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Time to crack down on those no-good kids

By Michael J. Smith on Monday September 27, 2010 12:27 PM

This just in:

Sorry kids, President Obama wants to extend the school year by a month.

Students in China, India and other fast-growing countries are already leaving U.S. students in the dust, he said.

"They have caught up and now in some cases have surpassed us," he said.

Now I don't pretend to know the real reason for this brutal attempt to expropriate what little liberty and leisure kids have left -- apart from the general institutional impulse toward aggrandizement, hypertrophy, and metastasis.

(Ivan Illich forty years ago noticed "the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes". Personally, I like to use the English translation of 'pedagogue', namely 'boy-herder'. Perhaps we should coin 'childherd' for the sake of gender neutrality, on the analogy of 'shepherd', and pronounce to rhyme with 'filtered'.)

What is clear is that the claimed purpose of this sadistic initiative -- "competition" with peonage economies like India and China -- is incoherent. Taken seriously, it means that the "race to the top" is really a race to the bottom. The "competition" is a struggle to discover who can take his hide to market most cheaply, and the prize, of course -- to borrow a trope from the Old Man -- is a hiding.

The ideological triumph of the childherd does, alas, appear to be nearly complete. The same Daily News story quoted above ran a poll:

Should U.S. schools extend the school year by a month?
  • Yes, it will help American students compete with their Chinese and other counterparts.
  • No, the kids need a break and it could turn them off to learning.
  • It depends on what exactly they'd be doing for that month.
Note the claustrophobically buttoned-up -- or rather, locked-down -- universe of discourse here. Even opposition to expanding the school year must be expressed in instrumental terms, and moreover, in terms of facilitating the childherd's ostensible mission. No other considerations can be admitted.

Speaking of Ivan Illich, everybody ought to read "Deschooling Society," which can be had online. Sample:

School, by its very nature, tends to make a total claim on the time and energies of its participants. This, in turn, makes the teacher into custodian, preacher, and therapist.

In each of these three roles the teacher bases his authority on a different claim. The teacher-as-custodian acts as a master of ceremonies, who guides his pupils through a drawn-out labyrinthine ritual. He arbitrates the observance of rules and administers the intricate rubrics of initiation to life. At his best, he sets the stage for the acquisition of some skill as schoolmasters always have. Without illusions of producing any profound learning, he drills his pupils in some basic routines.

The teacher-as-moralist substitutes for parents, God, or the state. He indoctrinates the pupil about what is right or wrong, not only in school but also in society at large. He stands in loco parentis for each one and thus ensures that all feel themselves children of the same state.

The teacher-as-therapist feels authorized to delve into the personal life of his pupil in order to help him grow as a person. When this function is exercised by a custodian and preacher, it usually means that he persuades the pupil to submit to a domestication of his vision of truth and his sense of what is right.

The claim that a liberal society can be founded on the modern school is paradoxical. The safeguards of individual freedom are all canceled in the dealings of a teacher with his pupil. When the schoolteacher fuses in his person the functions of judge, ideologue, and doctor, the fundamental style of society is perverted by the very process which should prepare for life. A teacher who combines these three powers contributes to the warping of the child much more than the laws which establish his legal or economic minority, or restrict his right to free assembly or abode.

... Children are protected by neither the First nor the Fifth Amendment when they stand before that secular priest, the teacher. The child must confront a man who wears an invisible triple crown, like the papal tiara.... The teacher.... combines the claims of medieval popes in a society constituted under the guarantee that these claims shall never be exercised together by one established and obligatory institution --church or state....

Under the authoritative eye of the teacher, several orders of value collapse into one. The distinctions between morality, legal. ity, and personal worth are blurred and eventually eliminated. Each transgression is made to be felt as a multiple offense. The offender is expected to feel that he has broken a rule, that he has behaved immorally, and that he has let himself down. A pupil who adroitly obtains assistance on an exam is told that he is an outlaw, morally corrupt, and personally worthless.

Comments (20)

Top form. May I spread "childherd" far and wide?


You like it? It's yours!


so glad to hear he understands this job loss is cyclical


No, the kids need a break and it could turn them off to learning.

A sad recognition of what really goes on most of the time in school. Being 'turned off to learning' is actually a near oxymoronic proposition for homo sapiens.


Just read this page from 1984 today:

"Nearly all children nowadays were horrible. What was worst of all was that by means of such organizations as the Spies they were systematically turned into ungovernable little savages, and yet this produced in them no tendency whatever to rebel against the discipline of the Party. On the contrary, they adored the Party and everything connected with it. The songs, the processions, the banners, the hiking, the drilling with dummy rifles, the yelling of slogans, the worship of Big Brother -- it was all a sort of glorious game to them. All their ferocity was turned outwards, against the enemies of the State, against foreigners, traitors, saboteurs, thought-criminals. It was almost normal for people over thirty to be frightened of their own children. And with good reason, for hardly a week passed in which The Times did not carry a paragraph describing how some eavesdropping little sneak -- 'child hero' was the phrase generally used -- had overheard some compromising remark and denounced its parents to the Thought Police."

Brian M:

Now you guys are back on form! No snide remarks about spandex here! (LOL). Bravo.

My sister, bless her soul, has decided she wants to go back to school. I can't even imagine sitting in some poorly air conditioned lecture hall and listening to somehow pontificate. I'll get my pontifications on the Intertubes, by jove!

Of course, the "proposal" is zero percent serious. It is merely merit-speak for "the poor are lazy," and perhaps a stab at distracting the teachers' unions from the absolute reaming they are taking under Obummer. Shit, man, they're slashing a month down here on the ground.

As for Illich, I consider this to be by far his most questionable stuff.

IMHO, not only is this a huge insult to the legions of fucking heroic teachers that are out there, but questioning the lack of separation of powers in school is a topic for next century, assuming we make it there. Under present conditions, we lefties ought to be asking for free schooling for everybody, and more of it.

Not that Zero's "proposal" isn't sick and wrong, as well as cynical. The first order of business in this society is nationalizing, equalizing, and modernizing what schools we already have, not heaping more burden upon them.


I'm not entirely unsympathetic to MD's way of viewing the question. But for the sake of the children, I kinda wish the hero teachers would find another line of work. Firefighting, perhaps. Something where "success" is a less ambiguous thing.

Re Mr Dawson's comment @ 6:29, and the notion of "heroic" pub sch teachers, I think there are two levels of serious appraisal on the question of such pub sch teachers' alleged heroism:

1) their commitment to a tough job

2) their actual ability to teach effectively

I'd ask they meet both, but I think a lot get the "heroic" tag just for meeting (1). No doubt it takes some skills to keep a group of 15 or more middle-school-aged kids focused enough to learn effectively. But they ARE there to teach, aren't they? 'Cause if they're not, let's stick with just (1), call them heroes, but rename them what they are: BABYSITTERS.


The most galling thing to me is the way the poll's perspective assumes that the children's time belongs to the government's "education" wing -- even in the summer. Note the legitimacy of taking longer to do less is not even questioned.

The assumption is more hours in lockup = more learning happening.

The problem from my experience is that the hours spent in lockup aren't being used for education, they're being used for BABYSITTING of various types.

Maybe if they actually started teaching something, they'd find they need fewer months.

But then people might actually start seeing how this has been an inculcation racket, and we can't have that!


pronunciation guide: The childherd was bewildered.


Thanks, Boink. I was groping, and groped in vain. "Bewildered" is exactly right.


Being 'turned off to learning' is actually a near oxymoronic proposition for homo sapiens.

Well said, Lunch. You have to beat curiosity out of kids.

And I'm not unsympathetic to the deschooling argument, though I would say that, for somebody who's so dead-on when it comes to machine technology, Illich comes off of rather foolishly one-sided in much of what he says about teaching. Do we really want asking for help or looking in an answer key to be the default reaction of our children or our adults? Is testing always and everywhere a form of arbitrary torture? Are spelling and the times tables mere ideology, a way of dousing the human flame?

If I were stating the present-day school desiderata, they wouldn't look very Illichian:

1. Expand public school provision down to age zero, creating free but non-compulsory public daycare and preschool for everybody.
1. End the mandatory use of state-filtered textbooks in history and social science, leaving adoption up to individual teachers/expand book and materials budgets.
2. Double both entry-level teacher pay and the absolute number of teachers.
3. Nationalize, equalize, and increase school funding, removing all state and local tax sourcing.
4. Slash administration, running districts and schools with locally elected parent/union-elected teacher boards.
5. Halve the size/double the number of high schools, and start the HS day at a time compatible with teenage sleep needs/challenge the power of sports-first parents and coaches (and capitalists).
6. Reconstruct school facilities, starting at the poorest end of the scale.


MD -- Would you consider eliminating homework and grading (apart from pass/fail, where 'pass' indicates modest basic competence)?

I would tinker extensively with the curriculum. Core subjects taught more socratically. Absolutely no TVs, video games or other entertainment-styled crap.

I think I'd ban the use of the word "educator," too.

The present fascination with making school like a mini-corporate job, with "agendas" that students have to keep -- ensuring they are forever enslaved to The Business Calendar approach to life, indirectly fostering worship of The Bottom Line and the Supremacy of the Employer (Teacher) -- this too would be abolished.

No cell phones in the school.

No electronic devices of a personal entertainment sort.

Students would be encouraged to find what they enjoy learning, and to focus on that field. They can round out their education starting in 9th grade.

"Employability" should not be a criterion for what the school does for its students. Rather, optimizing each student's ability to find a practical application for his or her interests, that should be the goal. "Practical application" doesn't have to mean well-paying job, and I would suggest it should not consider that end.

The bloated present form of public education is bullshit, like a zit that needs to be popped.

Brian M:

More semi-religious moralizing here, Mr. Oxtrot. Entertainment is "crap" which must be stomped out so that the students can spend their time doing what? Composing operas like "Paens to the Tractor Drivers and Heroic Steelworkers" or "A Celebration of the Indigenous Peoples' Movements"? Heck...to be realistic, in the post-oil, post industrial world, students should be trained to fight with swords.

I would also note that YOUR schools sure have a lot of hard and fast rules...which must be ENFORCED (the language is quite firm, I would note) by whom? (since we are banning the word "educator")...Collaborative Brother Educational Assistants? Student Team Leaders? Somehow, that does not make me feel real warm and fuzzy.

"Students would be encouraged to find what they enjoy learning, and to focus on that field. They can round out their education starting in 9th grade."

What if they enjoy playing...(and maybe eventually designing) video games? I know that is not "appropriate" in the pure new society, but your school does not allow much room for this.

"Rather, optimizing each student's ability to find a practical application for his or her interests, that should be the goal. "

What does this really even mean? it sounds pretty generic and feel good to me. Heck, I would venture that every single college catalog and private high school in the country somewhere claims that this is their goal. "Employability" may be something we can sneer at, but in a world where health care, future education, credit availability, etc. etc. etc. are tied to "jobs," it's kind of hard to be snobbish abo0ut students' interest in the subject. I know there are alternative communities and cooperatives and the like. But still...

MJS: Sure! One of my own mentors helped set up the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and they had no grades. At the end of the course, you got a written letter of feedback from the teacher. And the whole homework thing has really exploded as the middle class has scrambled to use private college as a prophylactic against the heightening risk of socio-economic falling. It definitely needs reigning-in. I think the occasional after-hours project is fine, but these days, if you don't live and breathe school, they leave you behind.

Oxy: I like the idea of having majors in HS. And amen to the ban on "educator."


What is called entertainment is not exactly crap. In its sit-watch-and- listen form it is indoctrination, the most effective way in which the dire status quo distribution of power and the grim nationalist agenda are reproduced as "second nature" in the mental life of the rising generation.

Ban it, if classroom discussion doesn't interrogate it. (Who can be trusted to lead the questioning?)

Let the young use their leisure hours to watch the History Channel, etc., if they choose to.

Good viewing with interrogation after would be "Industry on Parade" reruns from the 1950's. With interrogation this could provide a great deal of inoculating education.


They could start with:


What happened to the factories?

Brian, that was a good try at trolling with bullshit mis-reads of my post! Lucky though, for you -- Digby's calling, she needs a new ghost-writer!

You scarecrow-slayers are impressive!

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