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School Is Prison

“Why Don’t Students Like School?” Well, Duhhhh…
Children don't like school because they love freedom.

By Peter Gray, Boston College

"It was at home I learned the little I know. Schools always appeared to me like a prison, and never could I make up my mind to stay there, not even for four hours a day, when the sunshine was inviting, the sea smooth, and when it was joy to run about the cliffs in the free air, or to paddle in the water."  - Claude Monet

Someone recently referred me to a book they thought I'd like. It's a 2009 book, aimed toward teachers of grades K through 12, titled Why Don't Students Like School? It's by cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, and has received rave reviews by countless people involved in the school system. Google the title and author and you'll find pages and pages of doting reviews and nobody pointing out that the book totally and utterly fails to answer the question posed by its title.

Willingham's thesis is that students don't like school because their teachers don't have a full understanding of certain cognitive principles and therefore don't teach as well as they could. They don't present material in ways that appeal best to students' minds. Presumably, if teachers followed Willingham's advice and used the latest information cognitive science has to offer about how the mind works, students would love school.

Talk about avoiding the elephant in the room!

Ask any schoolchild why they don't like school and they'll tell you. "School is prison." They may not use those words, because they're too polite, or maybe they've already been brainwashed to believe that school is for their own good and therefore it can't be prison. But decipher their words and the translation generally is, "School is prison."

Let me say that a few more times: School is prison. School is prison. School is prison. School is prison. School is prison.

Willingham surely knows that school is prison. He can't help but know it; everyone knows it. But here he writes a whole book entitled "Why Don't Students Like School," and not once does he suggest that just possibly they don't like school because they like freedom, and in school they are not free.

I shouldn't be too harsh on Willingham. He's not the only one avoiding this particular elephant in the room. Everyone who has ever been to school knows that school is prison, but almost nobody says it. It's not polite to say it. We all tiptoe around this truth, that school is prison, because telling the truth makes us all seem so mean. How could all these nice people be sending their children to prison for a good share of the first 18 years of their lives? How could our democratic government, which is founded on principles of freedom and self-determination, make laws requiring children and adolescents to spend a good portion of their days in prison? It's unthinkable, and so we try hard to avoid thinking it. Or, if we think it, we at least don't say it. When we talk about what's wrong with schools we pretend not to see the elephant, and we talk instead about some of the dander that's gathered around the elephant's periphery.

But I think it is time that we say it out loud. School is prison.

If you think school is not prison, please explain the difference.

The only difference I can think of is that to get into prison you have to commit a crime, but they put you in school just because of your age. In other respects school and prison are the same. In both places you are stripped of your freedom and dignity. You are told exactly what you must do, and you are punished for failing to comply. Actually, in school you must spend more time doing exactly what you are told to do than is true in adult prisons, so in that sense school is worse than prison.

At some level of their consciousness, everyone who has ever been to school knows that it is prison. How could they not know? But people rationalize it by saying (not usually in these words) that children need this particular kind of prison and may even like it if the prison is run well. If children don't like school, according to this rationalization, it's not because school is prison, but is because the wardens are not kind enough, or amusing enough, or smart enough to keep the children's minds occupied appropriately.

But anyone who knows anything about children and who allows himself or herself to think honestly should be able to see through this rationalization. Children, like all human beings, crave freedom. They hate to have their freedom restricted. To a large extent they use their freedom precisely to educate themselves. They are biologically prepared to do that. Children explore and play, freely, in ways designed to learn about the physical and social world in which they are developing. In school they are told they must stop following their interests and, instead, do just what the teacher is telling them they must do. That is why they don't like school.

As a society we could, perhaps, rationalize forcing children to go to school if we could prove that they need this particular kind of prison in order to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to become good citizens, to be happy in adulthood, and to get good jobs. Many people, perhaps most people, think this has been proven, because the educational establishment talks about it as if it has. But, in truth, it has not been proven at all.

In fact, for decades, families who have chosen to "unschool" their children have been proving the opposite. Children who are provided the tools for learning, including access to a wide range of other people from whom to learn, learn what they need to know - and much more - through their own self-directed play and exploration. There is no evidence at all that children who are sent to prison come out better than those who are provided the tools and allowed to use them freely. How, then, can we continue to rationalize sending children to prison?

I think the educational establishment deliberately avoids looking honestly at the experiences of unschoolers because they are afraid of what they will find. If school as prison isn't necessary, then what becomes of this whole huge enterprise, which employs so many and is so fully embedded in the culture?

Willingham's book is in a long tradition of attempts to bring the "latest findings" of psychology to bear on issues of education. All of those efforts have avoided the elephant and focused instead on trying to clean up the dander. But as long as the elephant is there, the dander just keeps piling up.

Every new generation of parents, and every new batch of fresh and eager teachers, hears or reads about some "new theory" or "new findings" from psychology that, at long last, will make schools more fun and improve learning. But none of it has worked. And none of it will until people face the truth: Children hate school because in school they are not free. Joyful learning requires freedom.

Excerpt from 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


The words hit me hard. I had on occasion been damned to hell before, but never so seriously. A colleague, frustrated by my thickheaded lack of agreement with an obvious truth, or a friend, responding to some idiotic thing I had said. But in those cases "go to hell" was just a way to break the tension, to end an argument that was going nowhere. This time it was serious. This time I felt, maybe, I really would go to hell. Not the afterlife hell of fire and brimstone, which I don't believe in, but the hell that can accompany life in this world when you are burned by the knowledge that you have failed someone you love, who needs you, who depends on you.

The words were spoken by my nine-year-old son, Scott, in the principal's office of the public elementary school. They were addressed not only to me but to all seven of us big, smart adults who were lined up against him -- the principal, Scott's two classroom teachers, the school's guidance counselor, a child psychologist who worked for the school system, his mother (my late wife), and me. We were there to present a united front, to tell Scott in no uncertain terms that he must attend school and must do there whatever he was told by his teachers to do. We each sternly said our piece, and then Scott, looking squarely at us all, said the words that stopped me in my tracks.

I immediately began to cry. I knew at that instant that I had to be on Scott's side, not against him. I looked through my tears to my wife and saw that she, too, was crying, and through her tears I could see that she was thinking and feeling exactly as I was. We both knew then that we had to do what Scott had long wanted us to do -- remove him not just from that school but from anything that was anything like that school. To him, school was prison, and he had done nothing to deserve imprisonment.

That meeting in the principal's office was the culmination of years of meetings and conferences at the school, at which my wife and I would hear the latest accounts of our son's misbehavior. His misbehavior was particularly disturbing to the school personnel because it was not the usual kind of naughtiness that teachers have come to expect from exuberant boys confined against their will. It was more like planned rebellion. He would systematically and deliberately behave in ways contrary to the teachers' directions. When the teacher instructed students to solve arithmetic problems in a particular way, he would invent a different way to solve them. When it came time to learn about punctuation and capital letters, he would write like the poet e.e. cummings, putting capitals and punctuation wherever he wanted to or not using them at all. When an assignment seemed pointless to him, he would say so and refuse to do it. Sometimes -- and this had become increasingly frequent -- he would, without permission, leave the classroom and, if not forcibly restrained, walk home.

We eventually found a school for Scott that worked. A school as unlike "school" as you can imagine. A little later I will tell you about it and the worldwide educational movement it has inspired. But this book is not primarily about a particular school. It is about the human nature of education.

Children come into the world burning to learn and genetically programmed with extraordinary capacities for learning. They are little learning machines. Within their first four years or so they absorb an unfathomable amount of information and skills without any instruction. They learn to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn to understand and speak the language of the culture into which they are born, and with that they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, and ask questions. They acquire an incredible amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them. All of this is driven by their inborn instincts and drives, their innate playfulness and curiosity. Nature does not turn off this enormous desire and capacity to learn when children turn five or six. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of school is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.

My son's words in the principal's office changed the direction of my professional life as well as my personal life. I am, and was then, a professor of biopsychology, a researcher interested in the biological foundations of mammalian drives and emotions. I had been studying the roles of certain hormones in modulating fear in rats and mice, and I had recently begun looking into the brain mechanisms of maternal behavior in rats. That day in the principal's office triggered a series of events that gradually changed the focus of my research. I began to study education from a biological perspective. At first my study was motivated primarily by concern for my son. I wanted to make sure we weren't making a mistake by allowing him to follow his own educational path rather than a path dictated by professionals. But gradually, as I became convinced that Scott's self-directed education was going beautifully, my interest turned to children in general and to the human biological underpinnings of education.

What is it about our species that makes us the cultural animal? In other words, what aspects of human nature cause each new generation of human beings, everywhere, to acquire and build upon the skills, knowledge, beliefs, theories, and values of the previous generation? This question led me to examine education in settings outside of the standard school system, for example, at the remarkable non-school my son was attending. Later I looked into the growing, worldwide "unschooling" movement to understand how the children in those families become educated. I read the anthropological literature and surveyed anthropologists to learn everything I could about children's lives and learning in hunter-gatherer cultures -- the kinds of cultures that characterized our species for 99 percent of our evolutionary history. I reviewed the entire body of psychological and anthropological research on children's play, and my students and I conducted new research aimed at understanding how children learn through play.

Such work led me to understand how children's strong drives to play and explore serve the function of education, not only in hunter gatherer cultures but in our culture as well. It led to new insights concerning the environmental conditions that optimize children's abilities to educate themselves through their own playful means. It led me to see how, if we had the will, we could free children from coercive schooling and provide learning centers that would maximize their ability to educate themselves without depriving them of the rightful joys of childhood.

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Gray asked himself the following question about Sudbury Valley School before he decided to send his son there.

But does it work? Do students learn there what they need to know for success in our culture?

What concerns me about this is that ot suggests to me that Gray, like so many authors, doesn't really question the mental health of his culture or its defintion of success. This reminds me of the book by Erich Fromm, The Sane Society, in which Fromm basically said that the materialistic Western culture itself was sick.