"Education is unique among consumer products - when it fails to work as advertised, it's the customer that gets labelled as defective." - Kevin Killion

Why School Sucks

by Terry Everton

My rant on compulsory schooling

In ninth grade, I flunked algebra. That same year, my algebra teacher flunked eight other kids in my class, so at least I wasn’t the only one. While everyone else moved on to the challenging world of theorems and geometry, the nine of us who were too stupid to grasp simple fractions were given the opportunity to endure algebra again the following semester. Only this time it was with a different teacher who dumbed the material down enough so that we would get it just enough so we could meet the school’s criteria and get passed on to the next grade so they could get our asses out of their system on time.

After all, it ultimately isn’t good for any institution to keep a bunch of morons hanging around very long. That sort of stuff is best left to the fast-food employment sector for whom our intellects were obviously destined.

During my stupid math year, I was also given a three-day stint in something they called In School Suspension. My science teacher had been teaching for about 100 years and was obviously bored with the material. He had also developed a strong contempt for any student who didn’t go out of the way to regularly kiss his ass. Though our class period was scheduled to go for an hour, he always finished covering the material in 30 minutes and gave us the last half hour for “study time,” which was just another way for him to get out of having to teach any longer than was absolutely necessary. Study time usually ended up being used to catch up on afternoon naps or to pass notes back and forth. You seldom saw anyone study during study time.

One day I skipped out 15 minutes early while most everyone else was napping and the science teacher had his nose buried in that month’s issue of Field and Stream. Though I had never worked up the nerve to skip out early before, the intense boredom had finally become more than I could bear. I didn’t have any homework due and was fed up with sleeping in class, so I figured what the hell and bolted early.

The next day I was yanked out of my first period class by one of the principal’s flunkies. Turned out the science teacher had somehow noticed I’d left his class early and decided it would be in everyone’s best interest if I underwent a half-week’s rehabilitation at In School Suspension.

Used to be when they wanted to punish you for some inexcusable crime, the school sent your ass home and told you not to return for several days. I reckon they thought that the humiliation of not being subjected to their monotony for a few days was all the adequate punishment anyone needed to bring them back into the straight and narrow. After a while, though, they figured out that telling the troublemakers not to come to school wasn’t really much of a punishment to people who didn’t want to be there in the first place and decided instead to lock them up in a humiliation laboratory called the In School Suspension classroom.

The only subject that got taught in the ISS classroom was obedience. The teacher in charge was the biggest sadist in the whole school. This was the same guy who got picked on the entire time he was a kid and he had since made it his life’s ambition to exact revenge on the likes of us. After all, we were criminals. The stoners and degenerates. The outcast and bored. The hopelessly fucked.

“There is to be absolutely, positively no talking, whispering, sleeping, laughing, passing notes, or communicating in any way with any other students the entire time you are in this class. You will complete the assignments you are given within the time frame you are given to do them, and you will not argue or ask any questions about them. There will be three scheduled bathroom breaks throughout the day, so do your business then because you won’t get another opportunity. During lunch we will march single file through the cafeteria after all the other students have eaten and we will bring our lunches back here and eat them quietly. Any questions?”

Our ISS assignments consisted of essays to be written and questions to be answered. Addition and subtraction were both on the front burner and not far behind was someone’s version of history and all the science and sociology that was safe for us to know. All of which any first grader could have effectively grasped.

What a bunch of crap.

Rather than waste my time swinging at the intellectual softballs being lobbed my way, I wrote stuff like “I already know this stuff” or “I’m not even remotely interested in this” on the mandatory assignments before turning them in. I instead opted to write poetry, reflect on the state of who I was, concoct screenplays, and practice cartooning—all of which I had tremendous curiosity about and was itching to explore further. More so than algebra, anyway.

At the end of our three-day ISS sentence, the sadist in charge either deemed us reformed enough to return to our rightful places at the bottom of the learning food chain or, if our pre-fabricated assignment skills were found to be lacking, we were involuntarily invited back for another two-day correctional stint. That invitation was cordially extended my way. The only ticket out of ISS was to suck it up and get in line.

So I did. When I finally was allowed to return to my regular classroom routine, I was smacked upside the head with the reality that I had fallen a week behind in my classroom assignments. The poor do indeed get poorer.

And this is why school sucks. Rather than do what it pretends to—educate, foster curiosity, expand our intellects, and promote diversity—compulsory schooling segregates people on the basis of how well they’re willing to do what they’re told. Licensed professionals who have successfully learned what they were supposed to are placed in charge of safeguarding the status quo by passing on screened knowledge that doesn’t require examination as much as acceptance. The majority of what we’ve been led to accept as education is little more than a social engineering exercise designed to replace our inherent curiosities with information that’s been sanitized for our own protection. Or the protection of our future employers.

Compulsory schooling is at its best when diluting intellects in preparation for lifetimes of subservience to corporate masters. Especially in low-wage service sectors, employers aren’t looking for a workforce of individuals who can readily recognize when they’re being screwed over through things like stagnant wages and increasingly crappy health insurance. The easiest people to control are the ones who haven’t been taught which questions are the most important ones to ask in the first place.

Compulsory schooling defines good citizens as those who play by the rules, stay in line, and do as they’re told. Learning is defined by how well we memorize and regurgitate what someone else has deemed we need to know. Creativity is permitted within the parameters of the guidance of licensed professionals whose duty it is to make sure we don’t get too wacky with our ideas or stray very far from the boundaries of normalcy. Rather than trust people to pursue their own innate curiosities, compulsory education replaces self-exploration with the type of structure designed to reward subservience while cultivating fear.

Grading is to true learning what kissing the boss’s ass is to genuine merit. Grades all-too-often merely measure little more than how well a student embraces indoctrination while not straying too far from the rest of the mesmerized herd.

No child left behind my ass. Any child subjected to compulsory schooling of any kind gets left behind intellectually. It’s inherent in the system. It’s what it’s designed to do.

When I was in eighth grade, I conducted an experiment of sorts to prove to myself that this grading thing was, for the most part, bogus. This kid named Fred was one of those straight-A students that everyone had in class at one time or another. Teachers loved this guy. His essays were the stuff of prose and were often read out loud in front of us as shining examples of that to which we were to aspire.

Problem was, Fred was semi-literate. I found this out when he came up to me one day and told me he’d pay me 50 bucks if I’d write a 10-page essay for him about the bubonic plague—which was due in two days. He said that his brother—who was in college—usually wrote his papers for him, but had gotten sick on something at a Pink Floyd concert and was down for the count for a couple of days. Though I was a horrible test-taker, I had the reputation of being able to keep my academic boat afloat with my mediocre writing talents. Fred said the 50 dollars was payable upon his getting an “A” on the paper. Any grade less, and I just worked for free.

All I knew about the bubonic plague was that it was a plague. But 50 bucks was a pretty fair chunk of change to me back then, so I took the gig. To this day I still don’t know much about the bubonic plague. That’s because when it came time to write Fred’s paper, I went to the library and checked out five or six books on the bubonic plague and spent two days copying select sentences out of each one, joining them into some semblance of cohesion. I went with my instincts and was partially banking on Fred’s scholastic reputation to supercede the pile of pure BS I was concocting.

Fred didn’t even look at the essay when I gave it to him. He simply said, “We’ll see how it goes.” Two days later, he paid up. He showed me the graded essay and it was filled with circles and underlined passages and phrases like “good point” and “excellent analysis” in the teacher’s handwriting. The analysis might have been excellent, but it sure as hell wasn’t Fred’s. Or mine either.

Hell, back then we used to call that cheating. Little did any of us suspect that I was merely refining potential vocational skills. I found this advertisement recently on one of those “Pay us and we’ll do your homework for you” websites: “Looking for part-time employment with flexible hours and premium pay that, at the same time, would present the opportunity to broaden your horizons? SameDayResearch offers that kind of employment to students! We are hiring master’s and doctoral students for the position of staff writer and research assistant.... Just fill in the application form below and click on Submit. You will be glad you did.”

This is the sort of stuff compulsory schooling creates. Sure, Fred’s essay was plagiarized, but don’t teachers encourage their students to plagiarize them on a daily basis by insisting their students recite almost verbatim everything they’re told. Supervised plagiarism is perfectly acceptable, but take matters into your own hands and you risk being labeled a lazy cheat.

However, compulsory schooling not only encourages cheating, it maintains a fertile environment where the most clever cheaters are rewarded the most. By forcing standardized curriculum on students and expecting them to respond to it the same way, school imposes the mores of the individuals who produce the curriculum rather than anything resembling true learning. Of course, not everyone cares or is able to effectively master everything they’re told they have to know. So students are threatened to either shape up, study harder, quit daydreaming so damned much and get better grades or begin practicing all the cool voice inflections you can use when muttering “You want fries with that?” Hell, some students are scared into cheating just to make it through.

Standardized testing does little more than create standardized human beings who are often incapable of maximizing their individual talents and abilities, simply because they’ve been trained to do otherwise. School mostly prepares people for lifetimes of being pushed around and herded toward the ways in which they can best contribute to the wheels of someone else’s commerce.

So basically, kids, while you were safely tucked away during your formative years, big business came along and bought out the government through special interest campaign contributions, rendering your democratic voice as impotent as your future wages. If you think Spam and Grey Poupon sandwiches are the pinnacle of nutrition, then you have scored.

Rather than encourage individuals to pursue and develop the things that interest them most —the things that would probably give them the greatest chance at real economic health —compulsory schooling pigeonholes individuals into vast categories designed to eliminate their capacity for critical reasoning. If you go out and do your own thing, then you aren’t really helping to pad anyone’s coffers other than your own. That may be fine for you, but it’s best to limit this entrepreneurial spirit thing to a select few, otherwise everyone will start thinking they deserve a greater slice of the equity pie.

It’s time we demand that compulsory school begin paying up on its lip service promises of providing people with the tools necessary to lead anything other than mediocre lifestyles. The promise of minimum wage somehow rings hollow at the tail end of the 12-year mandatory school sentence. If that’s the sort of future it continues to promise for the majority of us lucky enough to survive it, then it should make way— voluntary or no—for alternatives that will allow individuals to create lifestyles for themselves based on personal instinct and ingenuity. You know, the stuff that democracy is supposed to be made of.

By the way, the algebra teacher who fired me in the ninth grade ended up getting shit-canned the following year for flunking too many kids. Turns out you can create only so much stupidity and get away with it. For now.

Terry Everton is a cartoonist and “wage slave.”

Article found here.

Written by: Terry Everton
10 December 2005

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