My in box is full of links people send me when they have nowhere else to turn in frustration. Some days I think the failings of school are so predictable that I can’t believe people even bother to write about it anymore.

But then I read a post by Carol Black on Schooling the World And I’m surprised by how many new ways she gave me for being appalled at what kids do in school all day. Here’s an except from the full post:

While your kids are very busy toiling over algebra and chemistry, international trade agreements are being forged and currencies are being manipulated by entities that most Americans don’t even know the names of, much less the inner workings of.

Kids are compelled to solve quadratic equations and write essays on Shakespeare, and they graduate without understanding how to calculate the interest on credit card debt or decode a mortgage agreement.

They learn an old fable called “How a Bill Becomes Law,” while corporate lobbyists draft legislation that will pollute their air and water, deny them health care and unemployment benefits, and put barely tested drugs on the market and genetically modified organisms in their food system.

Our kids are so overburdened with endless homework and tests that they have little time or energy to pay attention to what’s happening in the world around them.  They are taught to focus on competing with each other and gaming the system rather than on gaining a deep understanding of the way power flows through their world.

The most academically “gifted” students excel at obedience, instinctively shaping their thinking to the prescribed curriculum and unconsciously framing out of their awareness ideas that won’t earn the praise of their superiors.  Those who resist sitting still for this process are marginalized, labeled as less intelligent or even as mildly brain-damaged, and, increasingly, drugged into compliance.

What I take from Black’s writing is that schools systematically train kids to give someone else power in the world. Kids who can free themselves from this sort of thinking end up running the world. Sometimes those were the kids with dyslexia and couldn’t keep up in school.  Or maybe they were the kids who played videos games instead of doing homework. Kids who refuse to do what they are told are the kids who are training themselves to do something groundbreaking.

When I took this photo of my son I had not thought about school in terms of undermining a child’s access to power. But I look at the photo and realize that my son’s pose is iconic – all kids intuitively climb to the top of what’s in front of them, stretch their arms and relish the view. People intuitively reach for power over what matters to them and childhood is a time to practice that.

Yet we have no curriculum for teaching kids how to navigate power structures. The reason for this is that if kids start to explore who holds power and why, then the kids will almost immediately start challenging the teacher, and the school routines, and the common core. The student:teacher ratios are too imbalanced for kids to be questioning power in the classroom. It would be mayhem.

So kids graduate from school with no idea about how the world works. In the worst case, young adults are frightened by power and they end up staying in school for ten more years learning skills that don’t make them employable. In the best case, kids spend their 20s finally learning how power flows in the adult world.

It’s insulting to kids that they should be so isolated from the annals of power. There are media mogul teens, a Nobel Prize winner in high school. If we give kids the chance to use their power, they can do great things. But school as we do it now doesn’t provide any such opportunities.


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25 replies
  1. MBL
    MBL says:

    I really, really love this.

    I know I’m repeating what I said the other day, but… Cutting kids off from having any agency to effect change breeds learned helplessness and loss of hope. Schools “have” to do this because “if we let you do it then everyone will want to.” Such a waste.

  2. MBL
    MBL says:

    Oh wow, I just read the first part of Carol Black’s “Occupy Your Brain
    On Power, Knowledge, and the Re-Occupation
    of Common Sense”

    It seems to me that it fits in beautifully with what Karyles has been saying on PT’s other post about children needing meaning. I can’t wait to read the whole thing.

    “One of the most profound changes that occurs when modern schooling is introduced into traditional societies around the world is a radical shift in the locus of power and control over learning from children, families, and communities to ever more centralized systems of authority. While all cultures are different, in many non-modernized societies children enjoy wide latitude to learn by free play, interaction with other children of multiple ages, immersion in nature, and direct participation in adult work and activities. They may have meaningful responsibilities in the economic life of the family and may be expected to treat elders with respect, but there is often little direct adult control over their individual moment-to-moment movements and choices, and they learn by experience, experimentation, trial and error, by independent observation of nature and human behavior, and through voluntary community sharing of information, story, song, and ritual. Local elders and community traditions are autonomous and respected as sources of wisdom and practical knowledge, and children are integrated into local livelihoods, knowledge systems, and ethical and spiritual awareness through elegant indigenous pedagogies that have been honed over generations to minimize conflict while effectively transmitting what each child needs to know to be a successfully functioning member of the community.
    Once learning is institutionalized under a central authority, both freedom for the individual and respect for the local are radically curtailed. The child in a classroom generally finds herself in a situation where she may not move, speak, laugh, sing, eat, drink, read, think her own thoughts, or even use the toilet without explicit permission from an authority figure. Family and community are sidelined, their knowledge now seen as inferior to the school curriculum. The teacher has control over the child, the school district has control over the teacher, the state has control over the district, and increasingly, systems of national standards and funding create national control over states.”

    Thanks for bringing this writer onto my radar.

  3. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    I don’t know about this. I went to private school until High School. In 5th grade I wrote a letter to the principal because the PE teacher was mean to my uncoordinated classmate . It seems most people (naturally?) blindly respect “authority” but I’m an ENFP, I attribute my actions (and not doing homework) to that.

      • Ellen
        Ellen says:

        Somehow my other classmates found out and they tried to make me feel guilty but I didn’t care. I’m not sure but I think the principal spoke with him, I remember he stopped yelling as much. She was a good principal. (I wasn’t a tattle-tail it just really bothered me) I also remember deliberately disobeying stupid rules as a kid, such as “don’t draw hair on your penguin”.

  4. ScientistMom
    ScientistMom says:

    I’ve been thinking this exact thing lately. I spent many years in school and graduate school. Even after two graduate degrees when I go by a college campus I still find myself longing to enroll. Because I know how to do school. I know how to game the system. I know how to figure out what the teacher believes and regurgitate it like a good little automaton. It’s comfortable and familiar. I’m good at it. And it totally failed to prepare me for the real world.

    I had no idea how to demand my due. I couldn’t see until I was cheated over and over again that people in authority were taking advantage of my “good little soldier” mentality with the intention of using me and throwing me away. I didn’t know how to persuade or challenge the decision makers. I never learned to think outside the box socially.

    And if anything, school is far worse that it was when I was a child. I’m so glad I’m raising young men who haven’t received this damaging indoctrination. Yes, it makes them more challenging to raise. But I know that when they go out in the world no one is ever going to lead them around by the nose for very long, if at all. It will give my boys a huge advantage over all the kids our school system has prepared to be rote-memorizing, blindly-obedient worker bees.

    I’m so glad to see more and more people homeschooling, because I don’t know how our economy is going to thrive with the stressed-out, burnt-out generation of kids we are creating.

    These kids who have never learned to think creatively and take charge and they don’t know they missed anything. They are shocked and bewildered when they graduate with their shiny new degrees — having done everything they were told would give them success — only find that the best jobs are reserved for the people who dropped out of school because they were too creative and oppositionally-defiant to take school any longer. At least, that’s what I see here in Silicon Valley.

  5. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    Perhaps my contrarianism is insufferable, but I found the opposite: school taught me that a few, no more intelligent or educated than the many, worm themselves into positions of power where their ignorance will be acclaimed as wisdom, their arbitrary decisions will be accepted as inevitable, and their self-dealing will be praised as altruism.

    Is there that much difference between a school principal and a senator?

    I hated each and every day of school, and that experience taught me an unshakeable distrust of authority and authoritarians.

    One could make a study of the secret levers of power and how to disrupt (or acquire) it. One could even make a curriculum. But one would have to put down the video game controller – stop consuming the opium of the adolescent masses – and read some books to study it.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Maybe there is a video game for that!! jk

      I’m with you, I am very anti-authoritarian… probably one of the reasons I am unschooling.

  6. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    I don’t have anything to add because I wouldn’t even know where to start. I just want to say thanks to Penelope for posting the link, her response, and for the replies from her readers. The combination of the three have put into words so perfectly things I’ve been thinking but haven’t known how to express.

  7. Adelaide Olguin
    Adelaide Olguin says:

    I always send my older brother your blog posts. He is very clever and kind but spent most of his time in special ed or detention growing up. I know he could do something absolutely brilliant if he could see what they did to him and really see his value. I sent him the link to your personality test. I wish people would see just how absolutely disgusting school is. How dare we subject our children to this. When other moms ask me which school I’m going to send me children to (4 +1), I just can’t understand WHY they are sending their children to school. It doesn’t make sense. I want more moms to take back their power.

  8. Cate
    Cate says:

    Excellent post, thank you! I agree, although my child is in public school (4th). I have long wondered why they don’t teach kids certain things: how our infrastructure works (power, water, electricity); the biggest companies in various sectors throughout the world and their history/influence; and, of course “the flow of power” throughout our world and society (well said, Penelope). In a way, it is a very subversive idea to the public school system, sadly. I expect that I will have to teach my son these things myself (and DH).

  9. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    I think this photo and article shows the power of unschooling. Your son naturally showing his strength and confidence in himself and abilities in the most tangible way possible. It is moments like these that show learning is much more than simply acquiring knowledge, it is about self discovery.

    Love it.

  10. Erin Wetzel
    Erin Wetzel says:

    Once again, you have touched on something that I have been trying to put into words for awhile now.

    “So kids graduate from school with no idea about how the world works. […] In the best case, kids spend their 20s finally learning how power flows in the adult world.”

    THIS is my life.

    All the time, I joke that I started unschooling myself after I graduated from college; but, at that point, isn’t it just called “Real Life”??

    Oh wait…that’s what unschooling is about in the first place: preparing kids for Real Life, how to know themselves, pursue their passions, work intentionally, be aware. My generation SUCKS at Real Life. It makes me wonder: how much of the blame do we put on the system, how much on the parents, and how much on the kids themselves?

    I know…I know…nobody likes playing The Blame Game. But it’s an important question to ask, because the answer tells us what we believe about responsibility. Whose responsibility is it to change a life?

    I think the answer is: it’s everyone’s fault, and it’s everyone’s responsibility. When the system is broken, no matter who you are or what role you play, you have to start affecting change NOW. So, if you’re a student, fight for your future. If you’re a parent, fight for your kids. If you’re a Gen-Yer with a BA degree, living with your parents and working at Starbucks, stop acting like a victim, start taking risks to figure out what you want in life, then go after it.

    I know this is an angsty comment. And long. And I admittedly feel insecure about just throwing my crazy feelings all over the place. And I’m tempted to edit it. But I won’t. This is what I feel. And, if I’m wrong, the only way I’ll figure out what’s right is by speaking up and sharing my voice.

    Because I’m 32 years old and I’m still trying to figure out how power flows in the real world. And that pisses me off.

    • jen
      jen says:

      Ditto. Though, thankfully, I got sick of jumping through hoops and left college my junior year. Still unschooling myself, but enjoying learning with my kiddos.

    • KKobis
      KKobis says:

      The key thing you mentioned is start taking risks. Not foolish risks, but realizing that real life starts with jumping into the adult world. It involves adult attitudes which seem to be unfashionable these days, even among middle-aged people and older. I had the discussion with my college aged nephew about adulthood: when are you an adult? His response was 18…then 21…I gave him my opinion: when you no longer think you are the center of the universe. When you no longer see yourself that way. There is nothing in high school or university education that teaches that. Only life can…
      Good for you for putting your thoughts into words. It wasn’t angsty. It was honest.

    • Kaneesha
      Kaneesha says:

      Don’t feel bad. I’m 35 and just really learning that playing by the rules != anything in life.
      I agree that the actions of school systems are dulling the minds of their students, and I don’t even get into conspiracy theories! Look at the article. We’ve all been there. How much do even marginally successful students have to think during and after school? We get jobs that we don’t like and bore us and then we stumble onto Penelope’s blog b/c we’re looking for a way out. It’s incredibly difficult to extricate ourselves from the lives we’ve settled for. How many people say they want a business vs actually do? Ah yes…just the “misfits”, homeschoolers the ones who have been kicked out of the rat race. Coincidence?

  11. Eve
    Eve says:

    This is so spot-on. I was a straight-A student, never really got in trouble, easily glided through all my classes because I knew how to game the system. I’ve never had a really good job, and most of my jobs have been crappy minimum-wage positions where most of my coworkers are students. My husband, on the other hand, barely graduated high school, got in trouble all the time, and doesn’t have a college degree. He is now very successful in his career. It’s frustrating because school trained me to do whatever I had to in order to get authority figures off my back– once the authority figures were gone, I didn’t know what to do.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love this part of your comment. It’s so concise and important:

      “…school trained me to do whatever I had to in order to get authority figures off my back– once the authority figures were gone, I didn’t know what to do.”


  12. Kiki
    Kiki says:

    Would love to read Penelope’s throughs on how the Delphi Technique is used in schools by admins against parents who speak up.

  13. Meg
    Meg says:

    It takes until it is too late to learn certain facts of life. For instance: It is who, not what, you know; Your neighbor’s parents pay their mortgage and for their kids’ private school tuition. What matters in your 40’s required steps taken in your 20’s; There is a great chance you are not voting with your own best interests at heart. The list goes on. It is not taught in school.

  14. J
    J says:

    As a teenager I have to say that I agree,we do need to be given a chance.We don’t need to be given a big chance either-If people would just stop looking at our age and start looking at whether we know what we’re talking about.I get that we can’t expect to make big descisions but why aren’t we allowed to make small ones.Everything requires a parent or gaurdians permision.An adult has to be involved no matter what.I

    We can’t start charities without an adults help,we can’t start a business,hell,without parental permision we cant get a job or even get our learners permit.

    Personally I’d be happy if we could start an after school club that could meet once a month- as the minimum(It would be easier to manage online)- thats main goal is to educate other members of my age gr0up about politics;at least that way we know what were doing when we vote for the first time.Just a simple group that would provide the facts without any of the embellishments adults tend to put on things.

    As it is,I don’t know where to begin,and the school rules on such things are vague.We aren’t allowed to be in any gangs or secret organizations.What defines a secret organization/gang?Criminal behavior?Purpose? As it is,I’m fairly certain any club would have to be school sponsored to be outside of those categories.I am looking into it though.

  15. Justathoughtabouthoney
    Justathoughtabouthoney says:

    Is there another way? A way to create change and challenge without the fight? Why does it always have to be a fight?

    I went to school (an all girls public school in the UK) with many gifted brilliant girls. I was average (not bad in the pool I was comparing to), but not a superstar – I watched as my gifted brilliant friends stood up to the man – argued with teachers, questioned the status quo, were irritating to the faculty and given the moniker “challenging” at every parents evening. Then I saw one girl, who was challenging, disruptive, awkward and stood up for herself – and the teachers loved her. The difference – Charm. This girl is wildly successful woman now – her charm gets her everything and she gets away with the most outrageous, weird, innovative and challenging behaviour at work, because everyone loves her.

    So – this is my pledge to my son, as, sorry Penelope – I do have to send him to school – to keep our heads above water I gotta work… I promise that I will try to break the system. I will teach you to be charming, to challenge and believe in yourself and break the system as much as we can together from the inside out, so that little by little you will gain your freedom and one day you will be a success and life will be sweet because you will also be loved.

    I am not so bright or gifted – but one thing I have learn’t and learn’t well – you catch more flies with honey than vinegar…

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