- THE PSYCHOPATHIC
- This speech was given by
the author on 31 January 1990 in accepting an award from the New
York State Senate naming him New York City Teacher of the Year.
- I accept this award on behalf of
all the fine teachers I've known over the years whove struggled to
make their transactions with children honorable ones, men and
women who were never complacent, always questioning, always
wrestling to define and redefine 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 she or he is a
standard-bearer, representative of these private people who spend
their lives gladly in the service of children. This is their award
as well as mine.
- 1 .
- We live in a time of great school
crisis linked to an even greater social crisis. Our nation ranks
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 consumption of this 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, seventy
percent of all new marriages last less than five years. So
something is wrong for sure.
- This great crisis which we witness
in our schools is interlinked with a greater social crisis in the
community. 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 any
more, 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. School is a major actor
in this tragedy, as it is a major actor in the widening gulf 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 who
sleep upon 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 oveiwhelms their individual contributions.
Although teachers do care and do work very, 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 a different cell where he must memorize that
humans and monkeys derive from a common ancestor.
- 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 percent of
the Massachusetts population, the last outpost in Barnstable on
Cape Cod not surrendering its children until the 1880s, when the
area was seized by militia and children marched to school under
- 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 ninety-eight percent, and after it the figure never
exceeded ninety-one percent, where it stands in 1990.
- Here is another curiosity to think
about. The home-schooling movement has quietly grown to a size
where one and 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 any time soon, certainly not in my lifetime, but if we're
going to change what's rapidly becoming a disaster of ignorance,
we need to realize that the school institution "schools" very
well, though 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 thing.
- Schools were designed by Horace
Mann and by Sears and Harper of the University of Chicago and by
Thorndyke of Columbia Teachers College and by some other men to be
instruments of the scientific management of a mass population.
Schools are intended to produce, through the application of
formulas, formulaic human beings whose behavior can be predicted
- To a very great extent schools
succeed in doing this, but in a national order increasingly
disintegrated, in a national order in which the only "successful"
people are independent, self-reliant, confident, and
individualistic (because community life which protects the
dependent and the weak is dead and only networks remain), 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 telephones, or sit mindlessly before a
flickering computer terminal, but as human beings they are
useless. Useless to others and useless to themselves.
- 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 past
and future, sealing you in a continuous present much the same way
- 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 "homework."
"How will they learn to read?" you ask,
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 them.
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, nonstop abstraction. In
centuries past, the time of childhood and adolescence would have
been 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 becoming a whole man or woman.
- But here is the calculus of time
the children I teach must deal with:
- 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.
- According to recent reports
children watch 55 hours of television a week. That then leaves
them 57 hours a week in which to grow up.
- My children attend school 30 hours
a week, use about 8 hours getting ready for and traveling to and
from school, and spend an average of 7 hours a week in homework -
a total of 45 hours. During that time they are under constant
surveillance. They 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 them 12 hours a week out of which to create
a unique consciousness. Of course my kids eat, too, 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 per
- It's not enough, is it? The richer
the kid, of course, the less television he or she watches, but the
rich kid's time is just as narrowly prescribed by a somewhat
broader catalogue of commercial entertainments and the inevitable
assignment to a series of private lessons in areas seldom of his
or her own choice.
- But these activities are 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. Ifs a national disease,
this dependency and aimlessness, and I think schooling and
television and lessons have a lot to do with it.
- Think of the phenomena which are
idling us as a nation - narcotic drugs, brainless competition,
recreational sex, the pornography of violence, gambling, and
alcohol, and the worst pornography of all: lives devoted to buying
things, accumulation as a philosophy - all of these are addictions
of dependent personalities, and this is what our brand of
schooling must inevitably produce.
- 1 want to tell you what the effect
on our children is 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 any reform that doesn't attack these
specific pathologies will be nothing more than a facade.
- 1. 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
children to grow up these days, least of all the children; and who
can blame them? Toys are us.
- 2. The children I teach have almost
no curiosity, and what little 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
- 3. The children I teach have a poor
sense of the future, of how tomorrow is inextricably linked to
today. As I said before, they live in a continuous present, the
exact moment they are in is the boundary of their consciousness.
- 4. The children I teach are
a-historical; they have no sense of how the past has predestinated
their own present, limiting their choices, shaping their values
- 5. The children I teach are cruel
to each other; they lack compassion for misfortune; they laugh at
weakness; they have contempt for people whose need for help shows
- 6, They children I teach are uneasy
with intimacy or candor. 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.
- 7. 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 sale.
- 8. The children I teach are
dependent, passive, and timid in the presence of new challenges.
This timidity is surface bravado, or by an frequently masked by
anger or aggressiveness, but underneath is a vacuum without
- I could name a few other conditions
that school reform will 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
has, or both. It's a simple matter of arithmetic - between
schooling and television, all the time the children have is eaten
up. There simply isn't enough other time in the experience of our
kids for there to be other significant causes.
- What can be done?
- First, we need a ferocious national
debate that doesn't quit, day after day, year after year, the kind
of continuous debate thatjoumalism finds boring. 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 home-schooling shows a different road
that has great Promise. Pouring the money we now pour into
schooling back into family education might cure two ailments with
one medicine, repairing families as it repairs children.
- Genuine reform is possible but it
shouldn't cost anything. More money and more people pumped into
this sick institution will only make it sicker. 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 a lofty comr-nand 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,
antihuman, 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 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 that work 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.
- Right now we are taking from our
children all the time 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
curricula where each kid has a chance to develop private
uniqueness and selfreliance.
- A short time ago I took $70 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 Seabright 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 small town police procedures. A few days
later two more of my twelve-year-old kids travelled alone from
Harlem to West Thirty-first street where they began an
apprenticeship with a newspaper editor; later three of my kids
found themselves in the middle of the Jersey swamps at six in the
morning, studying the mind of a trucking company president as he
dispatched eighteen-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 myself and the
kids. They're just nice kids from central Harlem, bright and
alert, but so badly schooled when they came to me that most of
them couldn't add or subtract with any fluency. And not a single
one knew the population of New York City or how far New York is
- 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 reinvolve them with the real world as fast as possible so
that the independent time can be spent on something other than
abstraction. This is an emergency; it requires drastic action to
- 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 country has warehoused children and asked nothing of them
in service of 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 it will teach, it is the
quickest way to give young children real responsibility in the
mainstream of life.
- For five years I ran a guerrilla
school 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
the experience of helping someone else had changed their lives. It
had taught them to see in new ways, to rethink goals and values.
It happened when they were thirteen, in my Lab School program, and
was only possible because my rich school district was in chaos.
When "stability" returned, the Lab closed. It was too successful
with a widely mixed group of kids, at too small a cost, to be
allowed to continue.
Independent study, community
service, adventures and 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 open the idea of "schoor to
include family as 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
- The "Curriculum of Family" is at
the heart of any good life. We've gotten away from that
curriculum; ifs 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
schooltime 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 for fortnulating
a family curriculum and my guess is that a lot of you have many
ideas, too. Our greatest problem in getting the kind of
gr-assroots thinking going that could reform schooling is that we
have large, invested interests preempting all the air time and
profiting from schooling as it is, despite rhetoric to the
- 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. We've seen the results.
- It's time for a return to
democracy, individuality, and family.
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