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Follow The Leader

by Periel Kaczmanrek

"Tommy, time to go to school!"
"But I don't want to, Mommy."

"Well you have to, Tommy."
"Why, Mommy?"

"Because that's the way it is. Everybody has to go to school."

Children learn from a very young age that they must go to school for a prescribed number of hours for a prescribed number of days and years to learn a preplanned set of lessons because, "That's the way it is."

Never mind if they really want to learn what is set before them.  They must learn.  They must study, memorize and regurgitate the facts and figures they are given so that they can score high points on their tests and get the approval of their teachers.  "Do what we tell you to the way we tell you to do it, and you will be rewarded with our favor."

"Follow the leader." "Conform." That is the message that millions of American children have learned since compulsory, government controlled schooling began.  Our modern society is built upon this foundation.  An arguably shaky foundation for the individual to stand on, but a very sturdy one for the institution itself as well as the numerous industries, labor unions and bureaucracies which thrive under the established school system.

Since compulsory, government controlled schooling has become such a mainstay in the United States, not many people stop to think about how and why it came about.  Most Americans would probably be very surprised and even shocked to know the original, underlying reasons for this highly regulated form of schooling.  From the early colonial days until the early 1800's, there was no such thing as compulsory schooling.  It may seem difficult to fathom, since we are so conditioned to believe that compulsory schooling is "just a part of growing up", but Benjamin Franklin, widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest thinkers of our time, never attended school as we know it.

At this time, it was the parents, not the government, that made the decisions about how when and where to school their children.  It was a free market approach to schooling.  The schools were privately funded by the parents of the children who attended.  There were even privately funded charity schools for those children whose parents could not afford to pay their tuition.  Although there were no laws requiring attendance, a survey conducted in 1817 in Boston, Massachusetts showed that 96 percent of the children Boston attended school.  It was there that the first government controlled schools in this country were opened.

Our current form of compulsory schooling was conceived of and implemented between 1817 and 1919.  Generally acknowledged as one of the founding fathers of compulsory, government controlled schooling in America, Horace Mann, is hailed by some as a champion for the poor who wanted equality for all with respect to education.  However, others believe Mann's ideas about education were more self-serving and were an infringement on the rights of parents to pass on their own beliefs and traditions to their children and to educate them as they saw fit.

Mann modeled his concept on the Prussian education system in which schools were established, supported, and administered by a central authority.  The state supervised the training of teachers, attendance was compulsory, parents were punished for not sending their children to school, and efforts were made to make curricula and instruction uniform.  Diversity in education was seen as a detriment to society at large.  Mann, who happened to be president of the Massachusetts state senate, and others who were in political power sought to centrally control the education of the populace.  They were determined to take education out of the control of parents and put it firmly into the hands of the government.

The notion was met with strong resistance by an estimated 85 percent of the population.  The residents of Cape Cod were the last holdouts against this forced schooling. In the 1880's, the area was seized by militia, and the children were marched to school under guard.  "Our way is the right way." "You will comply" was the message.  Doesn't sound very democratic, does it?

It is interesting to note that, according to a paper released by Massachusetts' senator Ted Kennedy, prior to compulsory schooling, the state literacy rate was ninety eight percent.  Ninety eight percent! That seems to be an indication that basic literacy was (is) highly obtainable by anyone with a will to learn.  In fact, there is strong evidence that the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic can be learned in about 100 hours if undertaken when the student is ready and eager to learn.

If compulsory schooling were an improvement over home/individually chosen education, one would assume that the literacy rate would go up following its advent, but that, in fact, is not the case. Indeed, the literacy rate for the state of Massachusetts has not gone over the ninety one percent mark since the implementation of compulsory schooling.

This country was founded on the notion of democracy and of manifest destiny.  How much say do we each have over our own future when we are encouraged to follow blindly in lockstep behind one another into a prefabricated idea (who's?) of what an education entails? Seventy-five years ago, the noted British mathematician and philosopher, Bertrand Russell, purported that mass schooling in the United States had a profoundly anti-democratic intent.  He asserted that it was a scheme to create national unity at the expense of family unity.  And, perhaps, in the interest of a small number of powerful people intent on keeping their positions intact.

Who controls the majority of our children's time and attention? Consider how much time children spend these days in their home environment sharing quality time with their parents, grandparents and siblings, exploring together, or perhaps even more importantly, by themselves, those things about which they have a hunger to learn and developing their thinking and reasoning skills.

Out of 168 hours each week, children sleep approximately 56 hours.  They go to school for 30 hours and do an average of 7 hours of homework.  Children spend an average of 8 hours getting ready for and going to and from school per week. Mealtime takes up approximately 3 hours of their time.  And then, of course, there is our greatest rival for their attention--TV.  Let's take into account that a small percentage of the programs they watch are designed to stimulate their thinking and reasoning skills.

Nevertheless, according to recent reports, the average American child watches between 18 and an astounding 55 hours of television per week "for fun".  Some kids watch TV after school and all weekend long! How much time does that leave a child to develop his own individuality? Not much! Then again, the development of individuality does not appear anywhere in the stated purpose of compulsory education, does it?

With all the time spent either, eating, dressing, traveling, sleeping, doing what they are told they must do by their teachers, or mindlessly watching television, there is precious little time left for the average child to explore and ponder the wonders of the universe for himself.  The word freedom is bandied about rather recklessly in this country.  Our society is supposedly founded on the ideal of individual freedom.  Sure, we appear to have lots of freedom.  Some of it is real while some of it is merely the illusion of freedom.  Most of us that are products of the public education system are so indoctrinated into the larger system it is set up to support that we cannot see the forest for the trees.  We buy, buy, buy (it's the American way!) the ideals and values that we are fed by people who decide what to feed us and continue to perpetuate our own mental imprisonment.  It's a vicious circle.  The snake has swallowed its tail!

What if we empowered our children to think for themselves rather than parrot the facts and figures they are instructed to memorize if they are to succeed in school?  That might be dangerous to society as we know it.

One of the first statements a professor of education at a venerable and well-established university in California made to his class with regard to children in public school was: "We don't want them to think".

Children, think? God forbid!

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