School Is Prison

I just finished reading Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray.

Midway through the book, Gray notes (Kindle Locations 1228-39) that:

A prison, according to the common, general definition, is any place of involuntary confinement and restriction of liberty.  In school, as in adult prisons, the inmates are told exactly what they must do and are punished for failure to comply.

Gray acknowledges that it isn’t polite to say so but that “schools as we generally know them are prisons.” (Kindle Locations 1215-28, 1239-51)  Then he poses this question: “Is forced education–and the consequent imprisonment of children–a good thing or a bad thing?  (Kindle Locations 1251-63)

If you have read that far into the book or are familiar with Gray’s Psychology Today blog Freedom to Learn, you won’t be surprised that he comes down on the side of compulsory education being a bad thing.  Free to Learn offers a defense of his position on compulsory education, suggestions for parents, and a vision for how we might arrange for conditions that would allow children to use their natural instincts (curiosity, playfulness, and sociability) to educate themselves.

Gray discusses social changes that have reduced opportunities for children to engage in free play (play that is not directed or controlled by adults) noting that children attend school at younger ages, school years and school days have become longer, homework increasingly intrudes in time out of school, and children’s extra-curricular activities are more likely to include adult-directed lessons and sports teams rather than free play in the neighborhood.  Gray also discusses the harm that results from less time for free play: “a rise in emotional and social disorders” including “anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness in young people” and “an increase in narcissism and decline in empathy.”  (Kindle Locations 1986-98, 2998-3010).

Gray ends on an optimistic note, hopeful that there will be a “decline in coercive schools and [a] rise in voluntary educational opportunities” due to various forces including changes in information technology, normalization of alternative education options, and “the natural human drive for freedom and self-determination.”   (Kindle Locations 3946-58, 3958-70, 3981-93, 3993-4004) )  I’m less optimistic because there seems to be no end to the desire to control others “for their own good” and because the current state of the education reform debate sounds entirely too much as described generally here by Gray (Kindle Locations 435-47):

And yet, the hue and cry that we hear from pundits and politicians today is for more restrictive schooling, not less.  They want more standardized tests, more homework, more supervision, longer school days, longer school years, more sanctions against children’s taking a day or two for a family vacation.  This is one realm in which politicians from both of the major parties, at every level of government seem to agree.  More schooling and more testing are better than less schooling and less testing.

Gray has an answer for this too: “The more oppressive the school system becomes, the more it is driving people away, and that is good.”  (Kindle Locations 3947-58)

As a Montessori proponent, I think that I am generally predisposed to agreeing with much of what Gray has to say here about the importance of free play, voluntary choice, minimal adult interference, mixed-age groupings, and creating the conditions for children to engage in self-directed learning, as well as the harms of constant surveillance and judgment of children’s activities.

I would be interested to see how employees of the DE, the AEAs, and public schools respond to this book, if they take the time to read it.  In some ways, there seems to be a move towards addressing some of these issues (trying to create student-centered classrooms, a focus on relevance and engagement) but how much progress can really be made within a compulsory system?