THE HIDDEN AGENDA
Quinn is the author of Ishmael, The Story of B, My Ishmael,
and Providence. He is the founder of the
that not everyone in this audience knows who I am or why I've
been invited to speak to you to day. After all, I've never written
a book or even an article about home schooling or unschooling.
I've been called a number of things: a futurist, a planetary
philosopher, an anthropologist from Mars. Recently I was introduced
to an audience as a cultural critic, and I think this probably
says it best. As you'll see, in my talk to you today, I will
be trying to place schooling and unschooling in the larger context
of our cultural history and that of our species as well.
those of you who are unfamiliar with my work, I should begin
by explaining what I mean by "our culture." Rather
than burden you with a definition, I'll give you a simple test
that you can use wherever you go in the world. If the food in
that part of the world is under lock and key, and the people
who live there have to work to get it, then you're among people
of our culture. If you happen to be in a jungle in the interior
of Brazil or New Guinea, however, you'll find that the food
is not under lock and key. It's simply out there for the taking,
and anyone who wants some can just go and get it. The people
who live in these areas, often called aboriginals, stone-age
peoples, or tribal peoples clearly belong to a culture radically
different from our own.
began to focus my attention on the peculiarities of our own
culture in the early 1960s, when I went to work for what was
then a cutting-edge publisher of educational materials, Science
Research Associates. I was in my mid-twenties and as thoroughly
acculturated as any senator, bus-driver, movie star, or medical
doctor. My fundamental acceptances about the universe and humanity's
place in it were rock-solid and thoroughly conventional.
it was a stressful time to be alive, in some ways even more
stressful than the present. Many people nowadays realize that
human life may well be in jeopardy, but this jeopardy exists
in some vaguely defined future, twenty or fifty or a hundred
years hence. But in those coldest days of the Cold War everyone
lived with the realization that a nuclear holocaust could occur
literally at any second, without warning. It was very realistically
the touch of a button away.
life would not be entirely snuffed out in a holocaust of this
kind. In a way, it would be even worse than that. In a matter
of hours, we would be thrown back not just to the Stone Age
but to a level of almost total helplessness. In the Stone Age,
after all, people lived perfectly well without supermarkets,
shopping malls, hardware stores, and all the elaborate systems
that keep these places stocked with the things we need. Within
hours our cities would disintegrate into chaos and anarchy,
and the necessities of life would vanish from store shelves,
never to be replaced. Within days famine would be widespread.
that are taken for granted among Stone Age peoples would be
unknown to the survivors--the ability to differentiate between
edible and inedible foods growing in their own environment,
the ability to stalk, kill, dress, and preserve game animals,
and most important the ability to make tools from available
materials. How many of you know how to cure a hide? How to make
a rope from scratch? How to flake a stone tool? Much less how
to smelt metal from raw ore. Commonplace skills of the paleolithic,
developed over thousands of years, would be lost arts.
this was freely acknowledged by people who didn't doubt for
a moment that we were living the way humans were meant to live
from the beginning of time, who didn't doubt for a moment that
the things our children were learning in school were exactly
the things they should be learning.
been hired at SRA to work on a major new mathematics program
that had been under development for several years in Cleveland.
In my first year, we were going to publish the kindergarten
and first-grade programs. In the second year, we'd publish the
second-grade program, in the third year, the third-grade program,
and so on. Working on the kindergarten and first-grade programs,
I observed something that I thought was truly remarkable. In
these grades, children spend most of their time learning things
that no one growing up in our culture could possibly avoid learning.
For example, they learn the names of the primary colours. Wow,
just imagine missing school on the day when they were learning
blue. You'd spend the rest of your life wondering what colour
the sky is. They learn to tell time, to count, and to add and
subtract, as if anyone could possibly fail to learn these things
in this culture. And of course they make the beginnings of learning
how to read. I'll go out on a limb here and suggest an experiment.
Two classes of 30 kids, taught identically and given the identical
text materials throughout their school experience, but one class
is given no instruction in reading at all and the other is given
the usual instruction. Call it the Quinn Conjecture: both classes
will test the same on reading skills at the end of twelve years.
I feel safe in making this conjecture because ultimately kids
learn to read the same way they learn to speak, by hanging around
people who read and by wanting to be able to do what these people
occurred to me at this time to ask this question: Instead of
spending two or three years teaching children things they will
inevitably learn anyway, why not teach them some things they
will not inevitably learn and that they would actually enjoy
learning at this age? How to navigate by the stars, for example.
How to tan a hide. How to distinguish edible foods from inedible
foods. How to build a shelter from scratch. How to make tools
from scratch. How to make a canoe. How to track animals -- all
the forgotten but still valuable skills that our civilization
is actually built on.
course I didn't have to vocalize this idea to anyone to know
how it would be received. Being thoroughly acculturated, I could
myself explain why it was totally inane. The way we live is
the way humans were meant to live from the beginning of time,
and our children were being prepared to enter that life. Those
who came before us were savages, little more than brutes. Those
who continue to live the way our ancestors lived are savages,
little more than brutes. The world is well rid of them, and
we're well rid of every vestige of them, including their ludicrously
children were being prepared in school to step boldly into the
only fully human life that had ever existed on this planet.
The skills they were acquiring in school would bring them not
only success but deep personal fulfillment on every level. What
did it matter if they never did more than work in some mind-numbing
factory job? They could parse a sentence! They could explain
to you the difference between a Petrarchan sonnet and a Shakespearean
sonnet! They could extract a square root! They could show you
why the square of the two sides of a right triangle were equal
to the square of the hypotenuse! They could analyze a poem!
They could explain to you how a bill passes congress! They could
very possibly trace for you the economic causes of the Civil
War. They had read Melville and Shakespeare, so why would they
not now read Dostoevsky and Racine, Joyce and Beckett, Faulkner
and O'Neill? But above all else, of course, the citizen's education
-- grades K to twelve -- prepared children to be fully-functioning
participants in this great civilization of ours. The day after
their graduation exercises, they were ready to stride confidently
toward any goal they might set themselves.
course, then, as now, everyone knew that the citizen's education
was doing no such thing. It was perceived then -- as now --
that there was something strangely wrong with the schools. They
were failing--and failing miserably -- at delivering on these
enticing promises. Ah well, teachers weren't being paid enough,
so what could you expect? We raised teachers' salaries--again
and again and again -- and still the schools failed. Well, what
could you expect? The schools were physically decrepit, lightless,
and uninspiring. We built new one -- tens of thousands, hundreds
of thousands of them -- and still the schools failed. Well,
what could you expect? The curriculum was antiquated and irrelevant.
We modernized the curriculum, did our damnedest to make it relevant--and
still the schools failed. Every week -- then as now -- you could
read about some bright new idea that would surely "fix"
whatever was wrong with our schools: the open classroom, team
teaching, back to basics, more homework, less homework, no homework
-- I couldn't begin to enumerate them all. Hundreds of these
bright ideas were implemented -- thousands of them were implemented
-- and still the schools failed.
our cultural matrix, every medium tells us that the schools
exist to prepare children for a successful and fulfilling life
in our civilization (and are therefore failing). This is beyond
argument, beyond doubt, beyond question. In Ishmael I said that
the voice of Mother Culture speaks to us from every newspaper
and magazine article, every movie, every sermon, every book,
every parent, every teacher, every school administrator, and
what she has to say about the schools is that they exist to
prepare children for a successful and fulfilling life in our
civilization (and are therefore failing). Once we step outside
our cultural matrix, this voice no longer fills our ears and
we're free to ask some new questions. Suppose the schools aren't
failing? Suppose they're doing exactly what we really want them
to do -- but don't wish to examine and acknowledge?
that the schools do a poor job of preparing children for a successful
and fulfilling life in our civilization, but what things do
they do excellently well? Well, to begin with, they do a superb
job of keeping young people out of the job market. Instead of
becoming wage-earners at age twelve or fourteen, they remain
consumers only -- and they consume billions of dollars worth
of merchandise, using money that their parents earn. Just imagine
what would happen to our economy if overnight the high schools
closed their doors. Instead of having fifty million active consumers
out there, we would suddenly have fifty million unemployed youth.
It would be nothing short of an economic catastrophe.
course the situation was very different two hundred years ago,
when we were still a primarily agrarian society. Youngsters
were expected and needed to become workers at age ten, eleven,
and twelve. For the masses, a fourth, fifth, or sixth-grade
education was deemed perfectly adequate. But as the character
of our society changed, fewer youngsters were needed for farm
work, and the enactment of child-labour laws soon made it impossible
to put ten-, eleven-, and twelve-year-olds to work in factories.
It was necessary to keep them off the streets -- and where better
than in schools? Naturally, new material had to be inserted
into the curriculum to fill up the time. It didn't much matter
what it was. Have them memorize the capitals of every state.
Have them memorize the principle products of every state. Have
them learn the steps a bill takes in passing Congress. No one
wondered or cared if these were things kids wanted to know or
needed to know -- or would ever need to know. No one wondered
or ever troubled to find out if the material being added to
the curriculum was retained. The educators didn't want to know,
and, really, what difference would it make? It didn't matter
that, once learned, they were immediately forgotten. It filled
up some time. The law decreed that an eighth-grade education
was essential for every citizen, and so curriculum writers provided
material needed for an eighth-grade education.
the Great Depression it became urgently important to keep young
people off the job market for as long as possible, and so it
came to be understood that a twelfth-grade education was essential
for every citizen. As before, it didn't much matter what was
added to fill up the time, so long as it was marginally plausible.
Let's have them learn how to analyze a poem, even if they never
read another one in their whole adult life. Let's have them
read a great classic novel, even if they never read another
one in their whole adult life. Let's have them study world history,
even if it all just goes in one ear and out the other. Let's
have them study Euclidean geometry, even if two years later
they couldn't prove a single theorem to save their lives. All
these things and many, many more were of course justified on
the basis that they would contribute to the success and rich
fulfilment that these children would experience as adults. Except,
of course, that it didn't. But no one wanted to know about that.
No one would have dreamed of testing young people five years
after graduation to find out how much of it they'd retained.
No one would have dreamed of asking them how useful it had been
to them in realistic terms or how much it had contributed to
their success and fulfilment as humans. What would be the point
of asking them to evaluate their education? What did they know
about it, after all? They were just high-school graduates, not
the end of the Second World War, no one knew what the economic
future was going to be like. With the disappearance of the war
industries, would the country fall back into the pre-war depression
slump? The word began to go out that the citizen's education
should really include four years of college. Everyone should
go to college. As the economy continued to grow, however, this
injunction began to be softened. For years of college would
sure be good for you, but it wasn't part of the citizen's education,
which ultimately remained a twelfth-grade education.
was in the good years following the war, when there were often
more jobs than workers to fill them, that our schools began
to be perceived as failing. With ready workers in demand, it
was apparent that kids were coming out of school without knowing
much more than the sixth-grade graduates of a century ago. They'd
"gone through" all the material that had been added
to fill up the time -- analyzed poetry, diagrammed sentences,
proved theorems, solved for x, ploughed through thousands of
pages of history and literature, written bushels of themes,
but for the most part they retained almost none of it -- and
of how much use would it be to them if they had? From a business
point of view, these high-school graduates were barely employable.
of course by then the curriculum had achieved the status of
scripture, and it was too late to acknowledge that the program
had never been designed to be useful. The educators' response
to the business community was, "We just have to give the
kids more of the same -- more poems to analyze, more sentences
to diagram, more theorems to prove, more equations to solve,
more pages of history and literature to read, more themes to
write, and so on." No one was about to acknowledge that
the program had been set up to keep young people off the job
market--and that it had done a damn fine job of that at least.
keeping young people off the job market is only half of what
the schools do superbly well. By the age of thirteen or fourteen,
children in aboriginal societies -- tribal societies -- have
completed what we, from our point of view, would call their
"education." They're ready to "graduate"
and become adults. In these societies, what this means is that
their survival value is 100%. All their elders could disappear
overnight, and there wouldn't be chaos, anarchy, and famine
among these new adults. They would be able to carry on without
a hitch. None of the skills and technologies practiced by their
parents would be lost. If they wanted to, they could live quite
independently of the tribal structure in which they were reared.
the last thing we want our children to be able to do is to live
independently of our society. We don't want our graduates to
have a survival value of 100%, because this would make them
free to opt out of our carefully constructed economic system
and do whatever they please. We don't want them to do whatever
they please, we want them to have exactly two choices (assuming
they're not independently wealthy). Get a job or go to college.
Either choice is good for us, because we need a constant supply
of entry-level workers and we also need doctors, lawyers, physicists,
mathematicians, psychologists, geologists, biologists, school
teachers, and so on. The citizen's education accomplishes this
almost without fail. Ninety-nine point nine percent of our high
school graduates make one of these two choices.
it should be noted that our high-school graduates are reliably
entry-level workers. We want them to have to grab the lowest
rung on the ladder. What sense would it make to give them skills
that would make it possible for them to grab the second rung
or the third rung? Those are the rungs their older brothers
and sisters are reaching for. And if this year's graduates were
reaching for the second or third rungs, who would be doing the
work at the bottom? The business people who do the hiring constantly
complain that graduates know absolutely nothing, have virtually
no useful skills at all. But in truth how could it be otherwise?
you see that our schools are not failing, they're just succeeding
in ways we prefer not to see. Turning out graduates with no
skills, with no survival value, and with no choice but to work
or starve are not flaws of the system, they are features of
the system. These are the things the system must do to keep
things going on as they are.
need for schooling is bolstered by two well-entrenched pieces
of cultural mythology. The first and most pernicious of these
is that children will not learn unless they're compelled to
-- in school. It is part of the mythology of childhood itself
that children hate learning and will avoid it at all costs.
Of course, anyone who has had a child knows what an absurd lie
this is. From infancy onward, children are the most fantastic
learners in the world. If they grow up in a family in which
four languages are spoken, they will be speaking four languages
by the time they're three or four years old -- without a day
of schooling, just by hanging around the members of their family,
because they desperately want to be able to do the things they
do. Anyone who has had a child knows that they are tirelessly
curious. As soon as they're able to ask questions, they ask
questions incessantly, often driving their parents to distraction.
Their curiosity extends to everything they can reach, which
is why every parent soon learns to put anything breakable, anything
dangerous, anything untouchable up high -- and if possible behind
lock and key. We all know the truth of the joke about those
childproof bottle caps: those are the kind that only children
who imagine that children are resistant to learning have a nonexistent
understanding of how human culture developed in the first place.
Culture is no more and no less than the totality of learned
behaviour and information that is passed from one generation
to the next. The desire to eat is not transmitted by culture,
but knowledge about how edible foods are found, collected, and
processed is transmitted by culture. Before the invention of
writing, whatever was not passed on from one generation to the
next was simply lost, no matter what it was--a technique, a
song, a detail of history. Among aboriginal peoples -- those
we haven't destroyed -- the transmission between generations
is remarkably complete, but of course not 100% complete. There
will always be trivial details of personal history that the
older generation takes to its grave. But the vital material
is never lost.
comes about because the desire to learn is hardwired into the
human child just the way that the desire to reproduce is hardwired
into the human adult. It's genetic. If there was ever a strain
of humans whose children were not driven to learn, they're long
gone, because they could not be culture-bearers.
don't have to be motivated to learn everything they can about
the world they inhabit, they're absolutely driven to learn it.
By the onset of puberty, children in aboriginal societies have
unfailingly learned everything they need to function as adults.
of it this way. In the most general terms, the human biological
clock is set for two alarms. When the first alarm goes off,
at birth, the clock chimes learn, learn, learn, learn, learn.
When the second alarm goes off, at the onset of puberty, the
clock chimes mate, mate, mate, mate, mate. The chime that goes
learn, learn, learn never disappears entirely, but it becomes
relatively faint at the onset of puberty. At that point, children
cease to want to follow their parents around in the learning
dance. Instead, they want to follow each other around in the
of course, in our greater wisdom have decreed that the biological
clock regulated by our genes must be ignored.
sells most people on the idea of school is the fact that the
unschooled child learns what it wants to learn when it wants
to learn it. This is intolerable to them, because they're convinced
that children don't want to learn anything at all -- and they
point to school children to prove it. What they fail to recognize
is that the learning curve of preschool children swoops upward
like a mountain -- -but quickly levels off when they enter school.
By the third or fourth grade it's completely flat for most kids.
Learning, such as it is, has become a boring, painful experience
they'd love to be able to avoid if they could. But there's another
reason why people abhor the idea of children learning what they
want to learn when they want to learn it. They won't all learn
the same things! Some of them will never learn to analyze a
poem! Some of them will never learn to parse a sentence or write
a theme! Some of them will never read Julius Caesar! Some will
never learn geometry! Some will never dissect a frog! Some will
never learn how a bill passes Congress! Well, of course, this
is too horrible to imagine. It doesn't matter that 90% of these
students will never read another poem or another play by Shakespeare
in their lives. It doesn't matter that 90% of them will never
have occasion to parse another sentence or write another theme
in their lives. It doesn't matter that 90% retain no functional
knowledge of the geometry or algebra they studied. It doesn't
matter that 90% never have any use for whatever knowledge they
were supposed to gain from dissecting a frog. It doesn't matter
that 90% graduate without having the vaguest idea how a bill
passes Congress. All that matters is that they've gone through
people who are horrified by the idea of children learning what
they want to learn when they want to learn it have not accepted
the very elementary psychological fact that people (all people,
of every age) remember the things that are important to them
-- the things they need to know -- and forget the rest. I am
a living witness to this fact. I went to one of the best prep
schools in the country and graduated fourth in my class, and
I doubt very much if I could now get a passing grade in more
than two or three of the dozens of courses I took. I studied
classical Greek for two solid years, and now would be unable
to read aloud a single sentence.
final argument people advance to support the idea that children
need all the schooling we give them is that there is vastly
more material to be learned today than there was in prehistoric
times or even a century ago. Well, there is of course vastly
more material that can be learned, but we all know perfectly
well that it isn't being taught in grades K to twelve. Whole
vast new fields of knowledge exist today -- things no one even
heard of a century ago: astrophysics, biochemistry, paleobiology,
aeronautics, particle physics, ethology, cytopathology, neurophysiology
-- I could list them for hours. But are these the things that
we have jammed into the K-12 curriculum because everyone needs
to know them? Certainly not. The idea is absurd. The idea that
children need to be schooled for a long time because there is
so much that can be learned is absurd. If the citizen's education
were to be extended to include everything that can be learned,
it wouldn't run to grade twelve, it would run to grade twelve
thousand, and no one would be able to graduate in a single lifetime.
of course that there is no one in this audience who needs to
be sold on the virtues of home schooling or unschooling. I hope,
however, that I may have been able to add some philosophical,
historical, anthropological, and biological foundation for your
conviction that school ain't all it's cracked up to be.
© 2000 Daniel Quinn