Why Schools Fail Us – Teaching Conformity

Crying studentOver the last few decades the public debate around schools has centered around why schools are failing. This article suggests that schools are actually not failing, they are doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, which renders the original question irrelevant.

Far better questions to ask are how and why schools fail us. Because schools fail us tremendously, as this article makes clear.

If you’ve ever felt out of place in school, bored, frustrated or flat-out disappointed, then this article is for you. I know I have.

School Dumbs Us Down

The modern compulsory schooling system is widely considered one of the crowning achievements of our civilization? After all, who in their right mind would criticize the idea of providing a state-regulated education for the masses? Surely the education system is something we should all be proud of.

But beneath the thin veneer of ubiquitous good held up by the schooling system lurks a dark history of social control.

The provocative book, “Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum Of Compulsory Schooling”, written by teacher of the year John Taylor Gatto, launches a whithering criticism of the modern compulsory schooling system. Writing based on his 30 years of experience as a teacher in New York, Gatto expands on the idea that schools actually aren’t failing. They are doing exactly what they were designed to do centuries ago, with stupendous efficacy: dumbing us down.

Ignorance sign


Gatto writes in “Dumbing Us Down”:

“The system was perfected at the University of Chicago, Columbia Teacher’s College, Carnegie-Mellon and Harvard […] funded by captains of industry and was explicitly set up to ensure a docile, malleable workforce to meet the growing changing demands of corporate capitalism. It ensures a workforce which will not rebel, which will be physically, intellectually and emotionally dependent upon corporate institutions for their incomes, self-esteem, and stimulation, and that will learn to find social meaning in their lives solely in the production and consumption of material goods.

And that’s only in the first chapter. Gatto then goes on to explain how schools and teachers set about instilling this “physical, intellectual and emotional dependence” in students. He writes that no matter where the school is, most all of them teach the same seven lessons, which are:

  1. Confusion – Since everything taught in school is taught out of context, students learn nothing about how everything in the universe is connected. Instead, subjects are cordoned off, abstracted and taught in brief doses with no relevance to the larger picture. We don’t acquire knowledge which can be used to improve our lives.
  2. Class position – As students, most of us learn that those at the top are the most “skilled” at school and those at the bottom are the “lost causes.” This creates a social pyramid we all begin to fit ourselves into from the time we are in preschool. We don’t need to be convinced of fitting into the pyramid. We have no other choice, as it is a lesson which is unconsciously taught to students in most schools.
  3. Indifference – How many times are we forced to learn things which we care nothing about? The stereotype of the bored school student emerged for a reason: the thirst for knowledge can’t be forced or coerced out of a person. So what is the only option available to a student who isn’t learning what he or she wants to learn about? To become indifferent to all learning. This ensures students, and then adults, will never develop their own curiosity and will remain trapped at the level of knowledge dictated by schools.
  4. Emotional dependency – Instead of making choices for ourselves, in school we are taught to surrender our agency to a hierarchical organization which manages our behavior from a centralized point of authority. We’re taught to ask for permission for everything: to ask a question, to voice an opinion, even to go to the bathroom! This teaches us to rely on authorities when it comes to setting the course of our lives.
  5. Intellectual dependency – Instead of thinking, questioning, discovering and creating for ourselves, we wait for an authority figure to determine what we can dedicate our attention to and how we should do it. This ensures we fail to develop critical thinking and self-examination skills. School renders us dependent on experts for when it comes time to consider our options in life.
  6. Provisional self-esteem – Constant evaluation and judging from authority figures renders our self-respect provisional on others’ opinions, rather than our own. When we are unable to appreciate ourselves as we are, to believe that we truly are enough, we become permanently dependent upon external approval. The gold star, the A+, the white ribbons of excellence, all are symbols for “A job obediently done.”
  7. One can’t hide – Conditioning people from a young age to believe that they can’t hide, that they are always under surveillance, is an effective way of maintaining control over a society. Without privacy to think, reflect and make mistakes, an individual is rendered stunted, permanently confined to life as an underdeveloped human being.

camera surveillance

Did You Learn These Seven Lessons In School?

Because I sure did. I was never even aware of it while it was happening. For most of my time in school I was an A student. All I did was what I was told to do, believing that I was setting myself up for success, for living a life which truly resonated with my soul.

Boy was I ever wrong. I was learning the seven lessons. They fundamentally molded the way I perceived the world; people, work options, personal interests, they all were impacted by the seven lessons I learned as a student in school.

I only started learning about the schooling system after I received my graduate degree. Imagine that, I spent 20 years of my life in school and I never even had the thought of questioning the process I was going through. That’s how effective the system is at curtailing inquisitiveness.

Once I started learning about the schooling system; the reasoning behind its inception and its ultimate purpose, I became angry. Because I realized that the most innocent, curious and relaxed years of my life were spent in the clutches of the compulsory schooling system, which dumbed me down along with all of my friends.

I would never get those years back. So anger was a reasonable response.

But I Didn’t Stay Angry

Instead, I began discovering my curiosity. I dusted off the gears of my mind and began churning them under my own direction and not that of an authority figure. For the first time in my life I began following my curiosity, developing my interests and figuring out how I fit into the world and what I could do to positively contribute to the human endeavor.

I began slowly, but following our curiosity is a self-perpetuating process. Like a snowball rolling down a hill, progressively acquiring momentum. Once we start pursuing topics and activities which tickle our mind, nothing short of death can stop us.

As I read books, listened to music and watched video essays, documentaries and films, I began to see everything that school had taken from me, and replaced in its stead.

School Conditioned Me To Compete With Others, Not Collaborate

I was an A student starting from junior high. I always came in as one of the top students in my class, up until graduate school, when I became indifferent to school (finally). As soon as I became a great student I also became an elitist. Instead of looking at my classmates as people I could help, I looked at them as adversaries I needed to crush in order to hold my spot at the top of the social pyramid.

chess game

This attitude spread out from school and into all areas of life. No matter the field of endeavour, I would ceaselessly compare myself to others and derive my self-worth based on the result of my comparison. Be it in physical appearance, height, wit, humor or athleticism (I wasn’t athletically inclined, but that didn’t stop me from comparing myself), I incessantly compared myself to others. I felt good when I came out on top and bad when it was the other way around.

School Taught Me To Only Compete

I learned to look at others as adversaries. Which is in accordance with what most people believe is Darwinism. The whole “Survival of the fittest” concept. According to the popular belief, living organisms are engaged in an endless competition for resources. The most aggressive, effective organisms thrive and procreate, the failures don’t.

Except that’s not how life works. Darwin didn’t even coin the phrase “Survival of the fittest” it was someone else, a man named Herbet Spencer who came up with it after reading “On The Origin Of Species” which was published in 1864. It was a misinterpretation of Darwin’s work.

In a later, lesser known work, “The Descent Of Man”, published in 1871, Darwin concludes that it’s actually the most collaborative of us who survive and reproduce, not the most competitive. And more and more research in anthropology, zoology, primatology and psychology is bearing this out. It’s the kindest of us who succeed, not the most competitive and aggressive.


caressing a puppy


So for 20 years school conditioned me to go against my evolutionary heritage of collaboration. Eventually I threw off the conditioning, but not before it caused me a good deal of strife.

School Conditioned Me To Give Up Thinking For Myself

The 1st, 4th and 5th lessons written about by Gatto manifested themselves in my life through my incapacity to figure out what I wanted to do with myself as a young adult. Because I had never dedicated any time to pursue personal creative interests (other than playing video games), I had no idea what I actually wanted to do for work nor what I was good at nor interested in.

The way I figured it, if all I did was do as I was told; go to school and get good grades, I would end up with a great life. A successful, meaningful life.

But school didn’t lead me in that direction. It instead made me give up my agency, to surrender my creative power to the currents of life and become a victim of circumstance. And for a while I just accepted that was it for me, mediocre dissatisfaction. For years I was miserable, knowing full well that I was living a life which I hated, yet I lacked all the tools to come up with a solution to my challenges.

What is the purpose of education if not to provide us with the tools to better ourselves?

Today I Am Grateful For The Challenges I Faced

I am grateful for what school did to me. If I hadn’t been put through the intellectually and emotionally crippling schooling system I would not have had the chance to discover things for myself. And I would not be writing this now to help others who are presently going, or have already gone, through the same thing.

We all face our personal challenges. Our success is determined by how we respond to our challenges. One of mine was transcending the “dumbing down” I experienced in school. If you’re interested, here is how I did it.

I can tell you, from personal experience, that nothing in life is as satisfying as developing the tools to be the active creator of our life rather than a passive victim. Everyone can do it with patience, persistence and the right motivator.

School (Almost) Killed My Creativity

In one of the most popular TED talks ever, Sir Ken Robinson, an education expert and advocate for rethinking school, says:

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original […]. We’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. The result is we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

Additionally, In “Dumbing Us Down” Gatto writes that people need to make their own mistakes or they will never master themselves.

Making mistakes is the fundamental mechanism for learning. Look at a baby who is learning to walk and you will see the teaching power of mistakes in action. We all fell countless times before we learned to walk. Yet, according to school, babies who are learning to walk are performing very poorly and should be judged accordingly. Following the philosophy set in most schools, babies shouldn’t be allowed to graduate from walking to running unless they make it through the walking stage with only a few mistakes.

Baby walking


We Learn Through Pain

Mistakes are so essential to figuring ourselves out that we have a physiological mechanism which provides us immediate feedback when we do something wrong, according to our biology. It’s called pain. Touching fire, running our finger over a razor blade or putting our tongue on a frozen pipe in winter are all examples of how mistakes instruct us through pain.

And this pain mechanism isn’t confined to physical mistakes. It also applies to immaterial mistakes; the pain of heartbreak, of loneliness, of being financially broke. It is only by confronting our mistakes and the choices which led us to them that we can learn how to make better choices for ourselves.

Yet, according to Sir Ken Robinson, we’re taught in school that mistakes are the worst thing we can possibly make. We become so frightened of making mistakes, of getting the big, red exes, that we become fixated on always having all the answers, on always being right. That’s how corporations have historically been run, incidentally, a competent worker was one who always knew everything.

But who can know everything about life? About love? And art?

Mistakes are priceless because they teach us about our limitations. Without making mistakes we can’t learn what we’re capable of, which means we run the risk of not discovering the genius which lies within each of us. Genius is actually quite common, but few of us take the risks to allow our own genius to shine through.

I Was Terrified Of Making Mistakes

For a few years I believed I had chosen my professional path in life and there was nowhere else for me to go but forward on a path I was indifferent to. My heart knew I didn’t care about it. But because I was afraid of making mistakes it took me a while to make the choice to leave that path behind. I did do it eventually, and I will forever be grateful to myself for having had the courage to face the unknown and run the risk of making mistakes.

And I did end up making mistakes after leaving that professional path, but they weren’t nearly as dreadful as I thought they would be. We do tend to catastrophize things.

School Conditioned Me To Sit Still

Our brains and bodies evolved to be in dynamic balance with an ever-changing environment. Neuroscientist Daniel Wolpert believes that the brain evolved not to think or feel but to control movement.

If you think about it, only living beings which move have brains. If you don’t move you don’t need a brain. The story of the sea squirt is a great example of this. A sea squirt is a marine organism which as a larva has a simple brain and nervous system, it is capable of self-propulsion and it has an eye with which it can tell light from dark. The sea squirt spends its larval stage swimming through the ocean, looking for a place to anchor itself down permanently. Once it finds a proper spot, with access to passing food particles, it anchors itself to the surface and digests its brain and nervous system. It no longer needs to move to eat, so it no longer needs a brain.

I wonder what that means for couch potatoes?

Couch potatoes


We Need To Move To Be Mentally And Physically Healthy

Studies show that old people who walk are not only healthier but also more open to experience than those who don’t. Moving allows us to interact with the world; to navigate the ocean of relationships which exist between each of us and the world at large. We live through movement.

But in school we’re forced to sit down for hours on end in uncomfortable chairs in sterile rooms, cut off from the world. We don’t learn to navigate the world intellectually nor physically, instead, we learn about the world as an abstraction, a place which is “out there.”

Knowing that the modern schooling system emerged out of the needs of industrialization allows us to explain why “sitting still and shutting up” is so important to the schooling system. Schools prepared workers for monotonous jobs in factories which required sitting still in one spot for entire workdays.

And most schools operate the same way today.

But it’s not all bad. Experiments in “activity permissive classrooms” are now showing that allowing children to move while they learn gives them the flexibility to expend energy while allowing them to focus better on their work rather than sitting still.

We’re learning that taking breaks to move helps us learn and be creative, and some schools are implementing these ideas.

School Hurts Us, But It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way

Up until now I’ve written at length about the ways school hurts us. But not everything is doom and gloom. The world is waking up to the terrible nature of the schooling system and changes are being implemented. It’s slow going, but alternative systems of schooling are garnering more attention.

Systems like Montessori, which views children as naturally eager for knowledge and capable self-directed learning in a sufficiently supportive environment. Or democratic schooling systems like Sudbury Valley and Summerhill; where students take responsibilities for their own lives and learning as well as for the school community.

These systems have been around for a while, so they have a proven track record of effectiveness. For example, this Wall Street Journal article, titled “The Montessori Mafia”, reports that the Montessori schooling approach might be the surest route to joining the ranks of the creative elite. Google founders Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and rapper Sean “P.Diddy” Combs all went to Montessori schools.

The issue is that these are private, exclusive schooling systems, which are out of reach of most people.

But We Can Apply Their Methods!

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn about what makes them so effective and apply their methods to our own lives! They also show that there are methods of schooling which are vastly more effective than what most of us have been through. Knowing that there are other, better options out there can then allow us to reach for better.

Schools are charged with one of the most, if not THE most, important task in our civilization. The formation of our children into compassionate, effective, self-reliant adults capable of living in harmony with others. In their present state, most schools succeed only at making formulaic, manageable, conformative citizens who do as their told.

This arrangement seemingly benefits the people at the top of the social pyramid, the owners of the corporations we work for, but that’s not the case. By curtailing our potential, the schooling system leaves us all the poorer, regardless of where we fit in the social hierarchy. Because we are all connected.

We All Have Options

If you’re currently going through the schooling system then I invite you to read about alternative methods of schooling. If they are available to you, I encourage you to discuss it with your parents or guardians. If such a school isn’t accessible to you then not all is lost. By following your own curiosity you can also prepare yourself to be an effective, critically thinking adult. The internet has democratized education, for those who take matters into their own hands.

And if you’re like me and you already went through the schooling system and are never going back, but find that your experience in school was terribly lacking, then start following your curiosity! The flame of curiosity is always there, waiting for us to follow it, despite school’s best attempts at snuffing it out. Who knows what will happen fi you do…

You might just learn to enjoy learning!

To our wealth and success.

What do you think about the article? What was your experience in school like? Did you know about the existence of these alternative schooling systems? I welcome your comments.

Share the wealth!

4 thoughts on “Why Schools Fail Us – Teaching Conformity”

  1. Despite all the academic glories, I knew there was something the school didn’t teach me and somewhat failed me. Back then, thinking out of the norm wasn’t okay. You should just stick by the curriculum and ‘everything’ was going to be okay – that was the mindset instilled upon me from the beginning. I was taught to follow, but not to create and that’s the biggest problem I see with all A-listers today. 

    • Hello Cathy. I’m sorry to hear about how the schooling system failed you, too. I wrote the article to show readers that they’re not alone if they’re feeling like “somehow” school forgot to teach them the most important things.

      The good news is that more and more of us are waking up to the terrible ways school limits us. And there are solutions! I invite you to tead the other articles on the website if you’re interested in learning about them.

      I wish you all the best,

  2. Hi Erick, thanks for this article! I think I am along the same wavelength for much of this. Indeed, I was homeschooled up until I was 15 years old – not learning a single academic thing for the few remaining years in public education (as I had learned everything a school could teach before entering). Having had both the internal and external perspective, I feel that it has allowed me to see a lot of the fallacies and the needs for improvement. Perhaps most importantly, I now think about how I am going to proceed with the future of my sons as they head towards the age of needing to make these choices! 

    • Hello A Jaynes and thanks for reading the article. I didn’t write about the homeschooling phenomenon, but I’ve read that many people who are homeschooled find great success in life! I find it awesome when parents follow their intuition and go against the grain when educating their children.

      Your experience is invaluable. Your sons are lucky to have a father who knows what it’s like within and without the system. I’m confident you’ll be able to rely on your experience to make great choices for your sons, at least until they get old enough to rebel and decide for themselves!


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