“Learning is the process of acquiring new, or modifying existing, knowledge, behaviors, skills, values, or preferences.” (Wikipedia definition)
We are always learning. There is never a time when we are not learning. But what are we learning? What is the aim of our learning?
I believe there are two general aims or general directions that our learning can take:
- We can acquire new, or modify existing, knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, and preferences to become more independent and autonomous. To create a better life for ourselves, to personally develop, to become more capable and open ourselves up to take on new possibilities and responsibilities.
- We can acquire new, or modify existing, knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, and preferences to become better at conforming ourselves to other people (fitting in with family and society) and as an attempt to stabilise relationships based on dependency.
John Taylor Gatto echoed similar sentiments when he said:
“You either learn your way towards writing your own script in life, or you unwittingly become an actor in someone else’s script.”
Anyone who knows anything about my work will know that I am very much for people writing their own script in life rather than become an actor in someone else’s script. So is conformity and attempts to stabilise dependency ever a valid option?
The Value Of Conformity, Obedience And Dependency
Well, in a sense… Yes. We must really come to terms with the fact that when we come into this world we arrive as dependent beings. We cannot survive on our own. That’s just a fact, and there’s nothing we can do about it. When our survival is at stake, we cannot afford to be independent and autonomous. Becoming an actor in someone else’s script is a survival mechanism. And we can see this in particular with children who normalise family or societal abuse.
For example, one of the most common phrases I hear in discussions on spanking is the phrase, “Children should be spanked because I was spanked as a kid, and I turned out fine. Also, it taught me to respect authority.”
My response is, “I’m not sure you did turn out ‘fine’.” They turned out believing that it was okay to bully and hit someone smaller and weaker just to get their own way. All that happened in this situation was that the person had normalised their belief as a child. And now, as an adult, it has remained unchallenged.
I’m also not sure what is good about being obedient to anyone claiming to be an authority, as that is what ‘respect authority’ usually amounts to. As I stated earlier, obedience and conformity to authority is a survival tactic. I fully understand why a child would employ a normalisation of this when they are young. But it is not an attitude that a person should take with them into adulthood.
The mark of adulthood is independence and taking responsibility for one’s own life. However, our education system, many families and society as a whole continue to seek our indoctrination in the attitudes of obedience, conformity, and dependence as long as they can. This is done in order to keep these attitudes within us as long as possible even when we leave the fold of the home and the education system.
The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher
When John Taylor Gatto became the New York State Teacher of the Year in 1991, he gave a speech titled “The Seven-Lesson Schoolteacher”. In it, he confronted the fact that officially he was teaching a particular curriculum which was assumed his students were learning, yet unofficially the majority of the lessons that his students actually learnt was based on an entirely different curriculum. Yes, his students were learning, as we always are. But what they were learning was a hidden curriculum.
In Gatto’s speech, he starts by saying, “The license I have certifies that I am an instructor of English language and English literature, but that isn’t what I do at all. I don’t teach English; I teach school — and I win awards doing it.” As he is about to launch into the seven lessons, Gatto notes; “These are the things I teach, these are the things you pay me to teach. Make of them what you will:”
These are the seven lessons that Gatto has identified. I give a quick summary of each:
- Confusion: Everything is taught out of context and therefore, we never fully experience how things relate to each other. A great many subjects are taught at an abstract and superficial level without ever experiencing a subject in-depth.
- Class Position: Children are numbered and categorised in as many ways as can be possible. You are encouraged to compare yourself constantly to people your own age and to fear the ‘better’ classes and have contempt for the ‘dumb’ classes.
- Indifference: The constant demand to turn your engagement in a lesson on and off like a light switch means that children learn to not care too much about anything. The lesson of school bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?
- Emotional Dependency: By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honours, and disgraces children are taught to surrender their will and become dependent on the favour of authority to regulate their emotions.
- Intellectual Dependency: Children learn that a good student waits for a teacher to tell them what to do. That only an expert must make the important choices about what to study. That you do the thinking assigned with minimal resistance and that your own curiosity is of little value.
- Provisional Self-esteem: Children are regularly evaluated and judged, and so they learn that their self-respect should depend on an expert’s opinion. The message is that people need to be told what they are worth rather than trusting themselves.
- One Can’t Hide: Children are constantly watched with minimal private time. Children are encouraged to “tell on” or tattle on each other. Even at home, parents are encouraged to watch their children, making sure that they do their homework. The fear is that otherwise, children might use their free time to learn something unauthorised.
More lessons could be added to this list. One of the biggest of these is, of course, obedience. Obedience has been a central aim of schooling. While schooling in various forms can be traced back over millennia in history, our modern form of compulsory education can be traced back to the 18th-century schooling movements in Prussia and Austria.
The Centrality Of Obedience Training In Schooling
One of the most influential school reformers of this time in Prussia was Hermann Francke who stated,
“The formation of the child’s character involves the will as well as the understanding… Above all, it is necessary to break the natural willfulness of the child. While the schoolmaster who seeks to make the child more learned is to be commended for cultivating the child’s understanding, he has not done enough. He has forgotten his most important task, namely that of making the will obedient.”
In 18th-century Austria, the most influential reformer was Johann Felbiger. While Felbiger recognised the ineffectiveness of using physical punishments to bring about obedience, obedience was still a central aim of schooling. Felbiger preferred indoctrination and emotional manipulation to achieve his aims. He writes,
“Despotic methods will not induce pupils to obey. They must be convinced that it is useful and correct to follow the schoolmaster’s wishes. Only then will they learn to obey even in situations where force is absent. In this way, the schoolmaster accomplishes his most important tasks: his pupils will observe their duties not only in school, but throughout their lives.”
Once again, blind obedience may have some benefits in a situation of survival, but it is not an attitude that should be fostered long-term. All it does is prolong the time a person lives in a state of dependence and merely makes them more open to manipulation and control.
The Inability To Conform To School Is Pathologised
One further way we can see the emphasises on learning obedience, conformity and dependence is the way that independence and autonomy are pathologised in our schools. Many ‘pathologies’ and ‘disorders’ are simply adaptations that children learn to take on in order to survive in the school environment.
In the USA, around 10% of children are diagnosed with ADHD. Children are regularly drugged so that they become manageable within the school environment. However, psychologist and researcher Peter Gray found in his study of homeschooled students that;
- ADHD-diagnosed kids can do fine without drugs if they are not in a conventional school.
- The ADHD characteristics don’t vanish when the kids leave conventional school, but the characteristics are no longer as big a problem as they were before.
- ADHD-diagnosed kids seem to do especially well when they are allowed to take charge of their own education.
Other diagnoses such as selective mutism are often also an adaptation to the school environment. One account of this is the story of Tracy Ventola and her daughter. When Tracy’s daughter started school, she became progressively quieter until she stopped talking altogether. Eventually, Tracy pulled her daughter out of school and started unschooling. The results were dramatic. Her daughter grew into a contented and vibrant girl whose growing passions are theatre and comedy. These passions have grown to the point where her daughter now regularly performs to large public audiences.
Learning Your Way Forward
So, we are always learning, and we have always learnt. Many lessons that we have learnt, we didn’t even realise we were learning them. Some of them helped us to grow and develop, to become independent. Other times we have learnt things that allowed us to cope and adapt to our environment with the capabilities that we had at the time.
Now as adults we must be willing to question and examine our childhood beliefs. We must be ready to leave some of them behind if we are to go onto a path of personal growth and maturity. What kept us ‘safe’ in the past may not be the best for us now. Our capabilities have changed, and the feeling that we need to adapt and conform may not be as necessary as we may at first think. Not only that, but we may come to recognise that we have the ability to remove ourselves from environments and situations that have kept us in a dependent and obedient state.
So, is it time to enact greater freedom and autonomy in your life? Is it time to learn your way towards writing your own script in life?