“What All S-chools Must Teach”

from Instead of Education, by John Holt


S-chools teach many things, including:

1)      The official written curriculum, i.e. English, Mathematics, Social Studies, Science, etc.

2)      Ideas and attitudes not in the curriculum, but expressed or implied in the school’s materials and textbooks.

3)      Ideas and attitudes not in the curriculum, but taught con­sciously and deliberately by teachers.

4)      Ideas and attitudes taught unconsciously by teachers, be­cause they believe them so strongly that they cannot help con­veying them.


Some ideas may well appear in more than one of these four groups. Thus, many of the ideas in #2 will also be in #3 and #4; schools and teachers generally use materials and texts that support most of their own beliefs. Also, teachers generally sup­port the official curriculum; given the power to change it, most of them would leave it much as it is.


Much has been said about these ideas and attitudes, the visible and invisible curriculum of the S-chools. They vary from teacher to teacher, and to a lesser degree, from school to school. On the whole, schools and teachers share, and teach, the general attitudes and prejudices of the community, the region, and the nation. They tend to be moderate ‘conservatives’, perhaps a little to the right of the political centre. Liberal and radical critics of the schools have long charged, I think with good reason, that on the whole they teach contempt for nonwhite people, women, manual workers; and the poor; a narrow, uncritical, and belli­gerent patriotism; a too great respect for wealth and power; and a love of toughness, competition, struggle, and violence. Other critics, more often in rural areas, say just as angrily that the schools teach immorality, atheistic science, and socialism or worse. The only point I want to make here about these first four parts of the school curriculum is that they could all be changed by school people, if they wanted to. What most concerns me is the fifth part of the school curriculum, the things that S-chools teach simply by the fact of being S-chools, of having the power to compel children to attend, to tell them what to learn, and to grade, rank, and label them. As long, as the S-chools have these powers this part of the curriculum cannot be changed, and all who work in such schools help to teach this curriculum whether they want to or not, and even when they think they are teach­ing the very opposite.


The first message that S-chools, like any other compulsory institution, send to the people who attend them is a message of distrust and contempt: If we didn’t make you come here you wouldn’t learn anything, you’d just waste your time, spend the whole day playing basketball or watching TV or making trouble, you’d hang out on the streets, never do anything worthwhile, grow up to be a bum.


Along with this goes the message: Even if you could be trusted to want to find out about the world, you are too stupid to do it. Not only do we have to decide what you need to learn, but then we have to show you, one tiny step at a time, how to learn it. You could never figure it out for yourself, or even have enough sense to ask good questions about it. The world is too complicated, mysterious, and difficult for you. We can’t let you explore it. We must make sense of it for you. You can only learn about it from us.


Along with these messages — really there is only one message; the parts fit into one whole — goes this one: Learning is separate from the rest of life. If you want to learn something of any im­portance, you must get it from a teacher, in a school. From this it follows that understanding is not an activity but a thing, a commodity. It is not something you do or make for yourself, but something you get. It is scarce, valuable, and expensive. You can get it only from someone who has it — if he is willing to give it to you. You can’t make your own; if you do, it’s no good, you can’t get anything for it. Some people have much more of this valuable knowledge than others, and because they do, they have a right to tell the others what to do.


Since other people will tell you whatever is important for you to learn, your own questions are hardly ever worth asking or answering. Curiosity is for little kids who don’t know better. Few schools or teachers will tolerate a child who asks many questions, much less answer them. Even in the winner schools I taught at, fifth-graders were ashamed to ask about the things they really wanted to know. Years later I talked at a small teachers’ college, the kind most teachers go to. During my talk the students showed in many ways that they were interested in what I was saying. But only one person, a faculty member, asked a question. Next day I spoke of this to the student who was my guide around the campus. ‘Oh yes,’ she said, ‘Several of the kids told me later that they had questions they wanted to ask, but they were afraid of making fools of themselves.’ She went on to say that with few exceptions the college faculty did not like to be asked questions in class, and tended to make a fool of any student who did so. When the school and teachers already know what the students should learn, why let the students interrupt them with questions?


Economic Man

The 5-chools, as society wants them to do, make human beings into what economists call Economic Man, who lives only by fear and greed. For all their talk about Sharing and Cooperation, they teach that nobody ever does anything serious or import­ant except to gain a reward or escape a penalty, to grab a carrot or dodge a stick, or gain an advantage over someone else. They may not .think or say so, but by acting as if it were so, they make it so. When children first come to school, they are very curious, resourceful, energetic, and capable explorers of the world around them. They do most of what they do, not from fear of punishment or hope of reward, but because it is interesting and exciting. What schools do to these children was vividly shown by the cover photo of the September 1974 Psychology Today — a boy of about eight or nine, his eyes and mouth com­pletely and horribly covered by giant gold stars. The cover story, ‘How Teachers Turn Play into Work’, by David Greene and. Mark Lepper, described experiments, which showed that when children who like doing something for its own sake are rewarded for doing it, they will like it and do it much less when the reward stops. Even in schools which allow and encourage children to ask questions and reward them for doing so, the children soon stop asking. For when we reward children for doing what they like to do — find out about the world — they soon learn to do it only for rewards. Since the rewards of school only go to a few winners, most children, the losers, stop asking questions. This is one of the flaws in the idea of positive re­inforcement; it works only as long as we keep it up.


In teaching that everything good is rewarded, the schools teach that what is not rewarded is no good. The things we do because we like to and want to must be frivolous, useless, or harmful.


Also, in order to rank us, the schools must constantly test and measure us. Doing so, they teach us to believe that we can be tested and measured, or at least, that everything important about us can be measured, and that the rest must not be im­portant. Therefore, we are only what the tests and measure­ments say we are, we can do only what they say we can do, and we deserve only what they say we deserve. Sometimes school people say this in words, as in the book, Success in High School:

Good grades equal a good education. The higher your grades, the more you’ve learned and the more you know.


But even if the schools don’t say that the tests tell us who and what we are, they act as if it were true. Nothing in school en­courages us to think that the tests might be wrong, or that the most important parts of ourselves might not be testable and measurable, or that we might be able to do something the tests say we can’t do.


Finally, the S-chools teach us to believe in what we might call the Divine Right of Experts. Since they can put us and keep us in school, control our lives there, tell us what we have to learn and how, and grade and rank us by how well we learn it, we naturally learn to believe that all through life, in any situation, there must be experts somewhere who know better than we do what is best for us and what we should do next. Not only can they tell us what to do, they have miraculous powers as well. Here, from Thomas Cottle’s A Family Album, is a ten-year-old black boy talking about a visit to MIT.

You see how much scientists do for people. That good laboratory we saw there has to be an important place. When they get done with their work there won’t be a single person in this country going to starve any more. Now the President of the United States he has all the power and all the money, but he doesn’t have all the brains like those folks at MIT. They’re the ones who’ll do the work so that pretty soon like that one man said, a person can swallow a couple of pills and have all the food he needs that day. Or maybe that week too. That’s the day, man, I want to see. Come into the kitchen and tell my mom, give me the breakfast pill, mom. She’ll hold it out for me and 1 don’t have to come home again ‘til supper, especially if I can stick my lunch pill in my pocket, too. That man there at MIT, he’s got the right idea. Never go hungry, and never have to waste all that time sitting around at the table listening to all your baby brothers and sisters screaming in your ear while you’re trying to get something to eat. Scientists, man. There can be nobody on the earth doing better things than they are.


And the boy, just like many ten-year-olds today, talks on this way about all the miracles the scientists are going to do. Replace one organ with another. Keep people from dying. Solve all the energy problems. Solve all the problems.


Later the boy’s mother talks to Cottle about scientists.

Scientists... Rich folk is what they are, no different from all the rest. Sitting over there where Keith spies on them, playing with this and playing with that.  Making up problems where problems don’t really exist. Making things complicated when really what we need done is so simple... What I want to know is what good are they doing for this country? What good are they doing for black folks, and poor folks?


And she goes on, in a long and bitter diatribe. In her way she is as much an expert-worshipper, a Science-worshipper, as her son. Neither of them sees science as a way of looking at and thinking about the world which they or their friends and neigh­bours might use to solve any of their problems. Science is not something they can do, but only something which, if they are rich or lucky, they can get, a way in which things can be done for them, a product they can consume. The boy can hardly wait to get his hands on all that good Science. The mother knows that she is not going to.


Someone writing me a letter began, ‘I hardly know how to begin a letter to a professional ...‘ The schools helped to put this gap between us. In any case, I am not a ‘professional’ as this writer understands it; whatever I know about schools, children, education, teaching, learning, I learned as a do-er, not as a student in some school. Many people, speaking on a matter of common experience, in which their ideas are as likely to be as good as anyone else’s, will begin by saying, ‘Of course I’m not an expert in these matters’. Someone recently wrote that gerontology, the nonmedical study of old people, their lives, prob­lems, and feelings, is a ‘new field about which nobody knows anything’. What about the old people? Don’t they know some­thing about it? Is their experience meaningless and worthless until some expert with a Ph.D. in gerontology explains it to them? S-chools make knowledge scarce, make most of us think that what we know isn’t true or doesn’t count.


No matter how much they may talk about Sharing or Co­operating, schools, by setting the students in a race against each other, teach that real life is a struggle, a zero-sum game, where no one can win without someone else, or everyone else, losing.  They teach that the serious work of making sense of the world cannot be done cooperatively, but must be done in a dog-eat-­dog competition. They teach that greed is not a. vice to be mastered but a virtue to be encouraged. And, like all situations that make winning all-important, they teach cheating. Students cheat each other as much as they cheat the school. Carl Wein­Iberg, in Education Is a Great Big Shuck, writes that in the high schools he has known, both as student and teacher, many students do two sets of homework papers, one as correctly as they can, to show the teacher, the other with many deliberate mistakes, to show to other students who ask for help. In these days of frantic competition for high-paying jobs, we hear from the press and other sources disgusting stories about how students in our leading colleges trick and sabotage each other. Studies have shown for years that there is far more cheating among A students in schools with ‘high standards’ than among average students in average schools. And the schools themselves cheat. As they rank students, so they are ranked against each other.  No more than their students can they afford to play this rank­ing game honestly.  They go to great trouble to coach and pre­pare students for the tests by which the students, and so they themselves, will be judged. In ways I have already described, they produce test scores that have nothing to do with what many of the students really know. Yet what is this but a kind of cheating?


Such, then, is the hidden, built-in, unchangeable curriculum of the competitive, compulsory S-chool. It cannot be changed by parents, or teachers or administrators; it cannot even be changed by heads of state. Thus on 20 May 1974, at the Dag Hammarskjold seminar on education in Dar Es Salaam, Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania and head of its one political party, said in part:

In Africa, and in Tanzania, there are professional men who say, ‘My market value is higher than the salary I am receiving in Tanzania.’ But no human being has a market value — except a slave. There are people in positions of leadership in Government, in parastatals, and still seeking jobs, who say, ‘I am an educated person and 1 am not being treated according to my qualifications — I must have a better house, or a better salary, or a better status, than some other man … in effect, they are saying, ‘This education I have been given has turned me into a marketable commodity, like cotton or sisal or coffee.’ ... They are not claiming — or usually claiming — that they are superior human beings, only that they are superior commodities. Thus their education has converted them into objects — into repositories of knowledge, like rather special computers. It is as objects, or commodities, that they have been taught to regard themselves, and others


With such an attitude a person will inevitably spend his life suck­ing from the community to the maximum of which he is capable, and contributing the minimum he is able to contribute and live as he desires to live. He sucks from the local community as he is fed, clothed, housed and trained. He sucks from the world community when he moves like a parcel of cotton to where the price is highest for his acquired skill. … It is our educational system which is in­stilling into young boys and girls the idea that their education confers a price tag on them, and which makes them concentrate on this price tag


But this was more than seven years after this same President Nyerere, with the full backing of this government, parliament, party and people, announced an educational system designed to prevent such attitudes and abuses, and instead, in Nyerere’s own words, ‘to foster the social goals of living together, and working together, for the common good … [to] emphasize co­operative endeavour, not individual advancement ... [and to] counteract the temptation to intellectual arrogance, for this leads to the well-educated despising those whose abilities are nonacademic or who have no special abilities but are just human beings.’ And I must ask, if such a man, with such convictions, in such a position, with such power, cannot change, as he clearly has not changed, the hidden curriculum of S-chools, who can?