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  • Writer's pictureHollis Robbins

Disliking School

Updated: Dec 15, 2021

It's expected in certain circles to speak of disliking school. I did not like school from third grade on, though the alternative, not going to school, was worse. I grew up on a lake in the woods which was nice enough but it was lonely and boring. So school, though awful, was preferable. The awfulness was a fact of life that I didn't theorize until much later. Somewhere sometime I came across Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (1970) in which he described the “Industrial Era School”:

Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed. The problem was inordinately complex. How to pre-adapt children for a new world – a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock.

The solution was an educational system that, in its very structure, simulated this new world. This system did not emerge instantly. Even today it retains throw-back elements from pre-industrial society. Yet the whole idea of assembling masses of students (raw material) to be processed by teachers (workers) in a centrally located school (factory) was a stroke of industrial genius. The whole administrative hierarchy of education, as it grew up, followed the model of industrial bureaucracy. The very organization of knowledge into permanent disciplines was grounded on industrial assumptions. Children marched from place to place and sat in assigned stations. Bells rang to announce changes of time.

The inner life of the school thus became an anticipatory mirror, a perfect introduction to industrial society. The most criticized features of education today – the regimentation, lack of individualization, the rigid systems of seating, grouping, grading and marking, the authoritarian role of the teacher – are precisely those that made mass public education so effective an instrument of adaptation for its place and time.

Okay then, Hudson Memorial School, where I spent 4th grade through 8th grade, progressively depressed and angry. I understand your roots.

And yet there were highlights. I was the first girl to enroll in shop class (industrial arts) rather than home economics. (I was harassed mercilessly there by all the boys and the teacher in ways I only now understand. But I learned to use power tools.) My 7th grade English teacher taught us Poe and spoke of her Master's thesis, which I still remember: "Verisimilitude in Poe's Ligeia." I talked my way back into the top math class after getting straight Cs the year before. My science teacher had played briefly for the Boston Patriots but got cut and took out his anger on the students. My eighth grade English teacher made fun of a girl whose last name was 'Seaman' saying she would never make it through high school. I was on the chess club and student council, which meant taking the late bus home, which didn't go near my house. This meant literally walking three miles on the road or a mile through the woods to get home. The band teacher who was a volunteer firefighter on weekends once described finding a burnt infant in its crib like handling a pot roast. So not exactly a lack of individuation but regimentation combined with no quality control.


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