Quoterday – The Purpose of School

The schools are there, Julie, to regulate the flow of young competitors into the job market.

Daniel Quinn, My Ishmael

I once believed that my Mom dropped me off at school so I could fill my brain with knowledge.  Through diligent study, I would parlay that knowledge into top grades, and an amazing job.  But I struggled to grasp the connection between early American history and my future as a billionaire CEO-paleontologist-baseball-player.

Most public curricula spell out culturally-relevant information – the facts and myths that permeate the cloth of a culture.  Does culture influence the curriculum?  Or does the curriculum influence culture?  Perhaps it works both ways.

In the U.S., schools teach the American Revolution as a statement of individualism, rebellion, and freedom.  It depicts immigration as a common ancestral thread binding most U.S. citizens.  Moreover, schools teach immigration as an essential component of Ameican economic growth in the 1800s, even when news pundits today seem to eschew immigration altogether

Consequently, many school gloss over America’s more sinister history (e.g. slavery, racial discrimination, overseas imperialism, treatment of Native Americans).  The dominant cultural myth of the U.S. (a shining beacon of democracy and freedom with equal opportunity for all) does not permit these stories.  Therefore, classrooms often do not give these darker historical narratives the depth they deserve.

Before academic content. schools serve as cultural and social incubators.  Students learn the necessary knowledge to function in their home culture.  Everything else is secondary.

As schoolchildren, we often spend more time following rules and procedures than studying math or English or history.

“Come to class on time.”

“Listen to the teacher.”

“No sleeping in class.”

“Please make a single-file line.”

In some ways, schools mimic workplaces.  Workplaces too have policies and procedures to establish hierarchies, explicate work routines, and routinize obedience to authority.

“Come to work on time.”

“Listen to the boss.”

“No slacking on the job.”

“Please do x.

Schools teach many lessons beyond the curriculum – how to submit to authority, how to follow a schedule, or how to complete unmotivating assignments.  In other words, school teaches us to be competent and well-behaved employees.

In Daniel Quinn’s book My Ishmael, the argument pushes further. Beyond serving as mere “employee factories”, schools are also holding pens for young adults.  Many humans achieve reproductive capacity (some form of biological maturity) between the ages of 14 and 16).  Schools house these young adults until the age of 18.

For what purpose?

Many young adults finish high school, attend college, and earn a degree.  Yet the majority of these students are not productive employees from Day 1.  They require training.  What is the purpose of high school and college?  To prepare us for work?  If so, then the school system needs improvement.

In some respects, high schools and universities do prepare us for work.  They teach us to follow rules, heed instructions, and accomplish tasks.  That’s about it.  With the exception of professional academics, teachers, some STEM-field jobs, and university-sponsored trade schools (e.g. doctors and lawyers), degrees and jobs do not show much overlap.

In most jobs, recent college graduates cannot outperform high school graduates with four years of experience.  Experience trumps education.

What do you think?  Do schools exist to impart knowledge?  Is there is a cultural and social component to school?  Are schools state-funded half-day childcare for children ages 6 and up?  How does homeschooling factor into discussions on the purpose of school?  I’d love to hear from you.

The real fun happens after school – when I can color and play card games at the orphanage.




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