Chapter 1. Skating Away

beyond-the-schoolhouse-ch01The Arizona highway seemed an endless blur, edged by desert sand, and topped with a starry night sky. Sue, Josh and Benjie slept behind me in the van, while my thoughts flew back to Pennsylvania.

Angry thoughts. Confused thoughts. Replaying the events that led to my resignation from the public schools and to our present journey.

Some of the events were books. Books that jarred my consciousness and pushed my head in new directions. Books like Deschooling Society (1971), which advanced the idea that schools should be abolished, that they have dehumanized learning and removed it from the flow of life.

“School appropriates the money, men and good will available for education and in addition discourages other institutions from assuming educational tasks. Work, leisure, politics, city living and even family life depend on schools for the habits and knowledge they presuppose, instead of becoming themselves the means of knowledge.”

I read Ivan Illich’s book while pursuing my doctorate in educational media, and began to doubt my own purposes. Said Illich, “In the United States the per capita costs of schooling have risen almost as fast as the cost of medical treatment. But increased treatment by both doctors and teachers has shown steadily declining results.”

George Gallup, the famous pollster, disagreed. “Education is still regarded as the royal road to success in life,” he said in an address to a group of educators in 1975. “The most convincing proof of America’s support for the schools, however, is to be found in the public’s readiness to levy heavy taxes on themselves to maintain and to improve their schools.”

I wish Mr. Gallup had been with me in the spring of 1976, as I faced an audience of angry taxpayers and explained the library and audiovisual budgets for the upcoming school year. In communities throughout the nation, taxpayers have been voting down bond issues and budgets, holding mass rallies against higher school taxes, and in some cases have shut down their local schools by cutting off funds.

These tax revolts do not demand an end to schools as Ivan Illich suggests, but call for schools as “they used to be.” More discipline, less permissiveness, cut out the frills, hold the line on spending, get back to basics. Citizens seem to be reacting to the events of recent decades, which brought consolidation, integration, federal funding, new math, open classrooms, student rights and teacher strikes. Bewildered by changing values, shocking violence, rising costs and declining academic standards, much of middle America wants to return to the educational situation of yesteryear, and questions the prevailing assumptions of the school establishment: that more money and new techniques mean better education. In fact, many feel quite the opposite; that schools are providing less for more money.

A coyote at the edge of the road brought me back to Arizona, and I noticed the sky brightening behind me. Well, I was no longer with the public schools. Having found myself among those who question the effectiveness of schools, I resigned and with my family, sold our home and headed for California. Before we left, I jokingly consulted the I Ching, an ancient Chinese fortune-telling book, and was surprised by its specific response. “We see dense clouds but no rain coming from our borders in the West.” With the California border ahead, I popped a Jethro Tull tape in our portable player, slipped on the earphones and settled back into my thoughts about schools.

My fellow educators—whose salary increases of the last decade bear the brunt of the taxpayer’s wrath—defend their gains as long overdue and blame parental permissiveness, too much television, lack of respect for authority, inflation, reduced federal funding, court interference and other external factors for the problems the schools are facing.

Through the 1960s, the debate about “what’s wrong with schools” centered around reforms within the public schools, and attempts to develop alternative and free schools. Public school reform has dwindled with reduced federal funding, and the alternative school movement has quieted, also. Only private schools have benefited from the public schools’ woes, as many disenchanted parents have decided to buy their children’s education.

The problem, as I see it, is that we have come to confuse learning with schooling. We think that the only way people can be educated is by attending school. Learning is measured by the number of years spent in schools and the number of diplomas collected. Informal learning, acquired through direct experience, is regarded as inferior to school learning. The modern world—whose money is the measure of all things—rewards those with diplomas more generously than those without, and spends a large amount of its income on schools.

We are coming upon a new day. We must reexamine our most cherished institutions and determine whether they really meet our needs. If they do not, we must have the courage and the will to respond differently. If schools no longer serve us well, then we must look beyond the schools.

I heard my family stirring awake as the sun rose in the rearview mirror. We crossed into California, and I pulled out the earphones on the tape player. The music of Jethro Tull filled the van:

One day you’ll wake up in the present day

A million generations removed from expectations

Of being who you really want to be.

Skating away, skating away

Skating away on the thin ice of a new day.

Next chapter: Compulsory Education

© 1977 Ted Wachtel