Posted by: chrisdavis | February 10, 2009

What should I title this?

The other day I was watching my class of 7th graders. I was delighting in all their energy and foolishness. The boys were squirming in their desks and the girls were chattering like little girls do. I thought to myself, “Can I tell them? Can I really tell them what I think about what’s going on here?” If I did, here’s what I would say…

I want to tell you a great secret that I think no one would ever dare tell you, that few people even know and fewer, still, even care about. It is the secret of what public schooling is all about. I have wondered if you, at age 12 or 13, are mature enough to understand it. But, I think I will tell you, anyway, and let you decide, for yourself, if what I am about to say even matters.

First, over these few months I’ve been a substitute in this school, I have watched how you respond to the various assignments given you by your teachers.

Most young people seem to have an easy time with at least one of their subjects. They may actually like math or history or literature. But, while one student is enjoying a subject, most of the other students in that class are either hating it or just enduring it. The student who actually likes math probably hates English, while the girl sitting next to him may like English but hate math.

Some of you—especially the girls among you—are usually willing to do what you are assigned to do, whether you want to or not, and whether or not you feel the assignment has any meaning to you. Girls seem to have a little more willingness to do what they are told and to accept the premise that teachers know what’s best for them. So, they oblige their teachers and, as a group, tend to make better grades than do middle school-age boys.

You boys, on the other hand, seem to be less willing to accept what you are told to do. When you don’t want to do something, you show your disagreement: sometimes in little ways (like drumming your fingers on the underside of your desk or rocking your desk back and forth so it makes noises, or any number of distracting things). Sometimes you show your disagreement in ways calculated to make the teacher crazy and to make him or her react to your behavior. Sometimes you refuse to listen to the teacher or do your work or you throw something when you think the teacher isn’t looking. All these things are done to show that you don’t like what’s being done to you.

Teachers are hired to teach you the material in the books. Teachers don’t decide what books they get to use and they don’t get to decide what you have to learn. That is decided by a committee that chooses textbooks. Lots of teachers don’t like the textbooks they have to use. Too bad. Teachers are not allowed to teach something other than what they’ve been told to teach. Even if a teacher thinks what she is told to teach is a waste of your time, she still has to teach it. Why? Because, at the end of the school year, you will be taking a test that has questions coming from the material she is told to teach you.

What if you don’t want to know what the teacher has to teach you? What if you know in your heart that what you are being required to learn has no value to you right now and no value to anything you are going to do in your future, either?

This is a problem, because lots of students know in their hearts that what they are being required to learn is a waste of their time. What happens then?

Well, the law requires that you be in school until you are 18 and the law requires that you be taught what the committee who chose the textbooks says you have to learn. If you don’t like it, and if you decide to make trouble, then what?

First, the school tries to persuade you of the value of good grades: “Good grades,” they tell you, “will lead to great jobs with you making lots of money in your life and your future happiness will be directly tied to your making good grades today and every day you are in school.”

If that doesn’t work, the school tries to scare you by saying something like, “Making bad grades will eventually lead to a miserable life where you will always be working hard for long hours at jobs you hate and you will never make enough money to have anything you want.”

I have never known a teacher say that actually learning the material she is teaching will lead to a good life. You are only told that good grades will lead to a good life. This is why many so-called “good students” learn how to study for tests so they can earn a high grade, only to immediately forget what they learned. These students have understood a basic secret about public schools: It is getting good grades, not getting a good education that is important.

What schools will never admit is that “schooling” is not “education”. Education only happens when a person (whether age 5 or age 105) decides he or she wants to know something. When this happens, “education” happens. When someone doesn’t want to know something, but is being forced to learn it, the only thing happening is “schooling”. And schooling is not education.

One of the most damaging things school does to young people like yourselves is to make you afraid of failure. What do you think made this country great in the first place? It was lots of people willing to take risks. All risk has within it the possibility of failure. But if you spend twelve years learning that failure is so bad that it is to be avoided at all cost, you will not be a risk-taker in your life. Instead you will do what you are told. You will always want to make a good grade and please the one in charge. You will avoid the very thing that could, possibly, make you a great success, or a great inventor, or a great musician, or just a great person!

I should not say this, but I actually respect students who are “trouble-makers”. Most schools are very controlling places where it is difficult to make your individuality known. It is an even harder place to make known that you don’t like what is being done to you, that you don’t like the way you are being treated, that you don’t like being made to do things anyone with any sense should know is a waste of your time.

[end of my speech]

A week ago the entire 7th grade was supposed to go outside and play. It was 34 degrees outside but it was time to go outside and play. All the teachers stood just outside the door of the school, shivering, while the students dutifully played on the playground (shivering). Just then a very slim, young girl came to the door and asked one of the teachers if she could not go outside but go to the art room. She said her art teacher asked her to come find her regular teacher and get permission from her to go to the art room instead of going outside.

Her teacher (standing outside in the cold) asked the girl if she had a note from the art teacher proving that the art teacher had, in actual fact, given her permission to go to the art room. The girl said she didn’t have such a note from the art teacher who had simply told her to go get permission from her regular teacher. The regular teacher said she wouldn’t give her permission. Why should she believe the word of a child when the child had no proof? Then, the teacher turned to another teacher standing next to me and said, “What would you do here? Would you let her go to the art room? (The tone in her voice was one of total contempt). The teacher standing next to me said, “I’d let her go just to get rid of her!” At that, I walked away. The last I heard was the regular teacher telling the girl, “I’m going to give you permission, but if you get in trouble, it’s not going to be my fault!”

Today I found the girl sitting in the lunchroom. She is a very shy girl whom I’ve never heard utter a word. I sat down next to her and asked if I could tell her something. She said, “Yes.” I reminded her of the incident the week before and she said that she remembered it. I then said to this girl, “I want you to know that I didn’t like the way you were treated when you asked to go to the art room. I thought it was very disrespectful of adults to treat you that way.” Then I got up from her table, left the lunchroom, and went on to my class.

Don’t get me wrong. Most of the teachers I see would truly love to be giving their students an education; a real education. And, I don’t let students show disrespect or act in ways that make it difficult for other students. I sometimes will send them out to the hall to work just to get the room calmed down. But, I know very little education is really taking place. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes every day and no one will admit that the Emperor is naked.



  1. Man, this is good stuff! “The Emporer is naked!” is my mantra so often these days. I think there needs to be more stripping in the schools! 🙂

    I salute your willingness to wade through the wilderness and plant seeds of hope and understanding. Public education is a travesty. After reading John Taylor Gatto’s books, it’s easy to say that the education gurus have done their job well.

    Your observations are fascninating, Chris. Thank you for sharing them.

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