One of the most unequivocal findings re childhood from the ethnographic record is children learning their culture without teaching. ‘Navahos abhor the idea or practice of controlling other beings in the course of everyday life’… Inuit ‘parents do not presume to teach their children what they can as easily learn on their own’… An egalitarian ethos also contraindicates the inherently hierarchical act of teaching… Deciding what another person should do, no matter what his age, is outside the Yequana vocabulary of behaviors. There is great interest in what everyone does, but no impulse to influence — let alone coerce — anyone. The child’s will is his motive force… [Aka] respect for an individual’s autonomy is also a core cultural value… one does not impose his/her will, beliefs, or actions on others [including children]…
David F. Lancy, The Anthropology of Childhood
Education in the system means compulsory schooling in a world of artificial scarcity · · · Schooled activity stunts maturity, punishes experience, corrupts initiative and cuts the individual off from the world, making self-sufficiency and self-confidence all but impossible · · · The most schooled people on earth are generally the most stupid; the most heavily indoctrinated, the most insensitive, the most conceited, the most helpless and the most bored.
The purpose of education is to socialise human beings into a life of complete institutional dependency. School teaches you that justice must come from someone in institutional authority, that meaningful activity must come from a ‘career path,’ that if you want to express yourself you must first gain access to centralised speech platforms,1 that if you want to do something, you must first of all gain a licence or a qualification and that, above all, your own desires and instincts are invalid.
General incompetence, self-alienation and permanent childishness is the purpose of education; indeed the stated purpose. The designers of the modern school were chillingly explicit about what school is supposed to do.2 Self-knowledge, self-confidence, peace-of-mind, sensitivity, spontaneity and autonomy do not figure; indeed they are existential threats of the highest order which must be repeatedly exterminated.
The purpose of education is to train students in techniques required by the market-system; managing large amounts of useless data, doing the same thing over and over and over and over again, doing things you don’t actually want to do, under extreme time pressure, for no better reason than because someone in authority tells you to, paying no attention to the world around you and unquestioningly accepting given myths. So called ‘objective’ exams fulfil this purpose perfectly, weeding out those who insist on doing things their own way, in their own time, without any need of overt coercion; although there are plenty of other ways that systemic threats and defective units can be identified. Inability to sit still, staring out of the window, refusal to do ludicrous assignments, hatred of authority, bunking off, asking the wrong kinds of questions, ‘inappropriate’ behaviour and offensive language are all grounds for suspicion, tranquillisation, ridicule, failure or expulsion.
The purpose of education is to postpone the entry of workers into a crammed labour market — forcing them to accrue debts which can only be alleviated by more work — and to give hundreds of thousands of useless intellectuals something to do; namely, go from twenty years of being subjected to education to forty years of subjecting others to it. Institutional brochures exhorting those who have finally escaped school to do something ‘inspiring’ with their lives by re-entering it don’t tend to focus on teachers who inspire their students to do what the fuck they love (or, even more inspiringly, love who the fuck they fuck).
The purpose of education is to transform human beings into continually assessed, continually observed ‘cases’. Naturally, teachers are not expected to rate subservience directly or explicitly; the syllabus, rather, is structured to reward, with good grades and positive references, those who check faculty attitudes and faithfully reproduce them in their work, who do not rebel or cause problems and who yield willingly to the hidden curriculum. Such students — usually middle-class — are destined for superior professional jobs. They can be trusted to direct their curiosity, creativity and critical minds in profitable directions without seriously questioning the entire exercise.
The hidden curriculum exists in the experience of attending school, rather than what is taught in it; in having to spend most of your life there, in being continually measured and disciplined and in suppressing your finer instincts for years on end. Reformist critics focus entirely on the subjects that are taught in school, how students’ progress is measured, teaching styles, classroom management, financial cost and so on and so forth. These are permitted topics when talking about education. The purpose of being there at all is never considered. Just as you may criticise individual politicians, ‘fat cats’ and corporations, but must never, ever, critically examine the system itself, so, in school, you are encouraged to question what the teacher says (at least in the ‘better’ schools you are), but to question the point of being in class at all is heresy; and to actually do something about your confinement — leave the class, study what you want, say what you feel — is intolerable; in fact, in many cases, it is a crime.
The purpose of education is to squash initiative, self-sufficiency and self-trust. The superficial means by which this is effected is through punishing any serious attempt to cross disciplines or to reject the syllabus which, by virtue of the fact that all socio-economic activity depends on the values and credentials it produces, makes all learning outside of its confines worse than useless; craft, self-knowledge, social responsibility and general non-credentialised competence, all become non-pedagogic in an intensely schooled system, and the entire world beyond the curriculum becomes non-educational, not to mention unreal3. Schools and universities must, at all costs, be completely separated from society. The idea that students can meaningfully contribute to society, learn from those who do or rely on their own will to determine their development, is preposterous, utopian; because a total revolution of society would be required to ‘teach’ students in the manner that they have been ‘taught’ for millions of years, through their own inclination, and integrated with an educational society.
The purpose of education is to make students less intelligent. Ignoring real life and preventing children from having anything to do with it is enough to stupefy them, but if they still persist in being enthusiastic, sensitive, perceptive, creative and intelligent, the school can, and will, effectively extinguish these dangerous instincts from children by imprisoning them in a room for eight, ten, twelve hours a day, by forcing them to compete with each other, by ignoring their unique characters (or, at best, doing almost nothing to allow them to develop) and, above all, by replacing doing with a weird activity which goes by the name of ‘learning,’ the breaking up of activity into a series of stages or ‘skills’ which are fed from above to the student who then labours eternally up the Sisyphean mountain of competence. Every step up is rewarded, every fall punished, thereby inculcating, deep within the student’s psyche, a fear of uncertainty (and therefore of experimenting) and a veritable obsession with ‘the right answer’.
The purpose of education is also to prevent ordinary people from being able to communicate with each other. This is achieved by using professional academic discourse to generate a technical jargon, invested with the quasi-religious authority of Scientific Truth, that usurps key terms in ordinary human speech, but has no power to express life as it is actually lived by those who actually live it. Ordinary speech is now peppered with terms, like ‘energy’, ‘justice’, ‘paradox’ and ‘conscious’, which you have to be a qualified expert, or professionally coded computer, to use ‘correctly’. Even words like ‘love’, ‘god’, ‘beauty’ or ‘reality’ carry with them the subtle unspoken sense that one must be a professional expert (psychologist, priest, artist or philosopher) to really understand or use them. As for expressing yourself in a public forum on topics such as politics, art, history, psychology and so on without having the proper credentials, this is a form of presumptive mania which only fraudulent maniacs and laughable naifs engage in.
The purpose of education is to separate children from adults, and thus from their own culture. Technology serves the same purpose. Children are not supposed to take guidance from those with more experience (and likewise, adults are not supposed to learn enthusiasm and play from those with less) they are to huddle in cliques. Children are not supposed to absorb the language, the music, the stories, the values or the knowledge of their elders, but of their peers; of children in exactly the same helpless, cultureless void. Growing up without the unconditional love of their family, or the wisdom of adults (not necessarily their parents, but someone older) or the restraints that living in an ordinary, embodied world puts on them, makes young people confused to the point of stupidity and anxious to the point of insanity, but no matter how shambolic their lives they are unable to turn to adults for help and love. It just doesn’t feel as good. This insane peer-orientation might rapidly disintegrate society and cause untold anguish for parents and children alike, but total isolation from society, total-dependency on technology and ‘youth-culture’4 are good for business! When children eventually return to the adult world, after years of isolation, they are quite literally good for nothing.
The purpose of education is to generate scarce opportunities and foster anxiety about securing them, to reinforce class by providing prestigious degrees to those with sufficient financial and cultural capital to acquire them, to breed snobbishness, cruelty, boredom and functional illiteracy (the inability to do anything useful outside of capitalist structures), to level out nuance, to homogenise the world in the name of ‘multiculturalism’ or ‘diversity,’ to make entry into productive life dependent upon market credentials and to perpetuate this credentialism throughout a life spent in dependence on ‘education’ and ‘training’ which, like medicine, law, consumption and the spectacle must cover every aspect of life in the system. Ideally, in the ‘perfect’ education system, everything human will require a series of qualifications and licenses; cooking, child-rearing, speaking, cycling, walking, sex, all that we do will exist on a graded hierarchy of ‘competences’ each unlocked, as in all centrally or remotely managed virtual experiences, by obtaining enough points from the programme.
Finally, the purpose of education is to fix students into the mechanism of society, to determine which of a handful of system-serving tasks the student is fit to do and to reward her for doing them. If she is unfit for any task she is to be humiliated and rejected. If she is particularly ‘gifted’ (a mixture of technical expertise, ambition and obedience) she is to be rewarded and shown how to manage the system and the human cogs, belts, diodes and processors which comprise it.
Those who make their way through decades of education — both schooled and informal — are unable to really do much and unable to really understand anything. They don’t trust their own instincts, they are afraid of nature and strangers to their own bodies. They are notoriously uncreative, repressed and unhappy while gripping on to what little they know — an ideology, a few facts — and what little they like — a hobby, a narcotic — like their lives depend on it. They sound the same, they look the same. They are trained for a life of desperation, frustration, loneliness, intense mediocrity, humiliating subservience and complete pointless futility trying to find one of a handful of grotesquely unpleasant jobs in a world that is falling apart in front of our eyes.5
This is an excerpt (myth 17) from 33 Myths of the System, which contains an expanded version of this essay.
- Or to artificially distributed networks, and the system-friendly popularity, or ‘likes’, which they are founded upon.
- See John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education.
- Which partly explains the shock that graduates often get on their first encounter with it.
- ‘Youth-culture’ is about fifty years old. Initially it was, of course, a good thing, as the young could nurture truths inaccessible to adults. Now children have completely abandoned adults. The consequences of this are plain to see. See Gabor Maté, Hold onto Your Kids.
- For further discussion, see John Taylor Gatto, Ivan Illich, John Holt and Matt Hern, Everywhere All the Time. Many of the above points are taken from these authors.