SCHOOL IS FOR NANCY
—but what about all those other kids?
Nancy is what we’ve thought a student should be. She’s uncritical, hard-working, obedient, admirably “normal.” Our school system was created for her — and only her.
All others are forced to conform, or be lastingly scarred by failure. Here is the first in a series of reports on our classroom crisis — and what we can do about it
THE NEWEST DEVELOPMENT in education in Canada—and the most promising—is the belated recognition that the nation’s schools are wrong, and even destructive, for more than 80 percent of the five million children in them.
In the opinion of a growing number of educators, today’s schools fail to educate; their principal effect is to stun.
One fault is the curriculum, which is full of obsolete or incorrect or useless information, wildly irrelevant to the lives most students will lead after they leave school. During their durance in the school system, Canadian children learn nothing to prepare them for responsible citizenship, or to raise a family, or to understand the emotional needs of themselves and others. Their intelligence is insulted by the emphasis on memorization and the discouragement of improvisation. Though sexual apprehension is paramount in their pubescent years, students are given the impression in schools that gender applies only to French nouns. They learn nothing of the country’s laws, never see justice being administered in a courtroom.
Instead, the course of studies is crammed with the stately debris of a classical education designed for patricians in the Victorian era, together with a hasty hodgepodge of maths and sciences alleged to suit the age of cybernetics. Few parents question the content of these courses, but isolated complaints are heard. Dr. William F. Graydon, chairman of the Board of Education in Etobicoke, a Toronto suburb, and also associate dean of the faculty of engineering at the University of Toronto, is distressed by the new souped-up grade-13 physics course in Ontario high schools. It is suited, he says, “only to a few mathematicians and physicists in high places.” This year, 14,000 students are taking that course.
Not surprisingly, this loony hybrid is so wondrously forgettable that few students retain more than a fragment of it. No teacher dares to spring a surprise examination that will count on the final report; instead, there is plenty of warning, a review period studded with broad hints as to the questions that will be asked, and several practice exam sessions.
Students are bored and pay as little attention in class as is consistent with the need to pass. They day-dream, write notes to one another, doodle, whisper, conduct conversations in sign language, con-
sider plans for romantic conquests. One authority in the United States, James Coleman, addressed himself to the task of determining how much time students actually concentrated on their lessons. He concluded that the average adolescent is really in school, academically speaking, for about 10 minutes a day.
But the method of teaching is the most damaging aspect of Canadian education. It is martial in tone, based on the master-slave techniques, dedicated not to the development of children but to keeping them in line. Teachers say they hope to impart to children a love for learning but they go about it with ill-concealed hostility, instilling fear of reprisals even in very young children, threatening them with punishment for wrong answers, untidiness, talkativeness, independent thinking. Even animal trainers know better: they teach dogs to jump through hoops by means of praise and rewards.
There are good teachers, even great ones; educators themselves estimate that about one in 20 is a real teacher. These few are disturbed at the lack of flexibility in the schools, the prompt disappearance of the natural curiosity, spontaneity and jubilance of young children once they start school. Paul Goodman, internationally known adviser on education and author of 20 books, of which Growing Up Absurd is the best known, characterizes elementary schools as “spiritbreaking.” They are worse: there is evidence, particularly in children of the poor, that intelligence declines steadily during the years they are in school.
“To a very great degree, school is a place where children learn to be stupid,” comments a maths and English teacher, John Holt, in his book How Children Fail.
From coast to coast, Canadian schools are geared to give a superb education to only one type of student: the middle-class, universitybound, preferably female and docile. To take them in order, the correlation between income and success in school is stark: the poorer the parents, the lower the marks of their children. Next, an early decision to attend college is decidedly helpful, since most schools view themselves as existing for the purpose of preparing the youth of the land for doctorates in chemical engineering.
Further, being female is a distinct advantage, particularly in the early years of school. Boys are much more / continued on page 57
continued on page 57
SCHOOL IS FOR NANCY
continued from page 16
“Today, the universal school motto is: Shut up and listen”
frequently battered by the school system: they have 80 percent of the reading problems, they have emotional problems associated with inability to learn seven times more frequently than girls do and, accordingly, predominate among dropouts.
Listly, passivity is a towering asset in overcrowded classrooms in today's schools. Teachers have no time for children who have divergent opinions or who question the textbook: there is too much work to cover, too many children to teach, too little time. The universal school motto is: Shut up and listen.
The ideal student, then, is one we can call Nancy. One or both of her parents went to university and it has never entered her mind to stop school short of a college degree. The family income is in excess of $7,000 a year. Thcie are books, periodicals, newspapers in the house. When Nancy was a little girl there was a good deal of comersation about ideas and current affairs in her family and her questions were always answered.
Nancy is a polite girl, ambitious, obedient, uncritical, co-operative and sexiully naïve. Best of all, she has an excellent memory and the self-discipline to spend hours over her homework every night putting it to use.
Nancy is a masterpiece. The firmament of the Canadian educational system revolves around Nancy. It was created for her, and she for it. Teachers smile upon her. principals boast of her, parents preen as she demurely accepts her honor scroll, school buzzers toll in praise of her punctuality, neatness and right answers. Never fiy her the tick beside This student capable of better work, or. Should try to take more active part in class work. or, Conduct unsatisfactory.
Nancy may find her shining goodness a burden, but she’s practical enough to stick with it. She’s got to. Without her, the country’s tiny vision of education as a device for building stalwart character, identifying misfits and breeding an elite professional class would be destroyed. Nancy is the sole justification for most of the billions Canadians spend on educating their young.
James B. Conant, one-time president of Harvard University, has estimated that only 15 percent of students are academically talented. Nonetheless, Canada imposes an education requiring academic talent on every child in the land — for a compulsory period of about 10 years — and brands as dolts all those who fail it.
"There’s fantastic human wastage in education today." observes Dr. Michael F. Grapko, a psychologist who directs the Institute for Child Study at the University of Toronto. "No industry could survive with such a policy of throwing away material, yet we keep discarding children, dumping them back on the human market."
Most of the discards come from lower-income families: slum dwellers in the cities, the rural poor, Indians, the Negro colony outside Halifax. In many cases, the poor live in substandard. decaying houses: ill health is
the common lot and so is anger. Their children may never see a book: their vocabularies are filled with pungent obscenities: their reaction to frustration is cat-quick and direct. Then, at the age of six, they go to school.
It is the poor child's first awakening to the real facts of life: he is an
undesirable alien. His teacher uses words he’s never heard, her appearance is strange, her behavior devious: when she hates him most, she calls him “dear." He is required to sit still for hours, keep silent, learn to read from books illustrated w ith whitecollar fathers coming home, apparently sober, to little white picture-houses
surrounded by trees and flowers.
Canada's Mental Health, a publication of the Department of National Health and Welfare, last summer published a monograph on the problems of children whose classroom behavior is “deviant.” Written by Dr. Thomas E. Linton, director of the Emotionally Disturbed Children’s Program at the University of WisconsinMilwaukee, it said, “The problem, by and large, is not one of the pathological behavior of the child. If any-
SCHOOL IS FOR NANCY continued
“Poor kids in school: crushed, rejected and embittered”
thing it is the pathological behavior of the adult authorities.”
Dr. Linton noted that teacherselection and classroom methods are the same for the poor as for the well-to-do. So are the intelligence and achievement tests, despite all the evidence that intelligence is affected strongly by environmental factors. IQ can swing up as many as 50 points when a child from a debased home, for example, is moved into a sympathetic foster home.
“Poor youth, herded into a situation that does not fit their disposition, for which they are unprepared by their background, and which does not interest them, simply develop a reactive stupidity very different from their behavior on the street or ball field,” writes Paul Goodman, in Compulsory Mis-Education. “They fall behind, play truant and as soon as possible drop out. If the school situation is immediately useless and damaging to them, their response must be said to be life-preservative.”
This “reactive stupidity,” originally conceived as a protective device against the insensate demands of the school, eventually owns its owner. Thick thinking, psychologists have noted, can become an irreversible habit after the age of eight or nine. In deprived areas, the IQs of the children test highest in grade one and decline steadily thereafter.
“Apparent retardation and poverty seem to go together,” observes Edward Zigler, chairman of the childdevelopment program at Yale University. “In 75 percent of such cases, the retardation is of a kind known as familial-cultural. It is brought about by the world in which the children grow up.” Schools designed for the middle class accentuate the gap and contribute substantially to a collapse into surly hopelessness.
Schools that insist on standards, examinations and promotion only of the worthy also influence the mental stability of young children. Dr. Keith Akins, a psychiatrist at the University of British Columbia, told a Canadian Psychiatric Association meeting last summer that in three quarters of the cases of children with severe reading difficulties and emotional disturbance, the emotional problems are the result of failure at school, rather than the cause.
Recognition that children of the poor need a different approach to their education is so new in Canada that the outstanding experiment in the field, the Duke of York Public School in downtown Toronto, is only in its second year of operation. With the backing of a reform-minded Toronto Board of Education, Duke of York teamed dedicated teachers with an army of skilled consultants, including a psychiatrist who attends teachers" meetings; the school then threw out the curriculum, report cards, tests, inspection of notebooks, grades — the lot.
At Duke of York, no one fails; the grade-three class is approximately at a grade-two level, if either existed, and is proceeding at the pace the students can maintain easily. “The environ-
ment is so weighted against these kids that they didn’t have a chance,” says the school’s candid and relaxed principal, Douglas Balmer. To illustrate, he tells of the school researcher who had worked only with downtown children. One morning she visited a suburban kindergarten and she was shaken by the experience. The children were so much bigger and more articulate than the scrappy little ones she knew that she thought they must be in grade two.
Some years ago, Douglas Balmer was a teacher in the same Duke of York school. He remembers that discipline then was taut and tough — “lots of 20-of-the-best with the strap, lots of purple fingers” — and resentment was intense. Children in the neighborhood demonstrated their opinion of the school by letting air out of teachers’ tires and breaking school windows.
Acts of vandalism now have ceased. Teachers calmly accept the language of their pupils, which relies substantially on the all-purpose four-letter oaths. One teacher counted it as progress when a six - year - old failed to kick her in the shins for the first time in a week. The staff is making the beautiful discovery that the children can be reached best by hugging them. At Duke of York, the students love to touch the teachers and be touched by them.
“We have limits,” says Balmer, “but no rules. When you establish rules, children will break them just to see what you’ll do about it.”
Since the project is so new, the staff still is feeling its way. One teacher, frazzled almost to tears, brought the principal a problem a few weeks after school had begun: two six-year-old girls had just run away. The usual attitude of schools toward such miscreants is to punish them severely as an example to others and oblige them to “earn” the right to return to the classroom. With the principal’s encouragement, this teacher tried another tactic. When the girls returned, she put an arm around each of them and welcomed them back. Then she asked solicitously why they left — it seemed
that a fight during recess had carried over into the classroom and the teacher appeared to be ignoring their distress. The teacher expressed sympathy, suggested that in the future they could call out when they needed her or else come and tug on her hand, and the incident was closed. No one has run away since.
Comments Yale’s Professor Zigler, “Love, rather than enrichment for the mind, may be the medicine that a deprived child needs to help him learn.”
The Duke of York experiment was launched by William J. Quinn, a wry, urbane ex-sailor who was the school’s principal last year. He agrees with Professor Zigler. “I doubt if you can teach a child anything that you think is important and he doesn’t, unless he likes you,” he says.
In some lexicons, it’s called coddling. Its effect, however, is that Duke of York children are learning to read and write — and they enjoy learning. Their readers are those developed at Bank Street University in New York expressly for downtown children. The illustrations aren’t fields and trees but tenements and factories; the children in the pictures have skin of many hues and they are dressed simply. At Duke of York, ability to read and write serves a practical purpose: the students themselves carry on the correspondence required to arrange the trips to nearby factories, museums, beaches and docks which are a regular part of their education.
But in most schools in Canada, children of the poor are crushed, rejected and embittered. A U.S. psychiatrist whose clinic deals with 1,000 disturbed children every year, Dr. Irving D. Harris, wrote sadly in his book Emotional Blocks To Learning: “Differences in social class proved to be one of the few general factors distinguishing the entire learner group from the entire non-learner group.”
Bad judgment in being born to the wrong social class is not the only deterrent to becoming educated in Canada, however. Creative children, independent children, proud children, aristocratic children, skeptical chil-
dren, restless children, children who ask why — all are obliged to shape up or ship out.
“What high-school personnel become specialists in, ultimately,” writes one of the clearest voices for educational reform, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, in Coming Of Age In America, “is the control of large groups of students even at catastrophic expense to their opportunity to learn . . . Every high-school student can therefore be virtually certain that he will experience successive defeat at the hands of teachers with minds of really crushing banality.” It resembles, he says, “Charlie Brown impotent before the invincible ignorance of Lucy.”
“Teachers reflect the values of the society around them,” comments Dr. Robert W. B. Jackson, regretfully. Dr. Jackson, Canada’s most renowned researcher in education, heads the Ontario government’s new Institute for Studies in Education. He adds, “Teachers are bound to think that politeness, obedience, that sort of thing, are essential.”
Certainly, there is little in the country to change the impression a teacher might have that the modern world is best served by the dutiful — and still less in the classroom, where 43 students must be told all about the Peloponnesian War before the bell rings. The student with imagination, curiosity and confidence enough to doubt and question is a troublemaker, impeding the class’s advance toward Sparta. He must be flattened; in the older grades, teachers employ the vicious low blow of humorous derision.
The quality that seems to wilt fastest in North American schools is the priceless asset of alert inquisitiveness. John Dewey, the educator-philosopher, believed subjects should be taught in such a manner that at the end of the lesson the student was anxious to learn more. In Canada, such interest is rare. Students are bludgeoned from bell to bell by uninterruptible lectures, and the result can be seen as they move up through the grades. Kindergarten children are boisterous, enthusiastic, enterprising, easily intrigued; gradefive children are getting the hang of it — they are guarded, watch for cues, volunteer themselves about as readily as a combat corporal.
In Meet Your School-Age Child, the Ontario Federation of Home and School Associations noted sagely, “Ridicule, sarcasm and shame strangle creativity. When a child feels guilty and represses his thoughts and feelings, originality dies for lack of nourishment.”
A handful of teachers across the country is working, often alone and under attack, to find a method of teaching children that will avoid the profound damage caused by the oldstyle use of intimidation. They point out to those who insist that a few whacks with the ruler never hurt grandpa’s spunkiness, that grandpa got out of school as hastily as possible: at the turn of the century, 94 percent of the population was dropping out at high school or sooner, or else attended no school at all. Today’s children stay in school, and stay, and stay — until all their initiative and flair turns to gelatin. The good teachers reason that there must be some way
continued on page 60
SCHOOL IS FOR NANCY continued
Even Nancy suffers, emerging from school bright but empty
to keep alive forever the small child's excitement at learning; certainly, terror of disgrace, banishment, scorn and loss of love has been proven to be destructive.
Writes Boston teacher John Holt in How Children Fail: “There are very few children who do not feel, during most of the time they are in school, an
amount of fear, anxiety and tension that most adults would find intolerable. It is no coincidence at all that in many of their worst nightmares, adults find themselves back in school.”
Girls, it seems, learn to live in a world of rules more readily than boys do. Many boys are utterly wretched in school: they have temper tantrums,
reading problems and mental breakdowns much more frequently than girls do. Some educators theorize that it is because boys have torrents of physical energy to burn up, a need frustrated by the hours of immobility that classrooms demand. It is also possible that boys develop eye coordination more slowly than girls,
leading to suggestions that reading standards should be different for the two sexes until around grade six, when boys are ready to catch up. In addition, the all-woman environment of the kindergarten and primary grades may be discomfitting; there is speculation that a male kindergarten teacher would be a boon to the boys.
Many educators are doubtful even that the mythical Nancy, the “good” student who fits education’s Procrustean bed, is well served by the system that delivers her so triumphantly with her scholarship to the university campus. They observe that the students who succeed best in school do so at the cost of their inner life: they develop a talent for superficiality, intellectualizing, manipulating, while keeping their emotions detached and deep. They emerge from school bright, smug and empty.
They have been swindled. They, and all the millions of children in Canadian schools, are compelled to endure for 10 years an environment that has no respect for individual dignity, privacy or rights, no use for individuality, no compassion for misfits. Unless the student is strongly supported at home, the effect of the school is to lessen his capacity to enjoy and develop. School is the first social institution he encounters after his babyhood; the lesson he learns from it is that might is right, that suspicion and tyranny are the lot of man. that he and the occasional superior teacher he encounters are powerless to right wrongs.
It’s a calamitous beginning for children of a democracy, which requires a citizenry of thinking, spirited people. It is, however, excellent indoctrination for residents of a police state.
Recently there has been a movement in Canada toward allowing children to learn when they are ready and at their own speed, and even suggestions that they go to school only when they wish. Educators in the United States are excited by such projects as Summerhill, which the Calvinist Scot, Alexander S. Neill, launched in England 45 years ago. Classrooms and teachers at Summerhill are accessible to the some 40 or 50 boarders, but attendance is not obligatory. The setting is rural, with livestock to care for, seeds to plant, workshops full of tools and electronic equipment and potter’s wheels and setups for chemistry experiments.
The children choose whatever appeals to them, ask for help when they want it from available adults and generally decide to try the classrooms only after six or eight months of the alternatives. One boy was a staunch holdout against formal education. At 17, he could neither read nor write but spent his time with scale models of buildings and bridges. Eventually his progress made it necessary for him to become literate in order to follow advanced engineering plans. He gulped a quick education and is now a successful engineer.
Says Neill, “The child is ready for certain things at certain times and for other things at other times, and to force him to learn something he is not ready for may result in his appearing
SCHOOL IS FOR NANCY continued
“Many might be better off if they had no formal schooling”
to learn it, but not in his liking it or having it mean anything to him."
Paul Goodman, and others, advocate that schools not be compulsory and that children be provided with multiple choices for their development. He suggests that teachers conduct small groups of 10 children around the city, using construction sites, museums, parks, factories and movies for learning experiences; that the druggists and mechanics of the community instruct children on economics and simple repairs, on the site: that children live on farms for a fewmonths “Very many of the youth, both poor and middle-class, might be better off if . . . they had no formal schooling at all. '
Friedenberg recommends vivid and comfortable boarding schools for children of the poor who desire an education, with “the largest and most brilliant color TV that money can buy, in the smoking room.” All children should have opportunities for employment or self-employment, if they want it. Under such conditions, says Friedenberg. “public schools are bound to improve to meet the competition."
Normal children. Goodman says, can make up the first seven years of school with four to seven months of good teaching. Average employment in a highly automated technology, he adds, “requires a few weeks' training on the job and no schooling at all." The concept of tiny schools, a return to the little red schoolhouse, is his. He recommends renting abandoned stores in the slums, putting a casually dressed teacher in charge and attracting children in by installing pinball machines and record players as well as teaching tools. (In Canada, a few imaginative teachers already allow first-graders to learn to read via Batman comic books.)
Unlikely as it may sound to parents who recall school as a room of fixed desks, fixed ideas and a teacher who could make a pointer whistle, Canaidan schools are moving carefully in the direction of a revolutionary loosening. Saskatchewan, one of the pioneers, was ungrading some classrooms 15 years ago, and now has no formal grades below grade six — a tactic that eliminates the soul-crushing tragedy of a six-year-old “failing” grade one. Last October, the ginger government of New Brunswick announced sweeping changes in education, including the gradual ungrading of schools up to grade nine.
Across the country, the emphasis is coming off examinations and competitive report cards. There are experiments here and there with positive marking, counting up on a test paper what a child did correctly rather than his mistakes. It’s similar to the technique good parents use. stressing a child’s strengths rather than his weak-
nesses. Many schools are using the “discovery method,” a system by which the child is his own teacher. One school. Gracefield Public School in North York. Metro Toronto, permits children to move around the room as they pursue their projects, and invites the mothers to visit in the classrooms even if they have to bring the baby.
Teachers are talking to parents, by the hour, about the child’s tensions rather than his poor grasp of long division.
A Toronto principal, James L. Williamson, once said. "If we give a child a chance to succeed early, we don't have to worry about motivation. Motivation comes with success.”
John Holt, the Boston teacher-
author. wrote: “There's no telling what might be done with children if, from their very first days in school, we concentrated on creating the condition in which intelligence was most likely to grow.”
It just may be that Canadian schools are going to give it a try. ★
NEXT MONTH: June Callwood examines a revolutionary new departure from the past — schools without grades or report cards.