Criticisms of the Traditional School

The thesis that the traditional school is either irrelevant to the education of children, or, worse, pernicious to their sound and healthy development, has noble antecedents.

Famous nineteenth-century luminaries defended this thesis: Leo Tolstoi, Samuel Butler, Charles Darwin and Mark Twain, among others. In the twentieth century Albert Einstein, Karl Popper, and Howard Gardner, among many others, considered the traditional school, more than obsolete and irrelevant, harmful to children.

In this article I will, little by little, add quotations from these people.

Here is what Leo Tolstoi said:

“Children are everywhere sent to school by force, while parents are compelled to send their children to school by the severity of the law, or by cunning, or by offering them advantages. But the masses everywhere study of their own accord, and regard education as good.

How is this? The need for education lies in every man; the people love and seek education, as they love and seek the air for breathing; the government and society burn with the desire to educate the masses. And yet, nothwithstanding all the force of conning and the persistency of governments and societies, the masses constantly manifest their dissatisfaction with the education which is offered to them, and step by step submit only by force.

What experience can prove to us the justice of the existing method of compulsory education? We cannot know whether there is not another, better method, since the schools have heretofore not yet been free. It is true that at the highest rung of education — universities, public lectures — education strives to become even more free. But maybe education at the lower rungs must always remain compulsory, and maybe experience has proved to us that such schools are good.

Let us look at these schools, without consulting the statistical tables, but by trying to know the schools, and learn their influence on the masses in reality.

This is what reality has shown me: Schools present themselves to the child as an institution for tortuing children — and institution in which they are deprived of their chief pleasure and youthful needs, of  free motion; where obedience and quiet are the chief conditions; where he needs special permission to got out ‘for a minute’; where every misdeed is punished. What the results must be, we again see from what they really are, not according to the reports,  but from the actual facts. Nine tenths of the school population take away from school a mechanical knowledge of reading and writing, and such a stong loathing for the paths of knowledge traversed by them that they never again take a book into their hands. Not only does school breed loathing for educaiton, but in these years it inculcates upon these pupils hypocrisy and deceit, arising from the unnatural position in which the pupils are placed.

Every instruction ought to be only an answer to the questions put by life, whereas school not only does not call forth questions, but does not even answer those that are called for by life. It eternally answers the same questions which have been put by humanity for several centuries, and not by the intellect of the child.

It is enough to look at one and the same child at home, in the street, or at school: now you see a vivacious, curious child, with a smaile in his eyes and on his lips, seeking instruction in everything, as he would seek pleasure, clearly and frequently expressing his thoughts in his own words; now again you see a worn-out, retiring being, with an expression of fatigue, terror, and ennui, repeating with the lips only strange words in a strange language — a being whose soul has, like a snail, retreated into its house. It is enough to look at these two conditions in order to decide which of the two is more advantageous for the child’s development.

The compulsory structure of the school excludes the possibility of all progress.”

[Leo Tolstoi, “On Popular Education”, in Pedagogical Articles, 1862, translated from Russian into English by Leo Wiener (Dana Estes & Co., Boston, 1904), above excerpted from pp. 7-18 (emphases added). Quoted apud Daniel Greenberg, Announcing a New School: A Personal Account of the Beginnings of the Sudbury Valley School (The Sudbury Valley School Press, Framingham, MA, 1973, p. 175)]

Here is what Samuel Butler said, commenting on why it was that, “in spite of the treachery of their leaders, there are quite a number [of people] who are decent, and intelligent, and devoted to their task” (words in quote from Karl Popper — see below):

“I sometimes wonder how it was that the mischf done was not more clearly perceptible abd that young men and women grew up as sensibly and goodly as they did, in spite of the attempts almost deliberately made to warp and stunt their growth. Some doubtless received damage, from which they suffered to their life’s end; but many seemed little or none the worse, and some almost better. The reason would seem to be that the natural instinct of the lads in most cases so absolutely rebelled against their training, that do what the teachers might they could never get them to pay serious heed to it”.

[Samuel Butler, in Erewhon (1872, Everyman’s Edition), p.135, apud Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. I: “The Spell of Plato” (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1962, 1966, 1971), p. 136 (emphasis added). This passage also appeared as motto to the section “Replies to My Critics”, written by Karl Popper, in The Philosophy of Karl Popper, org. por Paul Arthur Schilpp (Open Court, La Salle, IL, 1974), Vol. II, p. 1174]

Here is what Karl Popper said in the passage that preceded his quotation from Samuel Butler, transcribed above:

“It has been said, only too truly, tt Plato was the inventor of both our secondary schools and our universities. I do not know a better argument for an optimistic view of mankind, no better proof of their indestructible love for truth and decency,  of their originality and stubborness and health, than the fact that this devastating system of education has not utterly ruined them“.

[Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Vol. I: “The Spell of Plato” (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1962, 1966, 1971), p. 136 (emphasis added)]

Salto (Brazil), on the 5th of October, 2007

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