One wintry mix of a morning, while I was in training to be a substitute teacher, I saw a textbook that was being used in an 11th-grade English class. The class was studying transcendentalism, and the students were required to read excerpts from an essay called “Nature,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was an unmethodical writer with low, puffy sideburns who liked to work himself up into paragraphs of rapture. When it came time for him to write an essay or give an oration — about nature, say, or self-reliance — he combed through his voluminous journals and pulled out choice bits that were more or less on topic, and he glued them together with some connective prose. For instance, in “Nature,” Emerson writes: “Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball.”
In the textbook, next to this passage, there was a brief assignment printed in the margin. It said: “Review the elements of transcendentalism listed on Page 369. Which aspect of transcendentalist thought is reflected in Lines 12-19? Explain your answer.”
Isn’t that just about the most paralyzingly unrapturous question you’ve encountered in any textbook? “Explain your answer.” No, thank you. I will not explain my answer. My answer is my answer. I am a transparent eyeball. I am a huge, receptive visual instrument with a flexible lens, and I’m taking in the infinitude of all space and time and dragonflies and owls and life and roadkill and hydrogen gas. I am nothing and everything. I am bathed in air. I’m a carefree, happy huge shining slimy eyeball of weird wonderment. I can swivel in any direction. Any direction I look, I will find something interesting.
That’s the extremely interesting thing: Everything is interesting. Potentially. Sometimes it may not seem so. You may think a certain thing is completely without interest. You may think, or I may think, eh, dull, boring, heck with it, let’s move on. But there is someone on this planet who can find something interesting in that particular thing. And it’s often good to try. You have to poke at a thing, sometimes, and find out where it squeaks. Any seemingly dull thing is made up of subsidiary things. It’s a composite — of smaller events or decisions. Or of atoms and molecules and prejudices and hunches that are fireflying around in unexpected and impossible trajectories. Everything is interesting because everything is not what it is, but is something on the way to being something else. Everything has a history and a secret stash of fascination.
That was the basic idea behind the alternative public high school I attended in Rochester. It was called the School Without Walls — no walls because it’s a big world out there, and life is the great tutor. It was founded by a wonderful, jittery, smart, chain-smoking man named Lew Marks. We called him Lew. He was the principal. Everyone went by first names. Lew had been a hotshot English teacher but wanted to be part of a revolution in education, so he hired nine teacher-coordinators and set the thing up, and the school district said O.K. There was no entrance exam. A lot of people wanted to get in to the School Without Walls after they read about it in the newspaper, so the school held a lottery, and I was one of the lucky ones. I was there on my first day of ninth grade, on the very first day of the school’s existence, in September 1971. Every Wednesday, Lew held something called Town Meeting, where the whole school, all 125 of us noble savages, would meet with him and the other teachers and discuss the philosophy of education, the meaning of life and the problem of applying to college sans G.P.A.
We could do whatever we wanted at S.W.W., academically speaking: There were no grades and no attendance requirements. I read Samuel Butler’s “Erewhon” in a utopian-literature class taught by a shy volunteer with rimless glasses (“Erewhon” is “nowhere” spelled backward, sort of), but I stopped going — there’s only so much utopian literature you can take. My friend Steve and I took a physics class with a blind genius in his dorm room at the University of Rochester — laundry everywhere, socks, underwear. He dictated long equations, his sad blind eyes zigzagging as we hurried to keep up. (Steve became a neurologist.) I spent hours, days at the piano, noodling around, and I took a biology class, which met in a lab in a community college on the outskirts of town. Sometimes it took an hour and a half to get there by bus. The school gave us bus tokens, and some of the kids asked for three times as many as they needed and resold them. When the token budget got out of control, Lew clamped down: “I’m trusting you to ask for the tokens you actually need.” I stopped attending the biology class when we were supposed to dissect fetal pigs.
Sometimes, while eating a grilled-cheese sandwich at a downtown lunch counter at 2 in the afternoon on a Tuesday, when most of the city’s 16-year-olds were sitting in big brick schools, I wanted something more. I wanted to be forced to take final exams. I wanted to be lectured to, really taught a lesson, in the basic sense. Only once did it happen. One afternoon, near the end of the day, Bob, the history teacher, suddenly stood up, went to the blackboard and gave a virtuosic half-hour lecture on the movement of barbarian tribes, the Saxons and the Visigoths and the Huns, with arrows indicating where they migrated. That one history lecture was a revelation. After I went to college and married and had a family, I would wistfully watch John Hughes movies or shows like “Freaks and Geeks” and dearly wish that I had gone to a normal high school, with sports and debate clubs and junior proms — and valedictorians and salutatorians, homerooms and cliques, funny men in the back row, announcements on the loudspeaker, shouts in the halls, bake sales, lockers. There were no lockers at School Without Walls, no little sets of gills on the doors so the air could sneak in and out. I wanted to have had a locker.
All of which may explain why, several years ago, when it occurred to me to write a meditation on American education, I thought: I really need to become a substitute teacher. Like many a think-tank learning theorist, I hadn’t spent a single day in front of a K-12 class. When I first described my substitute-teaching plan to my son — who was in high school at the time — he said: “Dad, don’t do it. They’ll destroy you. They’ll crush you.”
I taught all ages, from kindergarten to high school; I taught remedial classes and honors students. One day we factored polynomials, another day we made Popsicle-stick bird feeders for Mother’s Day, another day it was the Holocaust. Sometimes I substituted for an “ed tech” — a teacher’s aide whose job was to shadow kids with A.D.H.D. or dyslexia, or kids who simply refused to do any work at all. I was a bungling substitute most of the time; I embarrassed myself a hundred different ways, and got my feelings hurt, and complained, and shouted, and ate espresso chocolate to stay awake. It was shattering, but I loved it. After a while, I stopped being so keen on developing my grand treatise on educational theory, and instead I found that I enjoyed trying to keep a class going and watching it fall apart. I liked listening to students talk — even when they were driving themselves, and me, bonkers. The result of my 28 hellish, joyous days of paid work (I made $70 a day) was a book, more chronicle than meditation, called “Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids.”
The teachers left me daily assignments called “sub plans” to follow — which I clutched throughout the day until they became as finely crumpled as old dollar bills — and mostly what the sub plans wanted me to do was pass out work sheets. I passed them out by the thousands. Of all the work sheets I passed out, the ones in high school were the worst. In my experience, every high-school subject, no matter how worthy and jazzy and thought-provoking it may have seemed to an earnest Common Corer, is stuffed into the curricular Veg-O-Matic, and out comes a nasty packet with grading rubrics on the back. On the first page, usually, there are numbered “learning targets,” and inside, inevitably, a list of specialized vocabulary words to master. In English it’s unreliable narrator, or ethos, or metonymy, or thesis sentence. This is all fluff knowledge, meta-knowledge. In math, kids must memorize words like apothem and Cartesian coordinate; in science they chant domain! kingdom! phylum! class! etc., etc., and meiosis and allele and daughter cell and third-class lever and the whole Tinkertoy edifice of terms that acts to draw people away from the freshness and surprise and fantastic interfused complexity of the world and darkens our brains with shadowy taxonomic abstractions. The instantly forgettable gnat-swarm of word lists is useful in big-box high schools because it’s easier to test kids on whether they can temporarily define a set of terms than it is to talk to them and find out whether they have learned anything real and thrilling about what’s out there.
All teaching takes a toll on what’s taught, but high school is wondrously efficient at making interesting things dull. So why are kids forced to go? Well, one reason has to do with child-labor laws. In the middle of the 19th century, kids in most states could stop going to school after eighth grade, once they had learned to read and do a little arithmetic, and they got jobs. They worked on farms or in dark satanic mills, and one by one the states made laws (or began to enforce existing laws) that said that young people had to stay in school so their morals wouldn’t be corrupted and they wouldn’t languish in ignorance and be roped into a life of labor from dawn to dusk and die of consumption before they reached 30. So the government built high schools, lots of them, and the number of kids in high school burgeoned, and blossomed, and ballooned. By 1940, there were five times as many high-school graduates as there were before the labor-law reforms. It was a huge change all over the country, and it required discipline. Squads of truant officers would go sniffing around finding kids who were evading high school, and they threatened parents with fines or even jail time and got them to comply.
What happens if you suddenly have millions of kids in high school who would have been working under the old laws? You have to hire more teachers, and you have to figure out what they’re going to teach. You then get endless debates about cultural literacy — about what subjects should be required. Should everyone in high school learn Greek? What about Latin? What about sewing? Or needlepoint? Cursive? And the schools became bigger. The local schoolhouse went away, and the gigantic brick edifice on the edge of town took its place. James Conant, a president of Harvard, decided in the 1960s that the ideal high school should have at least 750 students. That’s a lot of students — it’s a battalion of students, in fact — and that’s perhaps where it all began to go wrong. The regional schools became meatpacking plants, or Play-Doh fun factories, squeezing out supposedly educated human beings, marching them around from class to class — bells bonging, punishments escalating, homework being loaded on. And yet the human beings who were marching from class to class weren’t being paid. “Review the elements of transcendentalism listed on Page 369.” Oh, and do it for free.
Every day something like 16 million high-school students get up at the crack of dawn, slurp some oat clusters while barely conscious, hop on a bus, bounce around the county, show up and sit in a chair, zoned out, waiting for the first bell. If they’re late, they are written up. Even if they don’t do much academic work, they are physically present. Their attendance is a valuable commodity, because if students don’t attend, teachers and guidance counselors and principals and textbook makers and designers of educational software have no jobs. A huge lucrative industry is built around them, and the students get nothing out of it but a G.P.A. They deserve not to have their time wasted.
And it is wasted, as everyone knows. Teachers spend half their time shouting themselves hoarse, and young adults are infantilized. Their lives are absurdly regimented. Every minute is accounted for. They sit in one hot room after another and wait for each class to end. Time thickens. It becomes like saltwater taffy — it becomes viscous and sticky, and it stretches out and it folds back on itself through endless repetition. Tuesday is just like Wednesday, except the schedule is shuffled. Day after day of work sheets. By the time they graduate, they’ve done 13 years of work sheets. When they need to go to the bathroom, they have to write their name on a piece of paper by the door. If they hide in the bathroom, they’re in trouble. Whole hierarchies of punishment for scofflaws arise — school-supplied iPads are restricted, parents are called on the phone, in-school suspensions are meted out.
What makes all this almost tolerable is the kids themselves. They find ways to make it entertaining. They discover friends and co-conspirators. They rebel. They interrupt one another constantly in search of some tiny juicy Jolly Rancher of surprise. They subvert the system. They learn to lie convincingly to avoid work. The teacher’s aide (sometimes it was me) says, “Are you all caught up?” Kid: “Yep.” Aide: “Did you do that BrainPOP about the flipflap of the doodlesquat?” Kid: “Yep, handed that in yesterday.” One young man I talked to seemed unusually intelligent but downcast. I asked him how he survived his days. He pulled out his earbud, and he said one word: “music.”
To find their way in American life, high-schoolers need to be able to speak English, to read, to listen to and respect other people’s opinions, to have a command of the basic elements of courtesy and, to a lesser extent, to write. (They do not need to know how to write a thesis sentence. More injury is done to high-school essays by the imposition of the thesis-sentence requirement than by any other means. The trick, kids are sometimes told, is to begin with a word like “although.” No.) It’s also useful to know how to add and subtract and do percentages, how to measure dimensions, and how to read graphs. Beyond these basics, there’s a vast, beautiful, glittering midden of applied and miscellaneous knowledge — of natural science, history, material science, design, music, tradecraft and artistic dexterity — and because everything is potentially interesting, everything is potentially worthy of study, and arguing over the fine-grained specifics of the standard curriculum is a waste of time.
Let’s end homework forever — just end it now — and open up more daylight hours for life’s inexhaustible succession of microlessons. Knowing how to paddle a canoe, or fix a faucet, or work a cash register, or bake a coffeecake, or comfort someone who is unhappy, is much more important than knowing the names of the six kingdoms of living organisms, or the layers of the atmosphere, even if you’re going to become a naturalist or an atmospheric physicist — and paddling and faucet-fixing and cash-registering and cake-baking and the offering of sympathy, like most memorable proficiencies, happen best when they’re voluntary, after school is out.
Emerson would have liked the School Without Walls. Its motto, although it had no motto, could have been “Self-Reliance.” Now that I’ve spent time teaching in a regular high school, I’m hugely grateful to Lew Marks — who died in 2010 — and the institution he created. (It’s still going, by the way.) The school respected us and trusted us. It was a sort of nowhere Utopia — a big, soft, stretchy packet of temporal freedom within which to be bored and idle and sleep late and watch reruns of “My Three Sons” and daytime talk shows and stare through the curtains out the window, and smell the curtains, which had a deep dusty smell, and learn one of the profound lessons of life, which is that all education is self-education. Nobody needs you to do anything, so that anything you do has to come from yourself.
John Holt, pictured here with a frog and some children, was a major early proponent of “homeschooling” and a libertarian orientation to curriculum development. An essay on him and, if I remember correctly, an essay BY him both appear in Hern’s Deschooling Our Lives.