August 26, 2003
Paul Graham on how schools are really prisons

After doing the piece below on the Thomas Thompson case, I rehashed it for Samizdata, because I thought it deserved … to be rehashed for Samizdata. The comments are now beginning to accumulate there, one of them from Rob Fisher, who says:

I'm reminded of an essay by Paul Graham about school society. It's ostensibly about why smarter than average kids are unpopular at school, but it touches upon some deeper truths about what school is really like. I hope I'm not quoting too much, but it seems relevant.

It does indeed. Below I reproduce the bits that Rob picked out:

They know, in the abstract, that kids are monstrously cruel to one another, just as we know in the abstract that people get tortured in poorer countries. But, like us, they don't like to dwell on this depressing fact, and they don't see evidence of specific abuses unless they go looking for it.

Notice that Graham doesn't say that "in the abstract people in poorer countries are monstrously cruel to one another". He merely notes that cruelty happens, without claiming that the people being cruel are cruel by their inherent nature. Yet he makes that exact claim about children. I think he's flat wrong, and that children, like adults, are nice or nasty depending on the pressures they face. A few are truly evil, even in a nice world. A few are saints, even in a nasty world. Most children, like most adults, go either way, depending.

Public school teachers are in much the same position as prison wardens. Wardens' main concern is to keep the prisoners on the premises. They also need to keep them fed, and as far as possible prevent them from killing one another. Beyond that, they want to have as little to do with the prisoners as possible, so they leave them to create whatever social organization they want. From what I've read, the society that the prisoners create is warped, savage, and pervasive, and it is no fun to be at the bottom of it.

That's certainly true. But then comes this:

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world. Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids all locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done. And I have no problem with this: in a specialized industrial society, it would be a disaster to have kids running around loose.

I bloody well do have a "problem with this". I think that prisons are inherently savage places. I think the way to handle the disasters of kids "running around loose" would be to deal with each disaster case by case, as adult "disasters" are dealt with, rather than by imprisoning all children, even if they can quite see the point of not being allowed to run around loose. Besides which: what happens during the school holidays. Some adults have their work cut out, but not all.

What bothers me is not that the kids are kept in prisons, but that (a) they aren't told about it, and (b) the prisons are run mostly by the inmates. Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they're called misfits.

But if you tell children quite clearly that they are in prison, some of them are going to be all the keener to escape, and if you stop them, then where does that leave any plan for a kinder, gentler prison?

It seems to me that any curriculum, no matter what combination of activities it contains, will be meaningless and stultifying to many children. The idea that you can solve the problem of a compulsory curriculum by having a different compulsory curriculum is to concentrate on tinkering with the wrong half of that phrase. (The trouble with "progressive" education is that it grants the child every freedom imaginable, except the freedom to go somewhere else if the child thinks it's horrible or a waste of time. Freedom must include the freedom to leave.)

To make a more general point, many regular readers of this blog may be puzzled by the way I oscillate between arguing for children's liberation, as in this post, and quite polite discussions of this or that school or teaching method, often of a highly disciplined and "structured" sort, for example as done in the British Army, or as might be involved in them being sent away to a school in Romania. The reason is simple. I believe in freedom for children. And I believe in good teaching, which can most definitely involve highly structured teaching. Freedom means you can leave. It doesn't mean that you can tyrannise your teacher in his classroom. Some kids sent to Romania might be imprisoned there, if they want out but aren't allowed out. But the lucky ones would only go, and then go back, back if they liked it and felt they were getting good things from it, despite the inevitable downsides of one sort or another.

Practically any half-decent teacher is welcomed by some children, and is simultaneously experienced as a tyrant by other children who are forced to submit to that teacher against their will. In other words, there is actually, now, quite a lot of freedom for many children. Many children are living pretty much the life they want, given the choices they now have, which explains why quite a lot of officially compulsory schools are actually quite nice places, instead of being run by the nastiest psychos in them. (In particular, many children would surely be horrified if obliged to stay at home and be mucked about by their parents. Freedom and home schooling are absolutely not the same thing, however large the overlap may often be.) Hence (a) my unswerving belief in freedom for children, combined with (b) my eagerness to discuss sympathetically the work of many apparently "compulsory" teachers and teaching systems now. It may seem a contradiction, but from where I sit, it's not.

Graham, it seems to me, is honest enough to see what many schools really are and what many schools really do, but he draws back from the conclusion that, it seems to me, ought to follow. They are (for many children) prisons. And they ought not to be (for any children).

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:39 PM
Category: BullyingHome education