College and high school students are gearing up for getting away. They’re tired, bored and “need a break.” Yet the catatonic condition so common on campus is exactly what our modern system of schooling is designed to produce. The problem is not that students are overburdened, they’re bored.
At least that’s what John Taylor Gatto, who taught for thirty years in Manhattan, believes. “Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it.“1 Spring Break has become a jailbreak from the endless ennui of our educational system.
Our boring system of schooling was introduced in the 1800s. Horace Mann’s “Seventh Annual Report” to the Massachusetts State Board of Education in 1843 called for the Prussian educational system that promised to crank out high volumes of “workers” for the industrial society. It was a twist on Alfred Tennyson: “Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to work and die.” This ultimately makes for an uneventful life. We labor for forty years, wander into a retirement (another nineteenth century invention), snowbird in Florida, yak endlessly about the weather and scan the beach with metal detectors. The satirist H. L. Mencken hit the nail on the head – the aim of public education is “simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.” No wonder we’re bored.
The university was originally a Judeo-Christian invention. The first two appeared in Paris and Bologna, in the middle of the twelfth century. “Keep in mind that these were deeply Christian institutions: all of the faculty were in holy orders and, consequently, so too were most of the famous early scientists.“2 Oxford and Cambridge were founded about 1200, followed by a flood of new institutions during the remainder of the thirteenth century. They depicted God “as a rational, responsive, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a stable structure awaiting human comprehension.“3 Education involved studying the drama of God’s creation and learning his design. It wasn’t about becoming drones.
Five of the first six colleges in America sprang from this vision for education.4 This is why the Puritans, just sixteen years after landing at Plymouth Rock, founded Harvard College with this mission statement:
“Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well that the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3), and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and learning.”
Today’s system of schooling has no dramatic “main end.” The best universities have become a passport to privilege. Yet students want meaning wrote John Gatto, “not disconnected facts.” Education should provide a set of codes for processing raw data into meaning. “Behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences and the school obsession with facts and theories, the age-old human search for meaning lies well concealed.”5
We’re made for drama – and we’ll find it one way or another. The whole entertainment industry took off as the German model of schooling took hold. “To entertain” comes from the French “to hold.” Entertaining a thought means to hold on to it. When schools no longer gripped students with a sense of dramatic purpose, they looked for diversions. Nature abhors a vacuum and entertainment rushed in to anesthetize bored pupils. I observe this every time I visit a university campus – half the students are lost in iPod land (true confession: I own a Nano). Entertainment has become so ubiquitous that coffeehouse operators report less conversation among customers and more cocooning over computers cruising the Internet. Students now spend 7-8 hours every day engrossed in entertainment, according to a recent Kaiser Foundation report. They’re bored.
Overcoming boredom requires regaining an overarching sense of meaning. T.S. Eliot reminded the University of Chicago faculty of this ancient truth when asked to share his thoughts on restoring purpose and meaning to education. Eliot said every definition of the purpose of education implies some implicit philosophy or theology. Unless the Judeo-Christian faith regains a place at the table, students will probably go on being bored – and busting out at Spring Break.
1 John Taylor Gatto, “Against School: How Public Education Cripples Our Kids, and Why.” Gatto is a former New York State and New York City Teacher of the Year and the author, most recently, of The Underground History of American Education. He was a participant in the Harper’s Magazine forum “School on a Hill,” which appeared in the September 2003 issue.
2 Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005), p.52
3 Rodney Stark, For The Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), p.147
4 The College of William and Mary was founded by the Virginia House of Burgesses and Anglican churches (1693), Yale College was founded by Connecticut Presbyterian ministers (1701), the College of New Jersey was founded by Presbyterians (1746) and moved to Princeton in 1747, King’s College (later Columbia) was founded by New York City Anglicans in 1754. It wasn’t until 1755 that the College of Philadelphia (the University of Pennsylvania) was chartered as a non-denominational college.
5 John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Education, (Philadelphia: New Society, 1992), p.3