Natural Life Magazine

The Dark Side of Schooling
By Jim Strickland

The damage school does to individuals and democracy...and how to fix it.

The dark side of schooling
Photo © Paul B. Moore/Shutterstock

Let me start by saying that I am not one of those people who believe that schools are part of an insidious conspiracy to turn our children into mindless automatons ready to sacrifice life and limb in the service of Big Brother – I think that job already belongs to television. But even if it turns out that schools actually are part of some sinister government plot to control us, I just can’t bring myself to believe that very many teachers are in on the plan. I’m going to generalize here, but the teachers I know are among the most sincere, caring and giving people I’ve ever met. I’m convinced that most teachers really love their students and truly believe in the work they are doing. And, in the interest of full-disclosure, I happen to be one of them.

But we all know what the path to hell is paved with (and I’m not talking about subprime mortgages). It is precisely the good intentions and selfless generosity of so many educators that make it almost impossible to have a critical discussion about the value of schooling without coming across as attacking someone’s grandmother or burning an American flag – I mean, them’s fightin’ words!

So take a deep breath and rest assured I’ll leave your grandmother out of this. The fact is that schooling does indeed have a dark side, one that produces harmful effects that cripple individuals, weaken communities and undermine democracy. And all this is done in the name of helping us.

For example, one lesson you’ll never find in the course catalog – let’s call it Schooling 101 – is actually part of every class you or I have ever taken. This class teaches the most basic of all school lessons, namely, the need to be taught. Everything else builds on the mastery of this one essential concept. Once we have accepted and internalized the belief that learning requires teaching, we have met the fundamental prerequisite for a lifetime of dependence and diminished imaginations.

In this paradigm, the ideal student knows that learning is synonymous with schooling and will never make the heretical mistake of attempting to learn from direct experience or on their own initiative. Schooling 101 assumes that the only knowledge with real value is that which makes up the official school curriculum. You can imagine the impact this lesson has on our capacity for self-direction, independent thinking and creative expression!

After we learn the need to be taught, it is a natural progression to the next lesson, Schooling 102: Those who have more years of schooling are superior to those who have fewer years. This lesson conditions us to accept a hierarchical organization of society in which the majority of us willingly defer to an elite group of revered “experts” when making the most important decisions of our lives. We learn that these experts not only have more skill and knowledge in their area of specialized schooling, but also that they are wiser and better people than most of us. Therefore, they have the right (and yes, even the social responsibility) to decide what is best for the masses.

And just in case any of us are still plagued with nagging doubts about the superiority of the mega-schooled, those uncertainties are quickly put to rest when we attempt to decipher the coded “professional” lingo that these experts use to define the important issues affecting us and our communities. Whether it be education, economics, healthcare or politics, as long as the problems and solutions of our day remain incomprehensible to the common person, we are more likely to accept our own ignorance and accompanying inability to organize for effective action. How can we act on issues that we can’t even understand? This learned resignation destroys our power as citizens and makes a sham out of our democracy.

Once these first two lessons have been sufficiently mastered, the next lesson is a piece of cake. Schooling 103 teaches that only school-issued certificates and credentials can qualify you for jobs and higher education.

This lesson effectively seals the deal that makes schooling into what social thinker Ivan Illich refers to as a radical monopoly. A radical monopoly is not just the dominance of one brand over another, but a situation in which we are made dependent on a particular product or service for our very survival. For example, the automobile has become a radical monopoly because we have built the infrastructure of our communities around it in such a way that it is almost impossible to get our basic needs met without a car. It’s not just Chevy versus Ford. It’s Thrive versus Wither, Participation versus Isolation. In the same way, when we build the infrastructure of our workplaces and institutions of higher education around the need for exclusive certificates that can only be acquired in schools, then we have effectively shut down access to political and economic participation by any other pathway.

In his paradigm-busting book, Tools for Conviviality, Ivan Illich writes, “Schools tried to extend a radical monopoly on learning by redefining it as education. As long as people accepted the teacher’s definition of reality, those who learned outside school were officially stamped ‘uneducated’…Radical monopoly imposes compulsory consumption and thereby restricts personal autonomy. It constitutes a special kind of social control because it is enforced by means of the imposed consumption of a standard product that only large institutions can provide.”

Should one be legally obligated to submit to the social and intellectual conditioning mechanism of schooling for 12 years (or more) just to be granted the “right” to apply for a job or a college-level course? Can any employer successfully justify the claim that this life-consuming obligatory ordeal is the only acceptable preparation for a particular job in their business or organization? It is illegal to discriminate against potential employees on the basis of criteria that don’t directly pertain to their ability to perform the job being sought. Shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the employer or college admissions board to show that, if required, a particular school-issued certificate is indeed absolutely necessary for successful performance of a job or program?

One final lesson I’d like to briefly mention – you guessed it, Schooling 104 – teaches us that learning is separate from the rest of our lives. Most schooling takes place inside cubicles that are isolated from the people and work of our communities. Since curriculum tends to be predetermined and administratively imposed, school subjects are inevitably far removed from the vital issues that would naturally engage us. And FYI – bribing, threatening, or otherwise manipulating students to comply is not the same as producing personal engagement. Personal engagement cannot be coerced. It is a voluntary investment of heart and mind in something that matters to us. It also just happens to produce a beneficial little by-product known as real learning.

It is this chasm between the official top-down curriculum and the real stuff of grassroots, day-to-day life that renders much of what goes on in schools meaningless. And when students are unable or unwilling to respond to a curriculum they find irrelevant and confusing, they are told that they are the problem. How condescending it is to be assured that it doesn’t matter whether or not the curriculum makes sense to you. It makes sense to the experts who designed it – end of discussion. Now get with the program!

These are lessons we may not sign up for, but that schooling teaches as part of its inherent structure and philosophy. Like I said earlier, I don’t believe anyone is intentionally using our schools to do us harm, but we have to admit that real harm is being done to countless students who are learning these lessons, and learning them all too well. They are developing the apathy, powerlessness and alienation that naturally result from beliefs that cripple. They learn that they are not capable of deciding what is really important in life, not capable of defining and working towards their own goals, not capable of being in charge of their own destinies and not capable of organizing with others to take meaningful action. They are being immersed in a surreal world where everything that feels right is wrong and everything that feels wrong is right.

So, what can we do? Well, first we have to overcome the impact of our own schooling and come to believe that we actually can do something. And once we acknowledge that this dark side of schooling is real, doing nothing is not a morally acceptable option. Let me suggest two political actions that I believe will have a positive, long-term impact on the institution of schooling.

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First, we must make schooling voluntary. While many children thrive in our schools and appear to emerge relatively unscathed by its hidden curriculum, this is certainly not true for a growing percentage of students and their families, not to mention the health of our democracy. How can we justify legally compelling citizens to submit to a process that is at best not working for them, and possibly doing life-long damage? We can’t.

Second, we must make it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of school credentials alone. Since we know that there are a variety of effective pathways to developing skills and knowledge, we must honor these as legitimate. Employers need to take on the responsibility of screening applicants based on the specific abilities actually needed to perform the job being sought, rather than on a piece of paper that indicates, more than anything else, compliance with a dominating system.

These two actions would remove the obstacles for effective change to occur over time. Schools could continue functioning as they do now and good teachers could continue having a life-changing impact on the students they love and serve. But for those who aren’t thriving, who are actually being diminished and even harmed by compulsory schooling, there would be an acceptable way out that would not make them into social, economic or political outcasts. And as a democracy, we can do no less.

Jim Strickland lives in Everett, Washington with his wife and three children. He is a community-based educator in nearby Marysville where he works to promote non-coercive learning and the development of true learning communities. Jim invites response from readers at This article was published in 2009.


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