Chapter 2. Compulsory Education

beyond-the-schoolhouse-ch02The day before I started my first year of teaching, I put the following quotation from George Santayana on the bulletin board in ominous black letters: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The quotation stayed up for several weeks, until I changed it to a display of historic political cartoons.

One day, a pleasant girl in one of the “tech school” sections asked me about the quotation. “I just want to train horses. Why must I study history?”

I proceeded to explain the importance of learning from the past, of analyzing events and actions that have occurred, in order to make better choices when faced with similar situations.

She persisted, “But Mr. Wachtel, what if I don’t really care about all that? I don’t even know if I want to vote. Why must you make us study it? I’ll forget it all anyhow.”

I could not answer her question. I still can’t.

Why not just teach history to those people who want to study history? Why do we force people to study anything against their will? Especially when they probably do what they want to do and not what we try to make them do. Despite all the schools’ efforts, many students graduate high school without even learning reading, writing and arithmetic.

The question persisted throughout my experience in the public schools, appearing in varied circumstances, but never so bluntly as when I went through my old test files the year after I switched from history teacher to district audiovisual coordinator. As I looked over the tests, there were several questions on each test, specific “facts” of history that I could not remember or about which I felt unsure. When was the Federal Meat Inspection Act passed? I could remember the novel The Jungle that helped bring it about. And when did the Spanish-American War end? Was it the same year, in 1898, or did it carry into the next?

If I couldn’t remember or if I felt hesitant, why was it so important that kids learn it? After all, I was the specialist. Perhaps the problem was the kind of test. I tried many things that year in my search for truth, from multiple choice to essay, graded to pass-fail, lecture and textbook to simulation game and field trip.

Whichever subject content or teaching method or evaluation tool I chose, I still faced the same dilemma: I could not get kids who didn’t want to learn something to learn it. And if I forced them with bad grades and other coercive means, would the negative attitude fostered be worth the little information they would regurgitate on a test and then forget?

But I persisted. Perhaps I could find a way to make kids like history. Because my history students were members of the television generation, I used films. When I couldn’t get the films I wanted, I made my own slide productions with contemporary music in the soundtrack. As audiovisual coordinator, I instigated a new social studies course with several colleagues, and obtained federal funding for large quantities of audiovisual materials, individual projectors and cassette-filmstrip players.

Over several years, the course experimented with a variety of techniques, activities and grading systems. Although these efforts seemed to improve interest over traditional methods, most students were still motivated only to the extent that they were required. I had difficulty determining what really worked and what did not.

Not until I stumbled upon James Herndon’s book How to Survive in Your Native Land (1971) did I finally realize the fallacy of coercion:

“As long as you can threaten people, you can’t tell whether or not they really want to do what you are proposing that they do. You can’t tell if they are inspired by it, you can’t tell if they earn anything from it, you can’t tell if they would keep on doing it if you weren’t threatening them. You cannot tell.”

I know very few teachers who would agree with an end to compulsory education, and I suspect that most see such a proposal as a threat to their jobs. But I also know that every teacher who ever taught would be delighted to enter a classroom filled with interest and motivation rather than indifference and resistance. The only way that will ever happen is by changing the laws that require children to attend school.

Until then, we will find the schools trying to deal with many students who resent being led to water and cannot be made to drink.

Next chapter: A Century of Coercion

© 1977 Ted Wachtel