Book review: Toxic Schooling

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Toxic Schooling book coverToxic Schooling

Clive Harber



Educational Heretics Press

ISBN 978-1-900219-37-2



The introduction to this book is full of scorn for the idea that making children go to school is a way of promoting social justice and improving their chances of leading happy, successful lives. Harber finds the idea that introducing universal primary education is going to make the world a better place is absurd. 'Schooling not only reproduces society fundamentally as it is,' he says, 'but also actively makes the lives of individuals worse and harms the wider society.' School phobia is not a mental health problem, it is a rational reaction to an irrational authoritarian institution.

Harber follows this up with short chapters on a number of books published between 1969 and 1983, which he sees as a golden age of serious criticism of traditional education. These books are The School I’d Like, edited by Edward Blishen, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, Compulsory Mis-Education by Paul Goodman, The Betrayal of Youth by James Hamming, How Children Fail by John Holt, Deschooling Society by Ivan Illich, Life in Classrooms by Philip Jackson, The Little Red Schoolbook by Søren Hansen and Jasper Jensen, Education for Self-Reliance by Julius Nyerere, Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner, School is Dead by Everett Reimer and Freedom to Learn by Carl Rogers.

These chapters, as well as giving a quick summary of the authors’ messages, contain many quotations. Harber has been looking for support for his views. It is tempting to make a selection of favourites, but it would go on for pages. Here are a few examples chosen almost at random.

From The Betrayal of Youth, by James Hemming:

... the defeated rejects of the system sit out their schooldays in moods ranging from bored apathy to open hostility and leave school with their confidence and curiosity shattered, their powers of concentration atrophied and a bitter hatred in their hearts for the society which has put them down.

From Life in Classrooms by Philip Jackson:

Even factory workers are not clustered as close together as students in a standard classroom. Indeed, imagine what would happen if a factory the size of a typical elementary school contained three or four hundred workers. In all likelihood the unions would not allow it.

From Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner:

If you are over twenty-five years of age, the mathematics you were taught in school is ‘old’; the grammar is obsolete and in disrepute; the biology completely out of date and the history open to serious question. The best that can be said of you, assuming you remember most of what you were told and read, is that you are a walking encyclopaedia of outdated information.

From Freedom to Learn by Carl Rogers:

It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.

There are seventy-four pages consisting largely of pearls like these, followed by a chapter called Key Critiques, which is a useful list of fifteen objections to formal schooling.

The last three chapters, called Schooling today: much the same?, Making Matters Worse and What is to be done? are pessimistic. Harber seems to have been looking for changes for the worse. The British national curriculum, electronic tagging to deal with truancy in the UK and Germany, the criminalisation of misbehaviour in school in the USA and excessive testing are all relevant examples. Harber has even found some research from Finland, where many of his criticisms would not hold, telling us that 'teacher educators were said by former students to be dominating, unjust and authoritarian,' and as evidence of the awfulness of school buildings and the irresponsibility of teachers he tells the story of a fire at a primary school in southern India, where all 23 of the school’s teachers are reported as having run away from the school building as the fire spread, leaving the children behind.' (Lib Ed italics).

This elevation of the anecdote to serious criticism of the whole system weakens the argument. Changes for the better are brushed aside. The new school councils and the examination successes of girls, for instance, are mentioned only briefly. Harber does not even mention the rise of ESSA, the English Secondary Students Association, which is supported financially as well as in principle by the NUT, the Room 13 movement, which started at Caol Primary School in Fort William, Derry Hannam’s research into British schools where there is greater student participation than is normal or the IDECs – International Democratic Education Conferences – which have taken place in a different country every year since 1993. There are good things happening, and Harber’s book gives a wealth of strong reasons for recognising them, supporting them. and making them better known. It is a pity that he prefers to concentrate on what has been going wrong.




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