School: some of us hate it, some of us love it, and some of us want to tear it down and hold its crumbling body in our arms as it collapses with the rest of this ugly society. What do we do with this institution that seems so noble on the surface? We are told that school is here to educate us, bringing us into a modern age of democracy, equality, and freedom. A closer look at school reveals an insidious nature. We see it in the fatigue of middle schoolers, in ten-year-olds on Prozac, and in the tears of mothers and five-year-olds on the very first day of school. We see it in the faint beeping of metal detectors in the cold of 7am and in another black kid in handcuffs on the floor of a cold marble hallway. We see it in rising fascism and our rising cynicism. What do we do with school when the world is coming apart at the seams? Well, we don’t try to save it, that’s for certain.
You Can’t Domesticate Me1
School was never meant to be an education. Since its beginning, school has existed for one reason: control. Every structure, method, or bit of knowledge that makes up school spins around this central axis. School has always functioned to break the will of children and purge them of their “wildness”. This fact isn’t a secret, it was outright stated by those who designed our school model. In 1898 one such person, Ellwood P. Cubberley, then Dean of the Stanford University School of Education, stated that
“Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials – children – are to be shaped and fashioned into products... The specifications for manufacturing come, from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”2
Throughout the entire history of schooling, we see people who desired to control and commodify those younger than them. And our schools are still laid out to do just that, having barely changed in structure and method since the early 1900s. If schools had any other goal they would have changed by now. But they have not. We still see rows of desks, factory-like bell schedules, and paddle marks on children’s limbs. Somehow though, this system so designed has not quite produced 100 years of passive workers. The truth is, you can’t domesticate children. You can’t fully beat a person’s mind into submission with a paddle, only their body and fears. If this method of force succeeds in some way, it doesn’t do so without horrible consequences. We see school’s path of destruction in our friends on Zoloft, a twelve-year-old’s suicidal ideation, four-year-olds diagnosed with ADHD, and anxious shaking voices. We are killing ourselves by refusing to let go of school. Literally, the suicide rate for teenagers increases by 95% for boys and 33% for girls when school is in session versus during the summer months.3 Like animals in a cage, we show the symptoms of our imprisonment.
We can’t keep lying to ourselves that school exists for the good of children. It doesn’t. In reality, school is deeply harmful to those who attend it. School is and always has been meant to domesticate children, kill their creativity, and turn them into useful robots. I’ll be the first to say, we don’t need any more useful robots, and we never really did. How are you supposed to learn to work with others when you’re told to shut up and sit still for the first 18 years of your life? What is communicated is that we aren’t supposed to work with others or care about anything besides ourselves, both useful ideas for maintaining a capitalist society.
“What did you learn in school today?” “Nothing I can remember!”
At the end of this 100 year long experiment of compulsory school, school has failed to create anything close to an informed populace. Treating children as vessels to be filled with knowledge doesn’t nurture critical thinking. But of course, that is not the goal of our education system. So we continue treating children as buckets to be filled and churn out dismal results. We forget somewhere around 60 percent of what we “learn” in school.4 How much do you remember from your classes last year? Probably a small amount, but nothing worth the possible 180 or more hours you spent on that subject. Further, supposedly educated people don’t understand incredibly basic concepts. One survey showed that one in four Americans believes that the Sun rotates around the Earth.5 The benefits the school system provides are ridiculously low. What’s the point when you don’t (and sometimes can’t) learn in school?
The issue is, school doesn’t understand what real learning is. Learning (the kind that is useful and relevant to children themselves) requires freedom and space away from coercion and evaluation. Children naturally want to learn and are wired to do exactly that. As a once voracious reader, I know I learned to read outside of school. It’s possible you did too. It’s most likely that you learned how to walk and talk outside of school. You didn’t need to be graded on how many times you stumbled, you just tried again and again until you walked. If you had been graded and coached you probably wouldn’t have learned so quickly. Evaluation is detrimental to learning and creativity,6 something that goes against school’s fundamental tenets.
A large part of why I hate school is because of how much I love learning. Within the institution, it’s easy to see how incompatible the two ideas are, institutional schooling and learning. We sense the meaninglessness of what we’re doing in the moment, a moment suffocated with ticking clocks, droning voices, and tapping pencils, knowing that a year from now none of this will matter. We can feel our precious time slipping into a boring death. The truth is that learning isn’t separate from life. We learn just as much, if not more, in moments spent staring at the stars and in conversations with friends than we do sitting on hard plastic chairs in first period. The lie is that we need those plastic chairs to learn when really we need room to breathe, play, and live.
Despite reality, school continues to destroy real learning in the name of education. School is an environment of constant evaluation, constant coercion through grades, tests, and violence, and no meaningful freedom. School tells us that without these coercive structures, children wouldn’t learn anything. This is a lie, told again and again to preserve the system and oppress children. Real learning is rarely found in school.
Every Dream I Have About School is a Nightmare
School feels inescapable. Every aspect of our life is invaded by it, as children and as adults. Those who have been out of school for decades still dream that they are late to class, spilling papers across a foggy hallway. Suppressing our needs and desires for thirteen years wears us down in an irreparable way. The damage often prevents us from truly living for the rest of our lives. Yet some of us still dig our claws deep into schooling, proposing it again and again as a solution. When will we embrace life instead of the death wish of school?
Our attachment stems from the fact that school has so dominated our world that we see it as a natural part of life. We can’t seem to imagine a world beyond school, one where children are allowed control over their own lives. This is despite the fact that compulsory school has only existed for the last 100 years, only three or four generations of people. Before that, the vast majority of people successfully educated themselves without help from any institution. As evidenced by all of human history, children don’t need to be taught. They don’t need to go to school. It’s just not all that necessary.
Yet in 2021, school looms over nearly every child between the ages of five and eighteen. School is invasive and with every passing day it becomes more so. There is something about being in school that makes you feel as if your whole life is consumed by it. You wake up at 6am (7am if you’re lucky) and groggily pull yourself out of bed. Then comes the bus, the bells, the chatter, the tests, the anxiety, the boredom, the momentary elation, the bus again. After seven hours in the building, you have another two hours of homework and three hours of extracurriculars. Life is utterly consumed by a stifled sense of living. There is no escape. You have to do this all again tomorrow.
Someday we ought to wake up to real life and realize that school was nothing but a mirage designed to trick us into believing that society must continue as it is. If we believe capitalism is killing the world, then why do we send children to a place that is meant to bring them into that grand fight against life and humanity? If we are in school, why do we still go to school? In a society so rotten, we often agree to rot with it to survive.
Don’t Liberate Me, I’ll Do It Myself
(Disclaimer: This is for entertainment purposes only. Get back to doing your homework kiddos, and don’t look out that window over there. But really, don’t hurt anyone or yourself and be smart and responsible about what you do.)
So, if school isn’t the answer, what is? The answer can only lie in you, a young person angry with school. Your anger about school is real and powerful. It isn’t just you being a moody teenager, it’s the normal response to repression and having no control over your life. Get out of the situation or change it and you might be able to recover some of the humanity you lost in your years of schooling.
Young people, how would you like to strike from school? Smash those pesky security cameras around your campus? Occupy the campus? Open a totally youth-led community center with free art materials and classes? Drop out and get a real education? At the end of this essay is a list of resources on how to resist school. There are a million ways for us to destroy schools and build a world of knowledge and learning in their place. You, the students, have the power in schools. Without you, schools wouldn’t be able to function. No matter how much teachers and administrators might act like they have all of the control and power, they don’t. That’s the trick here, the one that lets you get free. You can’t free yourself without others to support you though. Distribute this zine in your school, have conversations with your friends, find those who are just as angry as you. Then, with those people, get to imagining what a world without school could look like.
Would it be days and hours spent in a communal space talking with those you love and care about? Having real conversations about the books and movies you love, without the discussion rubrics? Scientists, artists, authors, letting children observe and apprentice with them? Being with those older than you without the condescension of “teacher”? Would it be spending time solving the issues that plague your mind? Traveling the world at 14? Spending time outdoors any time of the day or year? Being truly, deeply, immersed in your community? Having the time to rest all day when your body needs to and to and to jump, run, and work all night long when you need to? Right now, this might seem like a far off daydream. But it doesn’t have to be (and it won’t be) if you take matters into your own hands.
With a world teetering on the edge of collapse, environmental and political, we have to begin to build our own world now. We can’t afford to go back to normal. Seize this moment of upheaval and kickstart the future. This idea is really at the core of organizing as a young person: do not spend your time waiting until you’re 18 or in college, you have the power to change your situation now. You are alive, breathing, and wriggling with your own real feelings and desires now, in this very moment. You won’t be any more alive at 18 than you are at 14.
Listen when resistance comes bleeding through. In our mental resistance to school is our connection to life. Whether that resistance comes to us in blood-red anger, depressed fatigue, suicidal ideation, or procrastination, it is our human resistance to being prescribed, domesticated, shallowed out, and put into a box. And our connection to and vast separation from everything that makes us human. The wind in the trees, the sounds of a flowing river, the curves and contours of another’s body, the softness of grass in the summer, our yearning for freedom, and our own passions and desires. So keep it up. Don’t fight your resistance, it’s telling you something important about how you’re meant to live your life. Don’t fight yourself, fight back, burn the schools!
Resources and projects for school resistance:
- The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education, is an excellent guide with everything you need to know about unschooling/ homeschooling if you want to drop out or educate yourself outside of school.
- The Youth Liberation Front has chapters across the U.S. Any young person can create a chapter or join an existing chapter. They focus on youth liberation, anarchism, and anti-fascism.
- The Purple Thistle Center, now defunct, is a great example of a community learning center run by young people
- “Student and Youth Organizing” is a pamphlet written by kids who successfully organized with Ann Arbor Youth Liberation in the 70s.
- “I Want To Do This All Day: Redefining Learning and Reinventing Education” is a podcast series on radical learning spaces.
- “Youth Liberation Handbook” by South Florida antifascists outlines basic sabotage tips for school resistance.
- school-survival.net, though a bit dated, has lots of resources and tips on surviving and resisting school.
- “Affinity Groups: Essential Building Blocks of Anarchist Organization” is a helpful basic guide on how to get together a group of friends and
- “Blockade, Occupy, Strike Back” details how to occupy a school.
Citations and books (at least partially) read during the writing of this essay:
 Black, Carol, “On the Wildness of Children.” Carol Black, carolblack.org/on-the-wildness-of-children. This first section is heavily inspired by Black’s essay.
 Cubberley, Ellwood Patterson. Public School Administration. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1916.
 Gray, Peter, “Children’s & Teens! Suicides Related to the School Calendar.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 31 May 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201805/children-s-teens-suicides-related-the-school-calendar.
 University of East Anglia. “First Year University Students Struggle to Remember Basic Concepts Learned the Year Before.” ScienceDaily, ScienceDaily, 25 June 2014, www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140625101659.htm.
 Neuman, Scott. “1 In 4 Americans Thinks the Sun Goes around the Earth, Survey Says.” NPR, NPR, 14 Feb. 2014, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/02/14/277058739/1-in-4-americans-think-the-sun-goes-around-the-earth-survey-says.
 Gray, Peter. “Unsolicited Evaluation Is the Enemy of Creativity.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 6 Oct. 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201210/unsolicited-evaluation-is-the-enemy-creativity.