Posted by: chrisdavis | December 19, 2008

Education as the Emperor’s New Clothes

Education is not the filling of a bucket…. –William Butler Yates

I get up every morning at 5:30AM, eat breakfast, make lunch, and get ready for school. If a school calls me to substitute, they will call by 6:30 and I have to be ready to leave. Sometimes a school asks me to return the next day. One school seems to like me enough to keep me busy most days. It is a middle school, grades 6-8. A small school where everyone knows one another. Good kids. They like me and I really like them.

One reason they seem to like me is that I don’t take them, or what they are doing in school, very seriously. I try to make their incarceration as painless as possible.

A student enters the class and tells me he has forgotten his book. He left it in his locker down the hall. But, the Substitute’s Notes say that I am to give a demerit to anyone who comes to class and has left his book in his locker. I tell the student, “You know that I’m not allowed to let you leave the classroom to go get your book. But, since I’m turning my back and can’t see you leave the room, I won’t see you going to the your locker.” I turn my back and the boy leaves the room.

“I’m back!” he says when he returns.

“Back from where?” I say with fake surprise.

“Oh, yeah,” he says with a smile. “I get it”. And, he sits down with his book.

During the class, a girl sits despondent, doing nothing. I walk to her desk and ask her in a whisper if she needs help. She says, “I’m failing this course.”

I know I would never get away with telling her the Great Secret. Of course, she already knows the Great Secret, but only intuitively. She would never be able to articulate it and I can’t articulate it for her, even though I think just knowing that I know would mean everything to her.

Last week I entered a class and, on the teacher’s desk was a pile of papers written by different students. Each set of papers was identical: three pages copied from the School Manual. These kids had all been to In-School Suspension and spent some of their time copying The Script. It began, “My grades are the most important thing I have to do at this age. My grades determine my success in life.”

The Great Secret is that we all know these kids simply cannot generate an interest in the information being presented to them. There is nothing within them that reaches out to want to know this stuff. So, they have to find some other motivation that makes them want to “learn”: that an action word is called a “verb” or that Julius Caesar was a threat to the Roman Senate. What motivation? That to fail is not acceptable because their grades will determine their success in life.

I sit with the other teachers during lunch period and hear them complain that nobody has ever figured out how kids learn.

Will a time ever come when grownups finally admit that the Emperor is naked?

The 6th grade Social Studies teacher has been teaching for many years. He confides to me that his students have the lowest scores in the school on the annual year-end test that determines if they actually learned 6th grade Social Studies. “I am not allowed to see the Social Studies questions that will be on the test. There are hundreds and hundreds of pieces of information I must teach these kids during the year, but there are only 5 Social Studies questions on the test. If they don’t get most of those 5 questions right, it is assumed they haven’t learned 6th grade Social Studies. And, it is assumed that I am a bad teacher.”

Will a time ever come when grownups finally admit that the Emperor is naked?

Kids as buckets being filled with thousands of pieces of unrelated information. Information they don’t need to, or want to, know. But, nobody is willing to tell them that how they are feeling is legitimate. Instead they are given demerits for squirming in their seats or wanting to talk about really important things like who’s dating whom or that their parents are getting divorced or that their mother is dying of cancer or that they really love to play soccer but they can’t because they are grounded for failing this course.

At least they do get exercise during the day. Yesterday I walked into the gym during my lunch break to see a gym full of male students playing badminton.

In government schools children are never asked to do anything that is real. There is nothing important to do there–John Taylor Gatto (former New York state Teacher-of-the-Year)

Will a time ever come when grownups finally admit that the Emperor is naked?

Who’s fooling whom?



  1. Do you hear the loud thunderous applause ringing across the Tennessee hills?
    So well said Chris…as usual.

  2. […] Read it here. […]

  3. So glad Teresa led me to your blog! And sooooo glad my sons are not in middle school. They are at home.

    I’m always striving to stay out of the box. Not always succeeding, but always striving.

  4. Hi Chris, I know your sons Seth, and James, and have met Blake but I fear that only Seth would remember me. Redding is my hometown and I have been at Bethel for years, including 2 years of School of Ministry. Seth was two years ahead of me in school but a very good friend especially in 2003. That is when I met you, Ellen, and Blake in Redding. You probably don’t remember (it was 5 years ago already) but we went out to a Mexican restaurant. I went by Gabi and hung out with Melissa, who was also there. If you talk to Seth, he can maybe help you remember who I am. I also went to School of Prophecy with Ellen that year. I was 17 then, and now I am grown up, and married with a beautiful 18 month old girl. I was reminded of your family today after all this time. I live in San Antonio, Tx and I have been dreaming of Franklin for some time now. I have never been there, but feel very strongly that my husband and I need to go out there. We moved to his hometown in Texas when we got married, but somehow Franklin started to be planted in my heart from afar. I have never been there, but never felt such a strong desire to go somewhere sight unseen. Even to the point that I want us to come primarily to decide if we want to move there! I know, crazy, but I feel like Franklin may just be the home for us. So, all of this to say, I was thinking about how we don’t really know anyone there, and I was reminded of your family! So funny, but I wanted to see if I could get a hold of Ellen and catch up and talk about how life is out there. And maybe have someone to say hi to when we get there. So, I randomly found Seth’s site and then yours. Please forgive the long story, but if you could get me in touch with her, that would be awesome. I really loved spending time with her, she really has such a sweet heart, and is such a mama. My husband, Nick and I are wanting to drive up (about 14 hrs) with our daughter, Elena sometime later this month or February. And we would love to connect with your lovely family. Thank you for taking the time to read this!
    Be blessed,


    • Gabi. My apologies. I just discovered this comment you posted on my blog over a year ago. I guess I don’t have this set up properly.

  5. Me again, I don’t know if this site will tell you my email address, but it’s


  6. I love your thinking on education. I have had many conversations with people about schools and learning. Not too many of the people I talk to have good memories about school, or if they do it is mostly about friends and stuff-not the classes.
    The really sad thing is this kind of dead education continues in college. Sure, if there are some things you are interested in (for me languages), you might enjoy that class. There is also a chance that you get one of those exceptional teachers that makes a class interesting (my college government teacher). But, above all that, there are the stupid “basic” classes that everyone that wants to be “well-rounded” and/or graduate must take. I am convinced that these classes are required of all students in order for the colleges to make money. I mean, who would take art appreciation-apart from art majors-voluntarily?
    It is high time, that we start appreciating ALL kinds of intelligence and talents that our kids (and adults) have. My son is very intelligent, but if you give him a bunch of bookwork- he wilts. He can carry on a great conversation about major historical events, but barely pass a test on history. He makes home made cross-bows without instructions.
    Also, who do we call when we need our cars fixed? I have never called an English major or someone with a doctorate; I call on a mechanic. This kind of stuff takes intelligence not found in a book.

    • What you say about college is SO true. I live in Israel during the summers. It takes 3 year to earn a degree because they don’t require that you take courses not directly related to your major. No wasting time there!

      Thanks for the comment.

  7. I love this post. I posted on a forum about education being like the naked emperor, but not many people got it or agreed with it. It is so maddening how many people just go along with the status quo, only to be surprised that their kids hate school.

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