Spray paint on a brick wall saying “Don’t be another brick in the wall” Creative Commons License Wikimedia

Education is the American Compliance Engine

We built what we have on purpose. We can build something better.

steve wright
Age of Awareness
Published in
9 min readFeb 13, 2022

In The “Great” Experiment I wrote about how America has used brutal oppression and propaganda to restrain social mobility and reward compliance. In this post I am looking at how the institution of American education is designed to reward compliance. In subsequent posts I will write about how we can do something different.

Carter is a citizen of the micro-world that is our High School: 2000 students and 200 teachers and staff. Carter has figured out the game. I have always placed a tremendous amount of value on a student’s ability to ask for help because I think of it as a necessary vulnerability all humans need to exist fully in the world. Carter is very good at asking for help. In fact, he has been trained not to listen when the noise is coming out of my face and not to read directions because he can get a far greater return on his investment if he engages me to get the answers. In general, I’m eager to give my students answers because I want their engagement to be rewarded so that they will continue to engage. Unfortunately, if I am not infinitely artful with the answers that I give, students learn only that it is profitable to get the answers from the teacher.

This is a problem of my pedagogy. It is also a problem of a system that values facts and compliance over problem solving and agency. When a student overcomes obstacles to create momentum in their life we seem to ignore the fact that we, the education system, are more obstacle than catalyst. We reward compliance which creates¹ dependence² instead of helping students to liberate themselves from the limit situations³ that hold them back. Like all of the forbidden fruits of American mythology, we hold liberation as an undefinable, rare and fragile thing. We know the names⁴ of the handful of students that have, against all odds, become agents in their own lives; that have blossomed miraculously like a flower growing through a crack in the concrete. And we, educators, mostly understand ourselves to be the gardeners tending the miniscule plot of impossibly fertile soil surrounded by a world of impenetrable concrete.

Flower growing in the concrete royalty free pixabay

We tell ourselves that we build and maintain public schools so that all Americans, through hard work and perseverance, can achieve their goals. But this is propaganda. The intended output of American education (and public education⁷ in general⁸) has always been the maintenance of racial and economic classes. If you are inclined to disagree I am sure you have several stories at the ready of children who, against all odds, have made it to become successful adults. However, it makes no sense to understand these stories as successes of the American education system. When a poor child or a Black child blossoms it is because of their brilliance and luck. These children overcame the system’s design. They succeeded in spite of the system. Their success is an indictment of the system. The system did not intend for them to succeed.

Learning is ordinary, unavoidable. We can’t stop learning any more than we can stop breathing. Every experience — no matter how small, no matter how trivial — every experience changes us. This is what learning is: the impact of experience. So, when a student is told to be quiet and listen, to do the pile of assignments, to memorize that 7x6=42, they are learning. They are learning to comply (or not to comply). It doesn’t take a red pill to realize that the fundamental goal of education in America is compliance; compliance to the instructions in the classroom as practice for compliance in life. If we want students to become agents in their own lives we must move to a problem posing pedagogy and away from the banking model where education is understood as deposits of information into a students brain.⁵

I recently realized that I am complicit not only in spreading the infectious lie that liberation is only attainable by the most gifted and the most compliant of students but I am also contributing to the maintenance of the massive slab of concrete that makes liberation impossible for most of our students. We need to take a huge step back. Not a step backward like the horrifically misguided and explicitly racist book banning and curriculum censorship happening around the country, but a step back to see the whole context, to gain a better perspective on what schools are and what we could do with them to help our students, and our world, transcend.

This year I am working with a colleague to implement mastery based learning. It has been difficult. There are some tactics that are reasonably easy to apply — how I manage assignments and how I enter and weight grades in my gradebook — the more fundamental challenge has been to replace the assumption of compliance with the assumption of mastery. My current working definition for mastery is the ability to apply a concept in a novel environment. While memorizing multiplication tables has utility it has very little connection to mastering arithmetic. For students to make the switch from compliance to mastery there must be an effective incentive structure. For this reason, changing how student work is graded was how I started this process. Unfortunately, grades are the extrinsic motivation for compliance and are far less effective at motivating the iterative process of mastery which, I have come to believe, requires significant intrinsic motivation which manifests as a desire to learn what is being taught. I now understand this is a good problem to have. Learning is ordinary. My job is to design a learning environment where learning is liberatory.⁶

  1. “It is a great mistake to suppose, even tacitly, that the traditional schoolroom was not a place in which pupils had experiences. Yet this is tacitly assumed when progressive education as a plan of learning by experience is placed in sharp opposition to the old. The proper line of attack is that the experiences, which were had, by pupils and teachers alike, were largely of a wrong kind. How many students, for example, were rendered callous to ideas, and how many lost the impetus to learn because of the Way in which learning was experienced by them? How many acquired special skills by means of automatic drill so that their power of judgment and capacity to act intelligently in new situations was limited? How many came to associate the learning process with ennui and boredom? How many found what they did learn so foreign to the situations of life outside the school as to give them no power of control over the latter? How many came to associate books with dull drudgery, so that they were “conditioned” to all but flashy reading matter?” — Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.
  2. “One of the goals of education is not simply to fill students with facts and information but to help them learn how to learn. Classroom studies document the fact that underserved English learners, poor students, and students of color routinely receive less instruction in higher order skills development than other students. Their curriculum is less challenging and more repetitive. Their instruction is more focused on skills low on Bloom’s taxonomy. This type of instruction denies students the opportunity to engage in what neuroscientists call productive struggle that actually grows our brainpower. As a result, a disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse students are dependent learners.” — Hammond, p. 12 Hammond, Z. L. 2015. Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Corwin Press.
  3. “In the last analysis, the themes both contain and are contained in limit-situations; the tasks they imply require limit-acts. When the themes are concealed by the limit-situations and thus are not clearly perceived, the corresponding tasks — people’s responses in the form of historical action — can be neither authentically nor critically fulfilled. In this situation, humans are unable to transcend the limit-situations to discover that beyond these situations — and in contradiction to them — lies an untested feasibility.” — ch 3 p. 102, Freire, Paulo, 1921–1997. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York :Continuum, 2000.
  4. “I was in the sixth grade in 2014 when a high school senior named Akintunde Ahmad appeared on “The Ellen Show” and announced that he had committed to attend Yale University. After graduating from Oakland Technical High with a 5.0 grade-point average and receiving acceptances to a number of top universities, he had become a bit of a hometown hero, featured in articles that upheld him as an “inner city” success story. Five years later, Mr. Ahmad offered his perspective on the fanfare that had surrounded him as a teenager: “My story is told as though it is a positive one, inspirational,” he wrote in The Atlantic. “But I see it as a grim one, the tale of a harsh reality that wrecks people. There is nothing positive about classifying me as an exception. When a person is exceptional for doing what I have done, the whole system is cruel to its core.”” — Samuel Getachew, New York Times 2021, Mr. Getachew graduated in 2020 from Oakland Technical High School in California. He is the 2019 Oakland youth poet laureate. New York Times June 2021
  5. “Those truly committed to liberation must reject the banking concept in its entirety, adopting instead a concept of women and men as conscious beings, and consciousness as consciousness intent upon the world. They must abandon the educational goal of deposit-making and replace it with the posing of the problems of human beings in their relations with the world. “Problem-posing” education, responding to the essence of consciousness intentionality rejects communiques and embodies communication. It epitomizes the special characteristic of consciousness: being conscious of, not only as intent on objects but as turned in upon itself in a Jasperian “split” — consciousness as consciousness of consciousness.” -Freire, Paulo, ch 2, 1921–1997. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York :Continuum, 2000.
  6. “It is not enough to insist upon the necessity of experience, nor even of activity in experience. Everything depends upon the quality of the experience, which is had. The quality of any experience has two aspects. There is an immediate aspect of agreeableness or disagreeableness, and there is its influence upon later experiences. The first is obvious and easy to judge. The effect of an experience is not borne on its face. It sets a problem to the educator. It is his business to arrange for the kind of experiences which, while they do not repel the student, but rather engage his activities are, nevertheless, more than immediately enjoyable since they promote having desirable future experiences Just as no man lives or dies to himself, so no experience lives and dies to itself. Wholly independent of desire or intent every experience lives on in further experiences. Hence the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences.” — Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.
  7. “Because primary education is often conceptualized as a pro-poor redistributive policy, a common argument is that democratization increases its provision. But primary education can also serve the goals of autocrats, including redistribution, promoting loyalty, nation-building, and/or industrialization. To examine the relationship between democratization and education provision empirically, I leverage new datasets covering 109 countries and 200 years. Difference-in-differences and interrupted time series estimates find that, on average, democratization had no or little impact on primary school enrollment rates. When unpacking this average null result, I find that, consistent with median voter theories, democratization can lead to an expansion of primary schooling, but the key condition under which it does — when a majority lacked access to primary schooling before democratization — rarely holds. Around the world, state-controlled primary schooling emerged a century before democratization, and in three-fourths of countries that democratized, a majority already had access to primary education before democratization.” — AGUSTINA S. PAGLAYAN University of California,SanDiego, Sept, 2020
  8. “Why do modern states regulate and provide mass education? This article proposes a theory of education as a state-building tool that is deployed when mass violence threatens the state’s viability. Experiencing mass violence can heighten national elites’ anxiety about the masses’ moral character and raise concerns about the efficacy of repression or concessions alone to maintain social order. In this context, a mass education system designed to teach obedience can become an attractive policy tool to prevent future rebellion and promote long-term order. Consistent with the theory, I detect a cross national pattern of primary education expansion following civil wars in Europe and Latin America. In a complementary study of the 1859 Chilean civil war, I show that the central government responded by expanding primary schooling in rebel provinces not as a concession but to teach obedience and respect for authority. The theory helps explain why non-democracies often expanded mass education.” — Agustina S. Paglayan, 2021



steve wright
Age of Awareness

The protocols of neighborliness are in contestation with the protocols of purity and the most important question we can ask ourselves is “Who is my neighbor?”