Against Primary Schooling: Anecdotes, Questions, and Commentary
“Twelve years,” I sighed. “After this year, twelve more years.”
It was Spring of 1979, and I was six years old, looking up at the main hall of Oxford Elementary School in Claremont, N.C. I was in line. In line. I had been gotten in line, most likely after some considerable debate, to climb the ramp from the kindergarten building up to the main hall, through which we would be marched, continually being shushed, especially outside the principal’s office, which would swallow naughty little boys and girls whole, marched to the cafeteria, where I would open my metal Superman lunchbox, in which was packed my mother’s love.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the sandwich was peanut butter and jelly. Tuesdays and Thursdays were ham and cheese days. Monday through Thursday included a mixed-fruit cup and a small carrot slice, but Friday—Friday! —Friday was chocolate pudding day, and no horrid little carrot; instead, potato chips lovingly placed into a clear sandwich bag. The thermos kept cherry-flavored Kool-Aid cool to quench a five-year-old tongue in agony. No talking while Teacher is talking.
I cried great tears of fear and sadness on the first day of kindergarten. In hindsight, now over 40 years later, I marvel at the trauma: we separate little boys from their mothers for…what, exactly? Mediocrity is anathema to us, and here we would include charts and graphs, demonstrating that children who begin formal schooling at such-and-such an age are this many percentage points more likely to achieve these production goals and, most importantly, earning power. Earning power, of course, translates into Gross Domestic Product, which is taxable; therefore, we separate little boys from their mothers.
Gross Domestic Product has, for two generations, going on three, driven mothers from their little girls and boys, in order that two cars might be maintained, a larger apartment might be rented, a larger house might be constructed, better sports programs might be purchased, and a host of extracurricular activities might be included on a child’s Curriculum Vitae at the robust maturity of seventeen years old. Thus, we might have a robust, mature social superstructure, governed meticulously at every level, national to local, in order to achieve even more. Mediocrity is anathema to us.
I hated school. I hated it. Every day to me was drudgery, school soaking all joy out of life, the gray hopelessness of winter actually amplified by the schoolroom, which was overseen by some poor human whose own joy of teaching had long been destroyed by the relentlessness of competing bureaucracies and other people’s children. I chafed continually against the discipline of the classroom, which, I argue, is quite different from the discipline of the self. It was to me as daily life is described in Dead Kennedys “At My Job.” The pertinent descriptor had already actualized in my consciousness when I was only six years old: “All that time spent going to school/ only to end up following rules.” The hammering of metal against stone echoed within primary school walls nine months of the year of every year of my childhood. The Breakfast Club was the greatest movie of all time at the time (1985, when I was twelve), so timely. At the same time, our parents were divorcing at a rate which is difficult to process emotionally, and whose consequences, a considerable amount of time later, are still being discovered, and in time, maybe we will understand what we were doing during the time when we took little boys away from their mothers.
There was one exception in my schooling: those three months when I was sent to a Baptist “academy” out in the boondocks. Despite the fact that Brother Greysin was an overt pederast (hence the three month stint), and despite the fact that Brother Gadsden exercised his sadism to an extent that would satisfy a novelist, and despite the fact that Mrs. Gadsden buried the disobedient in shallow graves beside the playground (no, not really, but she was a horrible person wearing religious clothing), I loved it. Classroom discipline was nonexistent, as was pedagogy, as was being gotten in lines, as were all the things you might associate with an ordinary day at school. Self-discipline, on the other hand, was enforced with a rod, which wasn’t terribly unpleasant after a few hours (another contributor to a short stint). My learning, however, grew by leaps and bounds. They left me alone. As long as I had my nose buried in the textbooks, and as long as I showed progress on a certain checklist, they left me alone, and I learned. I think on those three months alone I coasted for years, right into the SAT and ACT college competency exams when I was seventeen.
That’s not to say, of course, that I didn’t learn anything before or after, but the sheer joy of learning was instilled in me…by me. There are a few primary school teachers I cast my mind to with some respect, but none fondly, and I daresay not one of them serves as an inspiration to me in any way.
My wife has a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education, and she put in her time as a primary school teacher, so, naturally, with her experiences combined with my attitude, we had an easy time deciding to school our children at home; and when I say “school,” I mean “un-school.”
Un-school bears some explanation. It is not no-school, but how we educate our children bears little resemblance to school. Some highlights: first, there are no special education loci in the house. Education happens nowhere in particular, and everywhere in general, including the most basic aspects of life, like cooking and cleaning, which lead to things like world history and local politics. At the primary level, math and science are bound to daily life. For example: how many teaspoons go into this muffin recipe? If we wanted to make a double batch, how many teaspoons would be required? Why does baking soda do what it does? And then a further example: how did early American settlers make bread? Why were they here? What was the land like? The flow of questions from ordinary daily activities create the opportunity for an enriching educational experience. When we want to sleep in, we sleep in. When we want to take a vacation, we take a vacation. If we want the day to be eight hours of education, it is eight hours; when we want it to be two, it is two. Field trip? Pack some lunches and we go. Planning? Yes. Ad-hoc? Also, yes. On top of all that, each child gets the education suited for him individually, according to his interests. It is, as the salesmen might say, a program personalized exclusively for him (we have four boys and no girls). This is a rough outline of un-school.
This puts us at odds with other kinds of homeschool. Two in particular leap to mind: “Car-schoolers,” who drive from homeschool co-op to homeschool co-op, which we find to be basically multi-point school; and “Classical education,” which we find to be a replacement school at home, part of a repristination movement, wishing for something that never was, and that somehow, a thorough knowledge of Latin and Classical History are what children really need. We disagree with these two models for homeschooling (and tease those who do them), but we certainly don’t begrudge anyone for doing them. As for my wife and me, we believe models such as these don’t solve the problem with school, at least with regard to my own reaction to school.
My oldest would this year (Fall 2020) be considered a senior in high school, and just for the record, every year during registration time, we have always given our children the freedom to leave home and go to public school (and should they win a scholarship, to a parochial school or preparatory academy). So far, none have chosen to go to school, but, really, who knows what that signifies? Fear of the outside world? You could argue that.
For the first ten years or so, when people would ascertain that we school at home, the reaction was uniform: and just how do we socialize our children? Invariably, a horror story of anti-social homeschoolers would follow along these lines: “Why, I heard about the Jefferdtons a town or two over, and when they went to high school the district had to separate them out to different buildings because they couldn’t function socially without each other.” Or some such logical nonsense. Somewhere along the way (and not too long ago, but I can’t put my finger on when that attitude changed), the reaction became more of a wistful comment. “How do you pull that off?” I think (and I really don’t know) they see that our two older boys are sort-of happy and well-adjusted. As a disclaimer, I must say I don’t know that our two older boys are any happier or better-adjusted than the local cross-section of their peers, but I know that they certainly aren’t experiencing any obvious disadvantages with schooling-at-home. At this point, it’s difficult to ascertain.
“How do you pull that off?” Re-structure the life of the family, that’s how. First and foremost, one must do with much less, materially. Second, and of considerable importance, life is lived at home. I must admit, in the evening, after we have grown tired of each other and tired from our labors, our interactions move from Rivendell to Lord of the Flies. Each day lived together, however, has served to create familial bonds that did not exist for me when I was coming up through primary school.
One day back in 1978, it was recess time. Teacher had a chart set up with clothespins, symbols representing the number of children who could occupy each recreational station. The most desired station was the sandbox, which was outside under the main window of the classroom. It was necessary to exit the building to get to it, and normally, there preceded the awful discipline of being gotten in line. During instruction time, I had a habit of going off to another planet, thinking about the latest frog I had caught, or whether it was chocolate pudding day, or anything but whatever I was being told to learn, so when the recess bell rang, I generally remained lost in my own world for a while after all my classmates had bolted for the recess chart, and I was consistently last to grab a clothespin. It wasn’t so bad: I got to play with building blocks an awful lot, but I was imagining that I was using sandbox toys even so. On this particular occasion I awakened from my travels to find that no one had taken any clothespins for the sandbox symbol, so, with joy, I grabbed one and darted out of the door and around the building, whereupon I played rapturously by myself, and dug deeply.
The light mist of a low chilly day made the sand perfect for tunnel construction, as well as mighty ramparts to overlook them in protective fortitude. The world came alive, with traffic and commerce coming and going, followed by massive armies and their destructive warfare, the mourning of the survivors, and the period of rebuilding and electing a new king. The cycle continued until I felt a certain sensation of consciousness, the realization that time had passed. How much time? I leaped to my feet and peered into the window to find Teacher lecturing to the students. She caught glimpse of me, and a look of horror eclipsed her demeanor. I rushed to her and she rushed to me, and she immediately put me under discipline, causing me to stand facing the corner, upon whose painted cinder blocks I rested my nose, and I thought hard upon my evil ways. She pinned a note to my mother onto my breast, and I walked home, thinking nothing other than that I was finally free for a few hours.
I was now one of the bad children, and I was forced to associate with the other bad children, and when I was a senior in high school, I spent most of my days in after-school detention, every time for insubordination (with the occasional fist fight thrown in, but boys will be boys), as I toed the line between detention and suspension (I never used inappropriate language). I was spending the year trying to make every teacher as miserable as I was, and as a punishment, they made me a salutatorian and sent me to college with a big scholarship from the state. How many times per year did I hear this speech from a well-meaning and dedicated principal, throughout all thirteen years of primary and secondary education? “I would punish you more, but I’ll call your father, and I know he’ll…address…these concerns further.” At which I would feign repentance outwardly, and inwardly laugh. Of course, my father would address these concerns further! That was the design. What relationship did I have with my mother and father? School! School! School! Five days a week the clock alarms rang in the morning, and the household snapped to a schedule not its own, regulated by a bell not nearly within earshot, yet it rang loudly in all our hearts, and it dominated us.
To burn down every school would be revolutionary, and therefore undesirable. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile mental exercise to imagine that every primary school is suddenly found uninhabitable and that all school taxes are immediately suspended so that parents may do as they will (a permanent condition, I mean; although this pandemic thing surely greases the imagination). Would we, as a society, descend into what we would call poverty? Would many children not learn their ciphering? Would children indeed lose the ability to produce in our contemporary world? Families with a pattern of poor decision-making would probably make poor decisions in this regard, whereas families with a pattern of good decision-making would probably be okay. Wouldn’t mothers read to their children at bedtime? Wouldn’t fathers play-act the voices of the characters? Wouldn’t both mother and father take an interest in all things related to ciphering? And the mental exercise goes further in weighing the balance of schooling at home and mass education.
To dismantle the primary school system is not desirable, but it is necessary. What we have now is a triumph of the middle of the 20th Century, a system designed for the most part to discipline individuals to produce for manufacturing or to produce for government bureaucracy, the partnership of which contributed to making the American economy the envy of the world. Yet, we stretched the model’s seams late in the 20th Century, which can be seen, I think, especially in the mass prescribing of Methylphenidate (Ritalin) to keep little boys still against their nature. Mass education has changed since the late 1970s, without a doubt, but what we have is retrofitted, like putting a bank of Alphabet Inc servers in a bombed out steel mill building. Instead of a discipline for factory work, we have a discipline for data entry. “I’m working at my job/ I’m so happy. More boring by the day/ but they pay me.”
When I told my wife I was writing this, she said, “It’s nice to see children out after school.” In all our years here in this edge-urban neighborhood, over a decade, during the school year we never saw any children outside. They were in formal school-related settings from the crack of dawn until dinnertime, after which they were confined to their rooms doing homework. Now during the pandemic? Not so. Our school district has chosen to do school remotely. Now the children are outside after schooling hours, talking, playing, arguing, conspiring, in less-stratified social units than a classroom setting, brothers and sisters all commingling with each other up and down the age layers. It is nice; life has been breathed into the homes of our neighborhood. We like other people’s children, even though the virus commands us to keep our distance from them, or else.
Schooling at home is not a panacea, I assure you. In fact, I appreciate the notion of mass education, its advantages, and its benefits over keeping the kids at home. I wonder: what would come about in a vacuum of primary schools? Guarding against repristination efforts (“Well, this is how we did it when I was a kid and if it was good enough for me…”), the state would impose some sort of system in its justifiable interest in the education of its own citizens, but I doubt it would look anything like what we have now.
Certain pedagogical theories have left Pandora’s Box, such as Waldorf, Montessori, and Reggio Emilia, and certain ideologies have been percolating for some years, ideologies which refocus at least a segment of the culture away from 20th Century extra-familial institutions and toward the basic family unit, such that there has been a homeschooling movement which has endured for the better part of a generation now. We would run for office at school boards, and we would influence decision-making with our interests in mind, along with our beliefs and the proofs from our experiences. At the end of these theories and practices is a different question from the system we have now. The differences are subtle, but the subtleties betray distinct worldviews.
Here I call to mind a certain argument I had about twelve years ago, when our oldest was only five. I had to take some job training in a government-regulated profession, and within the cross-section of people included in that class, was another gentleman in the education profession who had found himself, like me, precipitously unemployed (2008). Neither of us were particularly happy with this change-of-life event, and I hazard to declare that we were both itching for a good argument. During a break from this demeaning job training, we were enjoying some light refreshments together, and I ventured somewhere in the conversation that we were planning not to send our children to a primary school.
He leaped with both feet. “A child gets the fullest, richest education in public elementary school. Resources are virtually limitless.” I scoffed, “Yet they remain void for the human soul.” He set me up with, “What could possibly be lacking?” I said, “Schools are completely empty of a moral education, at least one apart from government morality.” He moved in for the kill, saying, “If you religious people don’t let me teach your children how to think, how will they ever function in society?” I said, “Historically speaking, schools were built to operate in loco parentis, not the other way around, and that’s precisely what we object to.” He did not reply. He never spoke with me again during the remainder of that two-week course, in fact. I don’t know whether he won the argument, or I did, or if I was telling the truth about the black maw of amorality in public schools.
One thing bugs me about this exchange: what does morality have to do with religion? Further, what does that have to do with thinking? What do you think he meant by that? I suppose in a utilitarian sense religious people are supposed to be moral, but that’s a debatable proposition in practice. It’s also debatable whether morality comes from religion, and what might be distinguishable between civil morality and religious morality. There are religious schools. Religious schools, in general, are indistinguishable from public schools in education, save for a religious component as an addition to the curriculum. Some religious schools, of course, teach a science that is incompatible with a godless science taught in public schools, but in terms of the experience of primary school, how much difference does that really make? I can send my children to primary school and also teach them my religion in addition to school, but I don’t think I can teach them my morality without taking them out of school.
On the other hand, my morality was hammered out within me in spite of school, in part by my parents, but mostly by myself, as I encountered a post-school world. Even so, the morality of family which I’m instilling in my own children is born of a loss, the loss of my childhood to school, when we separated, my mother and I.
This is the distinct worldview: I want my children to be moral operators in the world, in the society around them, in which they participate and which with their own lives they effect. New York State requires certain testing of our children in regular intervals through their childhood; they perform adequately. My wife parses the scores more thoroughly than I do. As for me, I encourage them in their work, to learn to read and write, to work with numbers, to observe the world around them in the various frameworks given by our culture, to learn to think about human existence. “What do you like to do?” I ask them as they grow older. “If you think you can make a living doing it, pursue it with all your heart. Do you think you can support a family doing what you like to do?” In those questions are the sum of daily human interaction. At least I hope so. I do not believe primary school fosters such thinking.
Buying and selling. Marrying. What else is there? Scheming. And within those limits we operate morally.