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The problem with the factory setting

We are the brand of homeschoolers that have permanently rejected the public school model.  There are homeschoolers who prefer homeschooling to public schools, but make their educational choices year by year. For a variety of reasons and a couple of big ones, we’ve ruled out public education entirely for our family.

I have two big problems with public schools that preclude me from ever sending my kids there. The first is a matter of faith and conscience. Our first principle of education is “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and a fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” Secular education is fundamentally flawed, and public education must be secular. I’m not saying I think public education should be religious. That brings a host of problem, not the least of which is “whose religion.” But I do think an education that does not start with God is built on a shaky foundation. As Charlotte Mason wrote, “We allow no separation to grow up between the intellectual and ‘spiritual’ life of children, but teach them that the Divine Spirit has constant access to their spirits, and is their Continual Helper in all the interests, duties and joys of life.”

(Dear Christian brothers and sisters, Please note the phrase “matter of conscience.” We are convicted of this. If you are not, then you are not. It’s all good.)

But the other big problem, one that doesn’t rely solely on my faith but is informed by it, is that people aren’t widgets.  Public schools in this country have become factories, where little minds are set on the conveyor belt and molded into the appropriate shape, passing through the various mechanisms, until 12 years later you have your row of widgets.  There is little room for variation among the widgets, although there are special belts for those “gifted” widgets. And “irregular” widgets are bumped along the belt until they can be dispensed with in one way or another.

(Another aside: I do not think the vast majority of teachers feel this way about their students. I think most teachers enter teaching because of a desire to bring knowledge to young minds, or something along those lines. However, the thorough institutionalization of our educational system cannot be denied.)


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One thing the system cannot handle is nuances. This is horrifically illustrated in two stories that I saw yesterday. In both cases, good kids made honest and innocent mistakes, owned up to the mistakes, and were punished with expulsion and criminal charges. This is what is known euphemistically as “zero tolerance.”

In the first case, Kiera Wilmot — a good student who had never gotten into any trouble — had the audacity to be scientifically curious. She mixed some “household chemicals” (toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil. Scary) and instead of the smoke she expected, caused an “explosion.”  The rule book says that’s an immediate expulsion, so she was expelled and arrested. (Note, I’m not saying that she should have gotten off scot-free, but being expelled and arrested for a dumb mistake was overkill.)

In the second case, an honor student and Eagle Scout realized he had forgotten to take a shotgun out of his truck after going skeet shooting over the weekend. He secured the gun, went inside to call his mother to come get the gun (rather than just leaving school property and thus being truant), and someone overheard his phone call. So now he’s suspended for a year, arrested, and is facing a felony gun charge.

In both cases, the school administrations stand by their actions. They have Standard Operating Procedures because individuals cannot be trusted to exercise good judgment. They stand by their actions because the rules are more important than these individuals. Their SOPs allow no room for nuance, judgment, and plain common sense. The conveyor belt must keep running, now be good little widgets and you’ll be delivered safely to the end of the belt.

People are messy and complicated, and the situations involving people are messy and complicated. And “children are born persons,” as Miss Mason also said. Any system that cannot take that reality into account should not be charged with the education of our children.

6 responses to “The problem with the factory setting”

  1. Jose Avatar

    I am an optimist so I have to believe that “Zero Tolerance” hamstrings well meaning public school teachers and administrators into doing things that they must at times object to.
    I can’t imagine a teacher, knowing the day to day behavior and temperament of a student, acquiescing to the punishments you’ve touched on. No wonder so many of them become dispirited. 🙁

    1. April Avatar

      Yeah, I think teachers and administrators AS INDIVIDUALS oppose these types of decisions, but they no longer act as individuals in the current system. They’re just cogs in the machine. Everyone involved deserves do much more than that.

  2. Cindy Watson Avatar
    Cindy Watson

    Life is messy. Even in a factory because you have to account for “human error” there are issues. Of course there will be even more in a factory to manufacture educated people.

    1. April Avatar

      Economies of scale is probably not the best foundation for raising and educating children. It’s cheaper by the dozen gone mad.

  3. Robert Rendo Avatar

    I love your site. It is sensitively thought out and written.

    As a Nationally Boaord Certified Teacher, I can tell you that the institutionalization of public schools is something teachers cannot choose, and as much as we try to fight it, our unions are anemic and apathetic AND we either do what policy makers tell us to do, or we face termination.

    Those public schools that really customize and tailor education in smaller, more intimate settings and approach children holistically tend to be in districts where the tax base comes from tony homes and wealthier home owners. Such schools fit each student with an artisanal style education, unilke the poorly funded schools of innde city populations and isolated rural regions.

    That’s not to say that we can’t overcome the negative forces being imposed upon education today or even the effects of poverty. We can and we do, but beyond a certain threshold of the status quo, our retripled efforts produce a point of diminishing returns.

    Whether you home school, send your child to private school, or go with public schools, may I suggest that you join Diane Ravitch’s NPE, which seeks to give every child a world class education and advocates in that vane.

    Finally, I’d like to thank you for sharing my illustration, and please feel free to visit my site and lift anything you want for your own blog.

    Robert Rendo

    1. April Avatar

      Thanks, Robert! I’ll give NPE a look. I totally agree with you that teachers are NOT the driving force behind the factory-ization (new word!) of education. I think it’s ridiculous how much they are hamstringed by policies pushed down those who have little or no clue about actual teaching.

      Here’s an interesting article on giving teachers more freedom, because neither teachers nor students are widgets. http://reason.com/archives/2013/05/04/giving-teachers-freedom

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