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I just finished reading John Holt’s How Children Fail for my Curricular Strategies course.  It’s hard to describe this book without spiraling into hyperbole, but I will try, if only to give the illusion of objectivity for a moment or two.

Holt presents an argument against schooling as most of us know it.  He is not against education, nor is he against learning; his book is against the concept of forcing children to learn things for which they have no passion, about which they care nothing.  Through his own experience as a teacher, a consultant, and a researcher he lays out a discussion of how the process of drill, memorization, trickery, fear, control, intimidation, and coercion (both well-meaning and ill-intentioned) effectively kills the learning process in most (and maybe all) students.  He shows how much of the structure of modern education makes kids feel stupid most of the time, and makes the most needy learners feel stupid all of the time.

It’s a jarring read.  And I say that as someone that has often thought of himself as having become a fairly progressive educator.  I like to think of myself as person that does a good job of listening to my kids, of making them feel safe and wanted, of providing an environment that encourages independent thought and initiative and shuns busywork and toil.

But reading How Children Fail, I have to wonder just how ethically I am treating my students.

I think that is why I am so moved by this book, at this moment, in this stage of my career.  The ethics of teaching – the right and wrong of what is done in the classroom every day – is a source of constant discussion in my own education.  The line, “For their own good,” something that I have said many, many times (and meant each time I said it), no longer means the same thing to me as it once did.  If I had to be honest, I would say that it has become something of an invective.

I know that I have a job to do, and I know that I have certain accountabilities to meet in order to be allowed to do my job.  But I’m having trouble balancing those with doing what is right by my students.  Sadly, I don’t feel any closer to an answer now.  If anything, this book has shown me that I am further from an answer than ever.

“In many ways, we break down children’s convictions that things make sense, or their hope that things may prove to make sense.  We do it, first of all, by breaking up life into arbitrary and disconnected hunks of subject matter, which we then try to ‘integrate’ by such artificial and irrelevant devices as having children sing Swiss folk songs while they are studying the geography of Switzerland, or do arithmetic problems about rail-splitting while they are studying the boyhood of Lincoln.  Furthermore, we continually confront them with what is senseless, ambiguous, and contradictory; worse, we do it without knowing that we are doing it, so that, hearing nonsense shoved at them as if it were sense, they come to feel that the source of their confusion lies not in the material but in their own stupidity.  Still further, we cut children off from their own common sense and the world of reality by requiring them to play with and shove around words and symbols that have little or no meaning to them.  Thus we turn the vast majority of our students into the kind of people for whom all symbols are meaningless; who cannot use symbols as a way of learning about and dealing with reality; who cannot understand written instructions; who, even if they read books, come out knowing no more than when they went in; who may have a few new words rattling around in their heads, but whose mental models of the world remain unchanged and, indeed, impervious to change.  The minority, the able and successful students, we are just as likely to turn into something different but just as dangerous: the kind of people who can manipulate words and symbols fluently while keeping themselves largely divorced from the reality for which they stand; the kind of people who like to speak in large generalities but grow silent or indignant if someone asks for an example of what they are talking about; the kind of people who, in their discussions of world affairs, coin and use such words as megadeaths and megacorpses, with scarcely a thought to the blood and suffering these words imply.

We encourage children to act stupidly, not only by scaring and confusing them, but by boring them, by filling up their days with dull, repetitive tasks that make little or no claim on their attention and demands on their intelligence.  Our hearts leap for joy at the sight of a roomful of children all slogging away at some imposed task, and we are all the more pleased and satisfied if someone tells us that the children don’t really like what they are doing.  We tell ourselves that this drudgery, this endless busywork, is good preparation for life, and we fear that without it children would be hard to “control.”  But why must this busywork be so dull?  Why not give tasks that are interesting or demanding?  Because, in schools where every task must be completed and every answer must be right, if we give children more demanding tasks they will be fearful and will instantly insist that we show them how to do the job.  When you have acres of paper to fill up with pencil marks, you have no time to waste on the luxury of thinking.  By such means children are firmly established in the habit of using only a small part of their thinking capacity.  They feel that school is a place where they must spend most of their time doing dull tasks in a dull way.  Before long they are deeply settled in a rut of unintelligent behavior from which most of them could not escape, even if they wanted to.”

John Holt, How Children Fail, 1964

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