Everything I Ever Needed to Know About Public School

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March 31, 2008

"We don't read about dinosaurs.Calvin, from Calvin & Hobbes

Contrary to what I used to believe, what everyone else believed, and even the artist himself may have believed, Calvin was not a rotten little kid. He had a vivid imagination, amazing coping ability, and an indomitable spirit. In my opinion, his rottenness is almost entirely the fault of well-meaning parents who simply misunderstood him, the poisonous instrument of television, and the hideous nature of regimented schooling. It is the last of these three influences on the fictional Calvin that will take up the bulk of my article.

But allow me to digress. A few months ago, when starting work with the fourth company I have worked for in a certain corporate industry, one for which I now have no respect, and never wanted to be involved in but for the lack of preparation in my personal life that now requires me to hand over too much of my time, we had a fire drill in the office building where I worked. That's when it dawned on me what was going on.

I'll tell you later what happened on that warm, spring day. Now let me detour once more to tell you of my experience while watching "Saving Private Ryan." My biggest observation of this film, once I was able to get past the grotesque and unrelenting violence, was that these men were subjected to rather bizarre extremes of having nothing to do--utter, complete boredom--alternating with abject, white-knuckled dread. Now that I have you thoroughly confused, let me get back to this wonderful comic strip.

If you aren't familiar with Calvin & Hobbes, as a freedom-lover or freedom-seeker, you should get familiar. In its day this was one of the few strips out there that truly understood what children are up against. As time moves on and this strip fades from memory (unlike Peanuts, which is still being published in newspapers as re-runs long after its creator died), it will be increasingly important to keep the lessons of these cartoons in our collective memory.

As this strip clearly shows, Calvin has nothing but utter contempt for his school, as did I for mine. Calvin's fantasies are clearly more violent than mine. (All I ever wanted to do was stay home sick.) Bill Watterson, the creator, apparently got a lot of angry letters after that one was published. He seems to think, as I do, that there are a lot of people out there who don't remember school very well. Let me tell you this: the ruling elite of this world are counting on that.

If there is to be any hope for humanity, there must be people out there who not only remember, but also warn. I believe that Watterson was doing so, and I, for one, will go out on a limb (what else do I have to lose, after all) and say what needs to be said: There is nothing salvageable or redeemable about this institution. Do whatever you can to keep your kids away from it. If you really don't think you can, then don't have them. If it's too late, and you find yourself a single parent with the threat of the state taking them away from you if you don't comply, do your best to band together with other single parents and create your own learning environments. You may try to contact some of these schools if one is not in your local area, to find out how you can create one for your kids. If you are unable to keep your kids away from public school, then you must adopt a mindset like I have for my job, where I have accepted that for now, I am too weak to find work with integrity. You will have to content yourself with knowing that you may love your children, but you are too weak to save them from the scars they will inevitably and undeniably have from being subjected to public schooling.

I say this even though I have parents who not only bought into the system, but are still collecting pensions from the state after having taught in the system. I say this even though it was in school band where I first really got turned on to classical music (although this would have undoubtedly happened in the absence of school). I say this even though there were teachers I greatly appreciated, especially Mrs. Jones, my ninth-grade English teacher, who was the only teacher I ever had (including college) who could lecture for the entire hour and keep my attention. I say this because it is true, and because no matter the good intentions of Mom, Dad, my band teacher and Mrs. Jones, what I really learned in public school, the most important lessons I took from it, are all wrong. I will probably have to spend the rest of my life throwing off what I've learned. I will have to unlearn a great deal, just like Calvin, if he were real, would have to do.

There is not a single Calvin & Hobbes comic strip that has anything positive to say about this institution. Just use the search engine in the link at the beginning of this article and type in 'school.' You will be taken from one strip to another where Calvin is bored, anxious, unhappy, disgusted, hopeless, daydreaming, or scared. The only school-related strips where Calvin is in a better mood have to do with recess or grossing out Susie at lunch (an episode that got Calvin & Hobbes cancelled at one local paper). His teacher is named Miss Wormwood, after the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters. Think about it. That's not a joke the average reader would get. Just what is Watterson trying to say?

As John I. Goodlad said in his book A Place Called School, "No more important finding has emerged from the inquiries of our study than that the American high school student, as student, is all too often docile, compliant, and without initiative." This comes as no surprise to John Taylor Gatto, who warned in The Underground History of American Education that our system of schooling is modeled after the Prussian system, which started in the 19th Century. Let's see now, what happened in that area of the world right after the end of that century?

The connection seems even to have escaped Winston Groom, author of A Storm in Flanders, who wrote, "By the end of the nineteenth century the German public school system had eliminated illiteracy." What good does that ability do if it comes at this price? Note to Mr. Groom: Dead men can't read.

This is what Calvin, and now I, understand about public schooling. It kills the spirit, and both of us retreated into television to salve the wounds. Unlike the fictional Calvin, however, I didn't realize what was happening until it was too late.

Which brings me back to my first digression. We were all on our way out of the building. It was a beautiful day just a couple of years ago, when I was 36. All of a sudden it dawned on me. We did this in school. We had countless fire drills, and I was always pleased, not for the same reasons as Calvin, but because it gave us a break from the tedium. I could either talk with my friends, or at least breathe some fresh air for a bit before going back to something I usually didn't want to be doing. Only now, as an adult, I found it tiresome and rather aggravating. I walked along the side of the parking lot and realized that we were being treated like children. What j***-off bureaucrat dreamed up this idea that grown men and women, when faced with an emergency, are not going to know what to do? These are the same f***s that told people at the World Trade Center , "Building Two is secure. There is no need to evacuate Building Two." Was I being prepared for safety when I was evacuated from the school all those times, or was I being prepared for compliance? How many more docile, compliant office workers died on 9/11 as a result of the above announcement?

As for my second digression, what I saw in "Saving Private Ryan" reminds me, although with a great deal less violence and gore, of my experience, and Calvin's, in public schooling: long bouts of boredom punctuated every once in a while by the anxiety of being singled out for humiliation or actual physical abuse, usually by the school bully, the school jock (so very often one in the same), or sometimes even one of the teachers.

So permit me to list, in order of importance from worse to worst, the life lessons I, and all the other non-fictional Calvins out there, learned from former-factory/now-corporate government schools:

10. Grades are important. Make your report card look good. You need a degree--any degree--to land and keep a good job.

9. Stay away from the weird kids, especially when they're being made fun of.

8. Adults are not going to help you with anything that matters. Their world is separate.

7. You're on your own. It's a dog-eat-dog world.

6. You can have the life you dream of after you are certified by experts.

5. Freedom isn't free.

4. If you are gifted and talented, life will be handed to you on a silver platter, unlike the dumb kids.

3. You need permission to piss.

2. Wait out your time. Life is filled with drudgery. Just get through it as best you can.

These are not exaggerations. If your child is in school right now, this is what he is learning. He may not realize it until he's much older. The worst and most dangerous lie he is imbibing is this:

1. Learning, like work, is not meant to be enjoyable.

Now go back to the first link to the first cartoon and read it again. How funny is it, really?

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B.R. Merrick's picture
Columns on STR: 35

B.R. Merrick writes for "Strike The Root" and "A Voice for Men," is  proud to be a classical music reviewer at Amazon.com and iTunes, and in spite of the poisonous nature of television, God Himself will have to pry his DVDs of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” out of his cold, dead hands, under threat of eternal damnation.


Samuel Marks's picture

The link from "As this strip clearly shows" is down... please reup (perhaps embed within this article?)