|I accept this award on behalf of all the fine teachers I've
known over the years who've struggled to make their transactions
with children honorable ones, men and women who are never
complacent, always questioning, always wrestling to define and
redefine endlessly what the word "education" should
mean. A Teacher of the Year is not the best teacher around, those
people are too quiet to be easily uncovered, but he is a
standard-bearer, symbolic of these private people who spend their
lives gladly in the service of children. This is their award as
well as mine.
We live in a time of great school crisis. Our children rank at
the bottom of nineteen industrial nations in reading, writing and
arithmetic. At the very bottom. The world's narcotic economy is
based upon our own consumption of the commodity, if we didn't buy
so many powdered dreams the business would collapse - and schools
are an important sales outlet. Our teenage suicide rate is the
highest in the world and suicidal kids are rich kids for the most
part, not the poor. In Manhattan fifty per cent of all new
marriages last less than five years. So something is wrong for
Our school crisis is a reflection of this greater social
crisis. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people
are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to a
degree without precedent - nobody talks to them anymore and
without children and old people mixing in daily life a community
has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the
name "community" hardly applies to the way we interact
with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and
everyone I know is lonely because of that. In some strange way
school is a major actor in this tragedy just as it is a major
actor in the widening guilt among social classes. Using school as
a sorting mechanism we appear to be on the way to creating a caste
system, complete with untouchables who wander through subway
trains begging and sleep on the streets.
I've noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years
of teaching - that schools and schooling are increasingly
irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes
anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or
politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The
truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to
obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of
humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and
administrators but the abstract logic of the institution
overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do
care and do work very hard, the institution is psychopathic - it
has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle
of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to different
cell where he must memorize that man and monkeys derive from a
Our form of compulsory schooling is an invention of the state
of Massachusetts around 1850. It was resisted - sometimes with
guns - by an estimated eighty per cent of the Massachusetts
population, the last outpost in Barnstable on Cape Cod not
surrendering its children until the 1880's when the area was
seized by militia and children marched to school under guard.
Now here is a curious idea to ponder. Senator Ted Kennedy's
office released a paper not too long ago claiming that prior to
compulsory education the state literacy rate was 98% and after it
the figure never again reached above 91% where it stands in 1990.
I hope that interests you.
Here is another curiosity to think about. The homeschooling
movement has quietly grown to a size where one and a half million
young people are being educated entirely by their own parents.
Last month the education press reported the amazing news that
children schooled at home seem to be five or even ten years ahead
of their formally trained peers in their ability to think.
I don't think we'll get rid of schools anytime soon, certainly
not in my lifetime, but if we're going to change what is rapidly
becoming a disaster of ignorance, we need to realize that the
school institution "schools" very well, but it does not
"educate" - that's inherent in the design of the thing.
It's not the fault of bad teachers or too little money spent, it's
just impossible for education and schooling ever to be the same
Schools were designed by Horace Mann and Barnard Sears and
Harper of the University of Chicago and Thorndyke of Columbia
Teachers College and some other men to be instruments of the
scientific management of a mass population. Schools are intended
to produce through the application of formulae, formulaic human
beings whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.
To a very great extent, schools succeed in doing this. But our
society is disintegrating, and in such a society, the only
successful people are self-reliant, confident, and individualistic
- because the community life which protects the dependent and the
weak is dead. The products of schooling are, as I've said,
irrelevant. Well-schooled people are irrelevant. They can sell
film and razor blades, push paper and talk on the telephones, or
sit mindlessly before a flickering computer terminal but as human
beings they are useless. Useless to others and useless to
The daily misery around us is, I think, in large measure caused
by the fact that - as Paul Goodman put it thirty years ago - we
force children to grow up absurd. Any reform in schooling has to
deal with its absurdities.
It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels
you to sit in confinement with people of exactly the same age and
social class. That system effectively cuts you off from the
immense diversity of life and the synergy of variety, indeed it
cuts you off from your own part and future, scaling you to a
continuous present much the same way television does.
It is absurd and anti-life to be part of a system that compels
you to listen to a stranger reading poetry when you want to learn
to construct buildings, or to sit with a stranger discussing the
construction of buildings when you want to read poetry.
It is absurd and anti-life to move from cell to cell at the
sound of a gong for every day of your natural youth in an
institution that allows you no privacy and even follows you into
the sanctuary of your home demanding that you do its
"How will they learn to read?" you say and my answer
is "Remember the lessons of Massachusetts." When
children are given whole lives instead of age-graded ones in
cellblocks they learn to read, write, and do arithmetic with ease
if those things make sense in the kind of life that unfolds around
But keep in mind that in the United States almost nobody who
reads, writes or does arithmetic gets much respect. We are a land
of talkers, we pay talkers the most and admire talkers the most,
and so our children talk constantly, following the public models
of television and schoolteachers. It is very difficult to teach
the "basics" anymore because they really aren't basic to
the society we've made.
Two institutions at present control our children's lives -
television and schooling, in that order. Both of these reduce the
real world of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a
never-ending, non-stopping abstraction. In centuries past the time
of a child and adolescent would be occupied in real work, real
charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who
might teach what you really wanted to learn. A great deal of time
was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and
studying every level of the community, learning how to make a
home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to become a whole man or
But here is the calculus of time the children I teach must deal
Out of the 168 hours in each week, my children sleep 56. That
leaves them 112 hours a week out of which to fashion a self.
My children watch 55 hours of television a week according to
recent reports. That leaves them 57 hours a week in which to grow
My children attend school 30 hours a week, use about 6 hours
getting ready, going and coming home, and spend an average of 7
hours a week in homework - a total of 45 hours. During that time,
they are under constant surveillance, have no private time or
private space, and are disciplined if they try to assert
individuality in the use of time or space. That leaves 12 hours a
week out of which to create a unique consciousness. Of course, my
kids eat, and that takes some time - not much, because they've
lost the tradition of family dining, but if we allot 3 hours a
week to evening meals, we arrive at a net amount of private time
for each child of 9 hours.
It's not enough. It's not enough, is it? The richer the kid, or
course, the less television he watches but the rich kid's time is
just as narrowly proscribed by a somewhat broader catalog of
commercial entertainments and his inevitable assignment to a
series of private lessons in areas seldom of his actual choice.
And these things are oddly enough just a more cosmetic way to
create dependent human beings, unable to fill their own hours,
unable to initiate lines of meaning to give substance and pleasure
to their existence. It's a national disease, this dependency and
aimlessness, and I think schooling and television and lessons -
the entire Chautauqua idea - has a lot to do with it.
Think of the things that are killing us as a nation - narcotic
drugs, brainless competition, recreational sex, the pornography of
violence, gambling, alcohol, and the worst pornography of all -
lives devoted to buying things, accumulation as a philosophy - all
of them are addictions of dependent personalities, and that is
what our brand of schooling must inevitably produce.
I want to tell you what the effect is on children of taking all
their time from them - time they need to grow up - and forcing
them to spend it on abstractions. You need to hear this, because
no reform that doesn't attack these specific pathologies will be
anything more than a facade.
- The children I teach are indifferent to the adult world.
This defies the experience of thousands of years. A close
study of what big people were up to was always the most
exciting occupation of youth, but nobody wants to grow up
these days and who can blame them? Toys are us.
- The children I teach have almost no curiosity and what they
do have is transitory; they cannot concentrate for very long,
even on things they choose to do. Can you see a connection
between the bells ringing again and again to change classes
and this phenomenon of evanescent attention?
- The children I teach have a poor sense of the future, of how
tomorrow is inextricably linked to today. As I said before,
they have a continuous present, the exact moment they are at
is the boundary of their consciousness.
- The children I teach are ahistorical, they have no sense of
how past has predestined their own present, limiting their
choices, shaping their values and lives.
- The children I teach are cruel to each other, they lack
compassion for misfortune, they laugh at weakness, and they
have contempt for people whose need for help shows too
- The children I teach are uneasy with intimacy or candor. My
guess is that they are like many adopted people I've known in
this respect - they cannot deal with genuine intimacy because
of a lifelong habit of preserving a secret inner self inside a
larger outer personality made up of artificial bits and pieces
of behavior borrowed from television or acquired to manipulate
teachers. Because they are not who they represent themselves
to be the disguise wears thin in the presence of intimacy so
intimate relationships have to be avoided.
- The children I teach are materialistic, following the lead
of schoolteachers who materialistically "grade"
everything - and television mentors who offer everything in
the world for free.
- The children I teach are dependent, passive, and timid in
the presence of new challenges. This is frequently masked by
surface bravado, or by anger or aggressiveness but underneath
is a vacuum without fortitude.
I could name a few other conditions that school reform would
have to tackle if our national decline is to be arrested, but by
now you will have grasped my thesis, whether you agree with it or
not. Either schools have caused these pathologies, or television,
or both. It's a simple matter [of] arithmetic, between schooling
and television all the time the children have is eaten away.
That's what has destroyed the American family, it is no longer a
factor in the education of its own children. Television and
schooling, in those things the fault must lie.
What can be done? First we need a ferocious national debate
that doesn't quit, day after day, year after year. We need to
scream and argue about this school thing until it is fixed or
broken beyond repair, one or the other. If we can fix it, fine; if
we cannot, then the success of homeschooling shows a different
road to take that has great promise. Pouring the money we now pour
into family education might kill two birds with one stone,
repairing families as it repairs children.
Genuine reform is possible but it shouldn't cost anything. We
need to rethink the fundamental premises of schooling and decide
what it is we want all children to learn and why. For 140 years
this nation has tried to impose objectives downward from the lofty
command center made up of "experts", a central elite of
social engineers. It hasn't worked. It won't work. And it is a
gross betrayal of the democratic promise that once made this
nation a noble experiment. The Russian attempt to create Plato's
republic in Eastern Europe has exploded before [our] eyes, our own
attempt to impose the same sort of central orthodoxy using the
schools as an instrument is also coming apart at the seams, albeit
more slowly and painfully. It doesn't work because its fundamental
premises are mechanical, anti-human, and hostile to family life.
Lives can be controlled by machine education but they will always
fight back with weapons of social pathology - drugs, violence,
self-destruction, indifference, and the symptoms I see in the
children I teach.
It's high time we looked backwards to regain an educational
philosophy that works. One I like particularly well has been a
favorite of the ruling classes of Europe for thousands of years. I
use as much of it as I can manage in my own teaching, as much,
that is, as I can get away with given the present institution of
compulsory schooling. I think it works just as well for poor
children as for rich ones.
At the core of this elite system of education is the belief
that self-knowledge is the only basis of true knowledge.
Everywhere in this system, at every age, you will find
arrangements to place the child alone in an unguided setting with
a problem to solve. Sometimes the problem is fraught with great
risks, such as the problem of galloping a horse or making it jump,
but that, of course, is a problem successfully solved by thousands
of elite children before the age of ten. Can you imagine anyone
who had mastered such a challenge ever lacking confidence in his
ability to do anything? Sometimes the problem is the problem of
mastering solitude, as Thoreau did at Walden Pond, or Einstein did
in the Swiss customs house.
One of my former students, Roland Legiardi-Lura, though both
his parents were dead and he had no inheritance, took a bicycle
across the United States alone when he was hardly out of boyhood.
Is it any wonder then that in manhood when he decided to make a
film about Nicaragua, although he had no money and no prior
experience with film-making, that it was an international
award-winner - even though his regular work was as a carpenter.
Right now we are taking all the time from our children that
they need to develop self-knowledge. That has to stop. We have to
invent school experiences that give a lot of that time back, we
need to trust children from a very early age with independent
study, perhaps arranged in school but which takes place away from
the institutional setting. We need to invent curriculum where each
kid has a chance to develop private uniqueness and self-reliance.
A short time ago I took seventy dollars and sent a
twelve-year-old girl from my class with her non-English speaking
mother on a bus down the New Jersey coast to take the police chief
of Sea Bright to lunch and apologize for polluting [his] beach
with a discarded Gatorade bottle. In exchange for this public
apology I had arranged with the police chief for the girl to have
a one-day apprenticeship in a small town police procedures. A few
days later, two more of my twelve-year-old kids traveled alone to
West First Street from Harlem where they began an apprenticeship
with a newspaper editor, next week three of my kids will find
themselves in the middle of the Jersey swamps at 6 A.M., studying
the mind of a trucking company president as he dispatches
18-wheelers to Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
Are these "special" children in a "special"
program? Well, in one sense, yes, but nobody knows about this
program but the kids and myself. They're just nice kids from
Central Harlem, bright and alert, but so badly schooled when they
came to me that most of them can't add or subtract with any
fluency. And not a single one knew the population of New York City
or how far it is from New York to California.
Does that worry me? Of course, but I am confident that as they
gain self-knowledge they'll also become self-teachers - and only
self-teaching has any lasting value.
We've got to give kids independent time right away because that
is the key to self-knowledge, and we must re-involve them with the
real world as fast as possible so that the independent time can be
spent on something other than more abstraction. This is an
emergency, it requires drastic action to correct - our children
are dying like flies in schooling, good schooling or bad
schooling, it's all the same. Irrelevant.
What else does a restructured school system need? It needs to
stop being a parasite on the working community. Of all the pages
in the human ledger, only our tortured entry has warehoused
children and asked nothing of them in service to the general good.
For a while I think we need to make community service a required
part of schooling. Besides the experience in acting unselfishly
that will teach, it is the quickest way to give young children
real responsibility in the mainstream of life.
For five years I ran a guerilla program where I had every kid,
rich and poor, smart and dipsy, give 320 hours a year of hard
community service. Dozens of those kids came back to me years
later, grown up, and told me that one experience of helping
someone else changed their lives. It taught them to see in new
ways, to rethink goals and values. It happened when they were
thirteen, in my Lab School program - only made possible because my
rich school district was in chaos. When "stability"
returned the Lab was closed. It was too successful with a wildly
mixed group of kids, at too small of a cost, to be allowed to
continue. We made the expensive elite programs look bad.
There is no shortage of real problems in the city. Kids can be
asked to help solve them in exchange for the respect and attention
of the total adult world. Good for kids, good for all the rest of
us. That's curriculum that teaches Justice, one of the four
cardinal virtues in every system of elite education. What's sauce
for the rich and powerful is surely sauce for the rest of us -
what is more, the idea is absolutely free as are all other genuine
reform ideas in education. Extra money and extra people put into
this sick institution will only make it sicker.
Independent study, community service, adventures in experience,
large doses of privacy and solitude, a thousand different
apprenticeships, the one day variety or longer - these are all
powerful, cheap and effective ways to start a real reform of
schooling. But no large-scale reform is ever going to work to
repair our damaged children and our damaged society until we force
the idea of "school" open - to include family as the
main engine of education. The Swedes realized that in 1976 when
they effectively abandoned the system of adopting unwanted
children and instead spent national time and treasure on
reinforcing the original family so that children born to Swedes
were wanted. They didn't succeed completely but they did succeed
in reducing the number of unwanted Swedish children from 6000 in
l976 to 15 in 1986. So it can be done. The Swedes just got tired
of paying for the social wreckage caused by children not raised by
their natural parents so they did something about it. We can, too.
Family is the main engine of education. If we use schooling to
break children away from parents - and make no mistake, that has
been the central function of schools since John Cotton announced
it as the purpose of the Bay Colony schools in 1650 and Horace
Mann announced it as the purpose of Massachusetts schools in 1850
- we're going to continue to have the horror show we have right
now. The curriculum of family is at the heart of any good life,
we've gotten away from that curriculum, time to return to it. The
way to sanity in education is for our schools to take the lead in
releasing the stranglehold of institutions on family life, to
promote during school time confluences of parent and child that
will strengthen family bonds. That was my real purpose in sending
the girl and her mother down the Jersey coast to meet the police
chief. I have many ideas to make a family curriculum and my guess
is that a lot of you will have many ideas, too, once you begin to
think about it. Our greatest problem in getting the kind of
grass-roots thinking going that could reform schooling is that we
have large vested interests pre-emptying all the air time and
profiting from schooling just exactly as it is despite rhetoric to
the contrary. We have to demand that new voices and new ideas get
a hearing, my ideas and yours. We've all had a bellyful of
authorized voices mediated by television and the press - a decade
long free-for-all debate is what is called for now, not any more
"expert" opinions. Experts in education have never been
right, their "solutions" are expensive, self-serving,
and always involve further centralization. Enough. Time for a
return to democracy, individuality, and family. I've said my
piece. Thank you.