How schools train students to not be responsible

A thoughtful parent was telling me about her concerns with her elementary school aged son’s academic progress.  While his test scores placed him in the 97th percentile, his grades were beginning to drop and he was getting in trouble for disobedience.  For instance, during quiet reading period, he would help a classmate with vocabulary words. “He’s not obedient, and I don’t see why he should be,” she said.  “Why shouldn’t he help out a classmate?”

Her son is in a system that rewards obedience and punishes responsibility.  A responsible child helps a classmate.  The system made it clear that obedience to rules trumps acting responsibly.  (And who the fuck came up with the idea that one needs silence to read?  One needs such conditions only if one believes such pedagogical rubbish. People read just fine on the subway, buses, etc.).

This parent was also concerned with her high school aged daughter, a good student taking honors classes.  She complained that her daughter is too compliant, too obedient, too boring. She disapproved of her daughter’s approach to school work. “She  just repeats whatever teacher tells her instead of problematizing an issue,” she said.  “I’ve asked her over and over again to write papers that challenge assumptions rather than accept teacher’s opinion as fact.”  Her daughter has been resisting her advice because “she doesn’t want to get in trouble at school, she wants good grades.”  So she gave her daughter two options: “You can either get in trouble at school or you get in trouble at home.”

This parent’s daughter is also in a system that rewards obedience and punishes responsibility.  Her daughter has adapted to it and she wants to make sure her son doesn’t do the same.

I don’t think anyone is truly comfortable with being obedient.  Those who are obedient are so, or try to appear so, out of fear and habit. Yet many schools and businesses, in spite of their stated desire for innovative citizens capable to creating new paradigms, train their students and employees to be obedient, not responsible…or sentient, or compassionate, or dignified. So why the contradiction, the absurd situation? How did we get to this point?

Education reformer/activist John Gatto Taylor describing his experiences as a student and school teacher:

“Consider the strange possibility that we have been deliberately taught to be irresponsible and to dislike each other for some good purpose. I am not being sarcastic or even cynical. I spent 19 years as a student, and 30 more as a school teacher and in all that time I was seldom asked to be responsible, unless you mistake obedience and responsibility for the same thing, which they certainly are not. Whether student or teacher, I gave reflective obedience to strangers for 49 years. If that isn’t a recipe for irresponsibility then nothing is. In school your payoff comes from giving up your personal responsibility, just doing what you’re told by strangers even if that violates the core principles of your household. There isn’t any way to grow up in school, school won’t let you. As I watched it happen, it takes three years to break a kid, 3 years confined to an environment of emotional neediness, songs, smiles, bright colors, cooperative games, these work much better than angry words and punishment.”

Taylor doesn’t consider obedience a natural state.  It’s a learned state — “three years to break a kid” — that’s taught in school.  Watch 3-4 year olds.  Unless they’ve been coddled to the extreme, they’re remarkably responsible and are constantly asking for more responsibility.  By 9, these same kids will either be obedient, be either good or bad at faking obedience, or stigmatized as “special needs” for routine in-your-face disobedience, for resisting losing their freedom and individuality, for questioning why they have to learn bullshit.  The obedient ones become middle-managers.  The ones who fake obedience become managed staff.  The “special needs” kids either become Steve Jobs or end up in jail.

Taylor on the personalities schools create:

“Constant supplication for attention creates a chemistry whose products are the characteristics of modern school children — whining, treachery, dishonesty, malice, cruelty and similar traits. Ceaseless competition for attention in the dramatic fishbowl of the classroom, I have never seen this dynamic examined in the public press — not in 50 years of reading the public press. Ceaseless competition for attention in the dramatic fishbowl of the classroom, reliably delivers cowardly children, toadies, school stoolies, little people sunk into chronic boredom, little people with no apparent purpose, just like caged rats, pressing a bar for sustenance, who develop eccentric mannerisms on a periodic reinforcement schedule.  Those of you who took rat psychology in college will know what I’m referring to — just like the experience of rat psychology, the bizarre behavior kids display is a function of the reinforcement schedule in the confinement of schooling to a large degree. I’m certain of that. Children like this need extensive management. “

Many businesses, faced with a labor pool of needy people, reinforce what employees were taught in school instead of making the effort to teach them how to be responsible.  Many businesses, faced with a consumer pool of needy people, market their products to satisfy the needs of a scared, insecure, and suspicious populace.  Gatto on how schools produce consumers:

“The fantastic wealth of American big business is a direct result of school training. Schools training a social lump to be needy, frightened, envious, bored, talentless and incomplete. The successful mass-production economy demands such an audience. It isn’t anybody’s fault. Just as the Amish small business, small farm economy requires intelligence, competence, thoughtfulness and compassion, ours needs a well managed mass — level, anxious, spiritless families, godless and conforming.”

And people wonder how I can be afraid of a seemingly innocuous teenage girl but let a couple of high school drop-outs with a combined 26 felonies work on my yard and house on their own.  (And pay these guys upfront and share beers with them after work). Some people think I’m crazy.  I think they’re the ones who are bonkers.

Taylor describing the psychological health of American consumers:

“The American economy depends on schooling us that status is purchased and others run our lives. We learn there that sources of joy and accomplishment are external, that the contentment comes with the possessions, seldom from within. School cuts our ability to concentrate to a few minutes duration, creating a life-long craving for relief from boredom through outside stimulation. In conjunction with television and computer games, which employ the identical teaching methodology, these lessons are permanently inscribed. We become fearful, stupid, voiceless and addicted to novelty. “

Something has to be done about the cultural malaise that’s destroying America.  If schools won’t change their approach to teaching students, then businesses need to invest the time to teach employees responsibility.  It may turn out that the time and money invested in teaching responsibility and unlearning obedience may better serve the long-term interest of businesses.

The toughest part of building a business and new brand isn’t taxes (which are annoying and sometimes absurd), it’s human resources.  When we started, our labor pool was limited to teens because those who are qualified aren’t willing to take a chance on a new business.  Many applied and I was shocked at how incompetent, irresponsible, and obedient (or bad at faking obedience) they were.  So now we identify candidates we think are willing to unlearn what they learned in school and then develop them into responsible, thoughtful, confident, and dignified contributors.

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