest is in imposing that curriculum upon the children in the form of tasks; pupils are much more interested in life in their own world than in the desiccated bits of adult life which teachers have to offer. The teacher represents the established social order in the school, and his interest is in maintaining that order, whereas pupils have only a negative interest in that feudal superstructure. Teacher and pupil confront each other with attitudes from which the underlying hostility can never be altogether removed.” There is a kernel of truth in short, as well as an element of selfpity, in the young rebels’ fondness for the metaphor of the “student as nigger.”

A major source of the underlying hostility is the preoccupation with evaluation. Almost anything and everything the student does is likely to be evaluated, and the teacher, of course, is the chief source of evaluation.

Evaluation per se is not the problem. It is an important and indeed intrinsic part of education, essential if teachers are to judge the effectiveness of their teaching, and if students are to judge what they know and what they are having trouble learning. The purpose should be diagnostic: to indicate where teachers and students have gone wrong, and how they might improve their performance. And since students will have to judge their own performance, they need experience in self-evaluation.

But schools rarely evaluate this way; they make clear that the purpose of evaluation is rating—to produce grades that enable administrators to rate and sort children—to categorize them so rigidly that thev can rarely escape. The assault on the student’s self-esteem and sense of self is frequently overt, with teachers virtually demanding failure from some children.

ITEM: A fourth-grade math teacher writes a half-dozen problems on the board for the class to do. “I think I can pick at least four children who can’t do them,” she tells the class, and proceeds to call four youngsters to the board to demonstrate, for all to see, how correct the teacher’s judgment is. Needless to say, the children fulfill the prophecy.

ITEM: An elementary school in a wealthy Northeastern suburb whose name is almost synonymous with concern for education. Three children are in a special class for children with perceptual problems. The teacher insists on talking with the visitor about the children in their presence, as though congenital deafness were part of their difficulty. “Now, watch, I’m giving them papers to see if they can spot the ovals, but you’ll see that this one”—he nods in the direction of a little boy—“isn’t going to be able to do it.” A few seconds later, he says triumphantly, “See, I told you lie couldn’t. He never gets that one right. Now I’ll put something on the overhead projector, and this one”—this time a nod toward a little gill—“won’t stay with it for more than a line.” Five seconds later, with evident disappointment: “Well, that’s the first time she ever did that. But keep watching. By the next line, she’ll have flubbed it.” The child gets the next one right, too, and the teacher’s disappointment mounts. “ This is unusual, but just stick around . . .” Sure enough, the child goofs at line five. “See, I told you so!”

ITEM: An elementary school in the Southeast, widely publicized for its variety of innovations, has abolished letter grades. Instead, children receive one of three evaluations: “working below your ability”; “working to your ability”; or “working above your ability.” It is hard to imagine anything better calculated to reduce a child’s sense of self than this last grade.

The problem is compounded by the misuse of IQ and other standardized tests. “Although the validity and reliability of all standardized tests is far from perfect,”David A. Goslin of the Russell Sage Foundation writes, “a precise numerical score frequently takes on a kind of absolute validity when it appears on a child’s record card. Teachers and administrators alike, when confronted with a child’s IQ score or his percentile rank on an achievement test like the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, often tend to disregard the considerable degree of imprecision that is inherent in such measures.” The result, Goslin adds, “is that in a variety of ways we are tending to put individuals into cubby holes.”

A corollary of teacher dominance is the teacher’s role in doling out privileges, from which status flows. ”In elementary classrooms, it is usually the teacher who assigns coveted duties, such as servingon the safety patrol, or running the movie projector, or clapping erasers, or handing out supplies,” Jackson observes. “Although the delegation of these duties may not take up much of the teacher’s time, it does help to give structure to the activities of the room and to fashion the quality of the total experience for many of the participants.”

Still another by-product of teacher dominance, one that has profound consequences for children’s attitudes toward learning, is the sharp but wholly artificial dichotomy between work and play which schools create and maintain. Young children make no such distinction. They learn through play, and until they have been taught to make the distinction (“Let’s stop playing now, children; it’s time to start our work ) , they regard all activities in the same light. But the dichotomy grows out of the assumption that nothing can happen unless the teacher makes it happen.

ITEM: A kindergarten teacher calls to her class to gather round her to hear her read a story.

Most come immediately; several do not, for they are totally absorbed in what they are doing: one is building a complicated tower with blocks, another is counting the number of steps on a ladder, a third is absorbed with a picture book. Sweetly but firmly, the teacher insists that they drop what they are doing: “It’s time to hear a story. Reluctantly, the children come; they have lerned that work is what someone else wants you to do.

Why are schools so bad? To read some of the more important and influential contemporary critics of education, men like Edgar Friedenberg, Paul Goodman, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, one might think that the schools are stalled by sadists and clods who are drawn into teaching by the lure of upward mobility and the opportunity to take out their anger-Friedenberg prefers the sociological term, ressentiment, or “A kind of free-floating ill-temper”—on the students. This impression is conveyed less by explicit statement than by nuance and tone—a kind of “aristocratic insouciance, as David Riesman calls it, which these writers affect, in turn reflecting the general snobbery of the educated upper middle class toward the white-collar, lower-middle-class world of teachers, social workers, civil servants, and policemen.

This snobbery has become, in recent years, a nasty and sometimes spiteful form of bigotry on the part of many self-made intellectuals, who seem to feel the need to demonstrate their moral and cultural superiority to the lower middle class from which they escaped.

A number of critics of American education and culture, morcover, such as Edgar Friedenberg, a conscious elitist, Paul Goodman, Norman Mailer, and Leslie Fiedler seem to be particularly attracted by the virility and violence of lower-class life, which they tend to romanticize. They seem unable to show empathy for the problems of the lower middle-class teacher, whose passivity and fear of violence they deride as effeminate and whose humanity they seem, at times, almost to deny.

But teachers are human. To be sure, teaching, like the ministry, law, medicine, business, and government, has its share of angry, hostile, mean, and incompetent people. Most teachers, however, are decent, honest, well-intentioned people who do their best under the most trying circumstances. If they appear otherwise, it is because the institution in which they are engulfed demands it of them. In fact, transforming the school transforms teacher as well as student behavior. If placed in an atmosphere of freedom and trust, that is to say, if treated as professionals and as people of worth, teachers behave like the caring, concerned people they would like to be. They, no less than their students, are victimized by the way in which schools are presently organized and run.

Certainly nothing in the way most schools are built or run suggests respect for teachers as teachers, or as human beings. After visiting some 260 classrooms in 100 elementary schools in 13 states, for example, John Goodlad, dean of the UCLA Graduate School of Education, concluded that the schools are “anything but the ‘palaces of an affluent society.” On the contrary, he writes, they look “more like the artifacts of a society that did not really care about its schools, a society that expressed its disregard by creating schools less suited to human habitation than its prisons. Goodlad and his colleagues had hoped to conduct long interviews with the teachers they observed, for example, but found that hardly any schools had either quiet or attractive places in which to meet; they held their interviews on the run, therefore, unless they were able to meet the teachers for breakfast or dinner. Nor was Goodlad"s experience atypical. Teachers rarely have offices ol their own, and if there is a teachers’ lounge, more often than not it. is a shabbily furnished 100m designed to permit no more than a fast smoke.

The shabbiness of the teachers’ physical environment is exceeded only by the churlishness of their social environment, a fact which educational critics and reformers tend to ignore, or to acknowledge only in passing. “Reform literature,”as Dean Robert J. Schaeffer of Teat hers College has written, “lias failed to examine the total educational experience of teachers, and has narrowly concentrated upon preservice preparation to the neglect of the educative or the debilitating effects of the job itself.”And the job is debilitating. In a section on “What Teaching Does to Teachers” in The Sociology of Teaching, Willard Waller talks about “that peculiar blight which affects the teacher mind, which creeps over it gradually, and possessing it bit by bit, devours its creative resources.”

This “peculiar blight" is a product of a number of forces. There is the low regard in which teachers are held by the rest of the community, reflected not only in the salaries and physical plants teachers are provided, but in the unflattering stereotypes of teachers with which American literature and films and TV programs are filled. In a study of occupational prestige conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, teaching ranked thirty-fifth from the top, just below the building contractor and just above the railroad engineer. The status problem mainly affects male teachers, the great majority of whom teach in secondary schools. For women, teaching is a highly prestigious occupation; indeed, teaching is a low-status and low-paying occupation for men in large part because of the fact that it traditionally has been dominated by women, and so is regarded as a female occupation.

There is the atmosphere of meanness and distrust in which teachers work: they punch time clocks like clerks or factory workers and are rarely, if ever, consulted about the things that concern them most: the content of the curriculum, the selection of textbooks, and so forth. And there are the conditions of work themselves, in particular teaching loads and schedules that provide no time for reflection or for privacy, as well as the incredible array of clerical and menial tasks that occupy their nonteaching time—for example, patrolling the halls and cafeterias. “Whatever becomes of our method, the conditions stand fast—six hours, and thirty, fifty, or a hunched and fifty pupils,” Ralph ‘Waldo Emerson observed more than a century ago. “Something must be done and done speedily, and in this distress the wisest are tempted to adopt violent means, to proclaim martial law, corporal punishment, mechanical arrangements, bribes, spies, wrath, main strength and ignorance. . . . And the gentle teacher, who wishes to be a Providence to youth, is grown a martinet, sore with suspicions . . . and his love of learning is lost in the routine of grammar and books of elements.”

Despite the continuous contact with children, moreover, teaching is a lonely profession. Teachers rarely get a chance to discuss their problems or their successes with their colleagues, nor clo they, as a rule, receive any kind ol meaningful help from their supervisors, not even in the first years of teaching. “When we fust started working in the schools,”members of the Vale University PsychoEducational Clinic report, “we were asked in several instances in the early weeks not to go into several classrooms because the teachers were new.” (Emphasis in the original.)

If teachers are obsessed with silence and lack of movement, therefore, it is in large part because it is the chief means by which their competence is judged. A teacher will rarely, il ever, be called on the carpet or denied tenure because his or her students haven’t learned anything; she most certainly will if her students are talking or moving about (he classroom, or, even worse, found outside the room, and she may earn the censure of her colleagues as well. Nor will teachers receive suggestions from their supervisors as to how to improve their teaching methods and materials; they will receive suggestions for improving discipline. Thus, the vows of silence and stillness are often imposed on teachers who might prefer a more open, lively classroom.

ITEM (from Up the Down Staircase) : “There was one heady moment when I was able to excite the class by an idea: I had put on the blackboard Browning’s ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’ and we got involved in a spirited discussion of aspiration vs. reality. Is it wise, I asked, to aim higher than one’s capacity? Does it not doom one in failure? No, no, some said, that’s ambition and progress! No, no, others cried, that’s frustration and defeat! What about hope? What about despair? — You’ve got to be practical! — You’ve got to have a dream! They said this in their own words, you understand, startled into discovery. To the young, cliches seem freshly minted. Hitch your wagon to a star! Shoemaker, stick to your last! And when the dismissal bell rang, they paid me the highest compliment: they groaned! They crowded in the doorway, chirping like agitated sparrows, pecking at the seeds I had strewn — when who should appear but (the Administrative Assistant to the Principal).

“ ‘What is the meaning of this noise?’

“ ‘It’s the sound of thinking, Mr. McHabe,’ I said.

“in my letter box that afternoon was a note from him, with copies to my principal and chairman (and — who knows? — perhaps a sealed indictment dispatched to the Board?) which read: I have observed that in your class the class entering your room is held up because the pupils exiting from your room are exiting in a disorganized fashion. blocking the doorway unnecessarily and talking. An orderly flow of traffic is the responsibility of the teacher whose class is exiting from the room.

“ I he cardinal sin, strange as it may seem in an institution of learning, is talking.” (Emphasis in the original.)

ITEM (from real life) : A sixth-grade science teacher in a highly regarded suburban school, learning that one of his pupils is the son of a local butcher, obtains the heart and lungs of a cow. Next day, elbow-deep in tissue and blood, he shows the class how the respiratory system operates. When he returns from lunch, lie finds a note from the superintendent, who had looked in on the class that morning: “Teachers are not supposed to remove their jackets in class. If the jacket must be removed, the shirt-sleeves certainly should not be rolled up.”

ITEM: An inexperienced teacher in a slum school, struggling valiantly to do her best with a particularly difficult sixth-grade class — the youngsters had been labeled “difficult” by the school’s “tracking" system — is visited by the system’s supervisor of elementary education. The supervisor’s only comment: one child was chewing gum in class.

If the schools are repressive, moreover, it is not the teachers’ fault, or certainly not their fault alone. Nearly two thirds of the high school students parents surveyed for Life by Louis Harris, for example, believe that “maintaining discipline is more important than student self-inquiry”; the comparable figure among teachers is only ay percent. The United States, in short, has the kinds of schools its citizens have thus far demanded. The role ol taskmaster is thrust upon teachers, some of whom accept it willingly, some reluctantly; all are affected by it. “The teacher-pupil relationship,” Waller writes, “is a special form of dominance and subordination, a very unstable relationship and in quivering equilibrium. ... It is an unfortunate role, that of Simon Legree, and has corrupted the best of men.”

To survive in school, as in other “total institutions.'’ the students, like the teachers, are forced to develop a variety of adaptive strategies and attitudes. And survival—getting through and compiling a good record or avoiding a bad record—does become the goal. It is inevitable that this be so, given the obsession with routine and given also the frequency with which students are evaluated, the arbitrariness and mysteriousness (at least to the students) of the criteria by which they are judged, and the importance attached to these evaluations by parents, teachers, colleges, graduate and professional schools, and prospective employers.

ITEM: A high school student talking: ‘’School is just like roulette or something. You can t just ask: ‘Well, what’s the point of it?’ . . . The point of it is to do it, to get through and get into college. But you have to figure the system or you can’t win, because the odds are all on the house s side.”

Unfortunately, survival has little to do with learning in the sense of cognitive development. “For children,” as John Holt documents in some detail, “the central business of school is not learning, whatever this vague word means; it is getting those daily tasks done, or at least out of the way, with a minimum of effort and unpleasantness. Each task is an end in itself.”

In any case, the student has no cognitive map to guide him through the labyrinth of knowledge he is asked to master. He is guided instead, Professor Mary Alice White of Teachers College suggests, by his map of school experience, which is organized by the way in which school life itself is organized. Thus, elementary school students almost invariably regard mathematics as the most important subject in the curriculum—not because of its structure or its elegance, but because math has the most homework, because the homework is corrected the most promptly, and because tests are given more frequently in math than in any other subject. The youngsters regard spelling as the next most important subject—because ol the frequency of spellingtests. “To a pupil,” Professor White explains, “the workload and evaluation demands obviously must reflect what the teacher thinks is important to learn.”

It is not simply the students’ ignorance of the purposes of what they are asked to learn that makes learning subordinate to survival. Almost from the first day, students learn that the game is not to acquire knowledge but to discover what answer the teacher wants, and in what form she wants it; there are few classroom scenes more familiar than that of the teacher brushing aside, or penalizing, correct answers that don’t happen to be the ones she had in mind. “It is soon clear to students what types of responses are likely to be successful at playing the school game,” a group of dissident Maryland students write in a biting critique of their country’s schools. “And so, before long, a student’s approach to questions and problems undergoes a basic change. It quickly becomes clear that approaching a question on a test by saying ‘What is my own response to this question?’ is risky indeed, and totally unwise if one covets the highest grade possible (and the school system teaches the student that he should). Rather, the real question is clear to any student who knows anything about how schools work: ‘What is the answer the teacher wants me to give? What can I write that will please the teacher?’ ”

These tendencies are built into the way classrooms operate. Without realizing it, most teachers dominate the classroom, giving students no option except that of passivity. Exhaustive studies ol classroom language by scholars in almost every part of the country and almost every kind of school reveal a pattern that is striking in its uniformity: teachers do almost all the talking, accounting, on average, for two thirds to three quarters of all classroom communication. There are differences, of course, from teacher to teacher, but the differences are surprisingly small. In the most child-centered classroom in a private school known for its child-centeredness, for example, Philip Jackson found that the teacher initiated 55.2 percent of the conversation; in the most teacher-dominated room, the ratio was 80.7 percent. Equally significant, analyses of the nature of student and teacher conversation indicate that the student’s role is passive, being confined, for the most part, to responses to teacher questions or statements. In almost all the systems of “interaction analysis” which have been devised to analyze the different kinds of classroom communication—there are now several dozen—three quarters or so of the “talk” categories refer to teachers. Small wonder, then, that students seem unable to take responsibility for their learning.

The phenomenon is not limited to elementary and secondary schools. College students’ academic relationship to faculty and administration is also one of subjection. In medical school, too, the goal is to get through. One of the ways of getting through is by cheating. Some of the forms of falsification involve little more than the petty dissembling common to adult social discourse, for example, feigning interest in what another is saying. Some involve outright cheating, copying on a test. In their classic studies of character education of forty years ago, H. Hartshorne and M. A. May discovered that children’s tendency to cheat depended on the risk of detection and the effort required rather than on the intrinsic notions of morality; noncheaters were more cautious than the cheaters, but not more honest. These findings, which have been confirmed by a number of subsequent studies, reflect the primitive morality which the culture of the school cultivates.

Getting through school also involves learninghow to suppress one’s leelings and emotions and to subordinate one’s own interests and desires to those of the teachers. Up to a point, this, too, is useful, a necessary aspect of learning to live in society. But schools tend to turn what could be a virtue into a fault by in effect excluding the child’s interests altogether. The result, Peter Marin, a former high school principal suggests, is to create “a cultural schizophrenia, in which the student is forced to choose between his own relation to reality and the one demanded by the institution.” Children frequently respond by learning to live in two worlds.

Some students, however, survive by withdrawing into apathy, whether feigned or real; in the con stantly evaluative atmosphere of the school, one way to avoid the pain of failure is to persuade yourself that you do not care. But those who do care, and who do do well on tests, are not free from pain, either; they may bear the marks of taring for the rest of their lives, particularly if they go on to college and graduate or professional school. One of the first discoveries that Sigmund Freud made when he began studying the significance of dreams was the near universality, among people with advanced degrees, of what he called the “examination dream.”In it, the dreamer imagines himself back at school and about to take an examination for which he is hopelessly unprepared and almost certain to fail. The dream, still common among university graduates, is marked by acute anxiety; the dreamer often awakens in a cold sweat.

The most important strategy for survival, however, is docility and conformity. The encouragement of docility may explain why girls tend to be more successful in school than boys: passivity and docility are more in keeping with the behavior the culture expects ol girls outside school than Lhe behavior it expects of boys. The phenomenon is cumulative and sell-reinlorcing: the behavior demanded in school is more feminine than masculine; girls adapt better; therefore school, and an interest in school affairs, tends to be defined as feminine, particularly among ethnic and social groups that place a high premium on masculinity. Perhaps as a result—or perhaps also because boys develop at a different rate than girls, a fact which the schools ignore—boys tend to do less well in school than girls, and are vastly more susceptible to learning and emotional problems. For example, boys account for three quarters of all referrals to reading clinics; more than two thirds of the children who are left back in a grade for one or more years are boys; between three and four times as many boys as girls are stutterers.

Docility is not only encouraged; it frequently is demanded, for teachers and administrators seem unable to distinguish between authority and power. “The generalization that the schools have a despotic political structure,” Waller writes, “seems to hold true for nearly all types of schools, and for all about equally, without very much difference in fact to correspond to radical differences in theory.”

ITEM: The director of physical education for girls in a well-regarded suburban school system insists that a thirteen-year-old girl change into gym shorts and sit on the sidelines each time her class has gym despite the fact that the girl has been excused for medical reasons. “There is no reason you can’t watch, or keep score, if the other girls are playing a game,” the director tells the child, whose cancerous right leg has just been amputated at the hip, and who cannot yet be fitted with an artificial limb. Not until her mother carries the appeal to the superintendent of schools is the youngster spared this thrice-weekly humiliation.

ITEM (from the film High School, produced by Frederick Wiseman) : A boy, being put on detention, protests bis innocence, politely but insistently presenting his version of what happened.

(The incident in question had involved another teacher.) The teacher giving the punishment responds each time by telling the boy how important it is to respect his elders, insisting that he should go on detention first, and then tell the teacher involved why he thought the punishment was unfair. “You have to prove you’re a man and can take orders.” The boy finally agrees to go to detention, “but under protest.” The scene ends with the teacher smirking as the boy walks away.

Docility is demanded outside the classroom and the school as well as inside it; students learn pretty rapidly that their participation in civic affairs is not welcome, except for one ceremonial day a year when they are allowed to play at being superintendent of schools, principal, teacher, and so on, for the photographers from the local newspaper.

ITEM: A high school senior—eighth in a class of 779, active in a host of extracurricular activities (student marshals, General Organization, Key Club, after-school tutoring program, president of the Debate Society, among others), and described on the school’s record as “intelligent, highly motivated and mature,” with “excellent leadership and academic potentials”—is barred from the school’s chapter of the National Honor Society on the grounds of poor character. At an open meeting of school board candidates the preceding spring, he had politely asked a question which implied some criticism of the high school, In the opinion of eight of the Honor Society’s fifteen faculty advisers, none of whom had been present at the meeting in question, and none of whom had ever met the boy in question, criticism of the high school is equivalent to disloyalty, and disloyalty constitutes bad character. The seven faculty advisers who do know the youngster fight for his admission but are overruled.

ITEM: Memorandum to teachers from the principal of a high school in a Washington, D. C.

suburb: “If you see any copies of the Washington Free Press [NB: a local student “underground” newspaper] in the possession of a student, confiscate it immediately. Any questions from the student regarding this confiscation should he referred to the administration. II you see a student selling or distributing this paper, refer them [sic] to an administrator and they will be suspended.”

ITEM: The principal of a Queens, New York, high school went further: every student “seen reading or carrying—or even suspected of possessing—copies’ of a New York underground paper, was suspended. (Emphasis added.)

For students who plan to go to college, the threat of an unfavorable reference is a frequent means of keeping them in line.

ITEM (from the Montgomery County, Maryland, Student Alliance Report): “In the way of a few examples: one student who insisted that lie would protest against the Vietnam War in front of the school was told by a vice-principal that if the student persisted the school official would see to it that he could not get into college. . . . Another high school student, a National Merit Scholarship Finalist, as it happened, was told by his counselor that he would get a bad recommendation for college because he was a ‘nihilist.’ He had been arguing with her over the values of the county school system.”

Most students, however, are only too willing to comply. The tragedy is that the great majority do not rebel; they accept the stultifying rules, the lack of privacy, the authoritarianism, the abuse of power—indeed, virtually every aspect of school life—as The Way Things Are. “All weakness tends to corrupt, and impotence corrupts absolutely,” Edgar Friedenberg sardonically observes. Hence students “accept the school as the way life is and close their minds against the anxiety of perceiving alternatives. Many students like high school; others loathe and fear it. But even these do not object to it on principle; the school effectively obstructs their learning of the principles on which objection might be based.”

ITEM: A high school student talking: “The main thing is not to take it personal, to understand that it’s just a system and it treats you the same way it treats everybody else, like an engine or a machine or something mechanical. Our names get fed into it—we get fed into it—when we’re five years old, and if we catch on and watch our step, it spits us out when we’re 17 or 18 . . .”

The sociologist Buford Rhea, who set out to study high school students’ alienation, discovered that most students are not alienated and do not want power, because they feel they would not know what to do with it if they had it. They have remarkable faith in the high schools’ paternalism, and so see no need to question what their teachers are doing or why. “It is the teacher’s job to know what to tell the student to do, and it is therefore: the teacher’s responsibility to know why the student should do it,” Rhea reports. (Emphasis his.) Indeed, academically ambitious students quite literally will themselves into believing in their teachers’ ability. “Unable to withdraw or rebel (this route leads to failure) , these ambitious students seem eager to detect, and perhaps even to fantasy, competence and concern among the staff.”

As a result, schools are able to manipulate students into doing much of the dirty work of control under the guise of self-government. As Willard Waller pointed out nearly forty years ago, “Self-government is rarely real. Usually it is but a mask for the rule of the teacher oligarchy,” or “in its most liberal form the rule of a student oligarchy carefully selected and supervised by the faculty.”

To be sure, students are less pliable than they were even a few years ago. As already noted, dissent and protest are becoming widespread high school phenomena, and in his 1969 survey of high school students’ attitudes, Louis Harris discovered a large reservoir of discontent with adult authority. Even so, the discontent was rather narrowly focused. Two thirds of the students Harris surveyed felt that they should have more say in making rules and in deciding on curriculum, but fewer than half felt they should have more say in determining discipline.

More important, while students want some role in making the rules, surprisingly few of them question either the rules themselves or the way they are enforced. A clear majority, for example, think the school regulations are “about right,” including rules on dress, haircuts, and use of free time. Three times as many students think the rules are enforced too leniently than feel enforcement is too severe: the great majority (two thirds) think enforcement is about right. Students are equally satisfied with the curriculum: 50 percent of them think they “learn a lot” in high school, nearly two thirds think the grading system is fair (they voted over two to one against abolishing grades), and 81 percent rate their teachers as good to excellent. Belief in the beneficence of the paternalism to which they are subject exists, Buford Rhea suggests, “because there is a need for faith of this sort”; without it, students might find school intolerable. It is “the myth of institutional paternalism,” in short, that keeps students from being alienated. Whether this is a virtue is something else again.

Next month: The elementary schools, How they go wrong and What can be done about it.