Is School Ruining Our Children?

On our way to Colorado, we stopped at Crawdad Canyon, a manicured “rock climbing park” on private property in St. George, Utah. We pulled up to the locked gate at 9am and, as requested, called the old man running the place to come open it. “It’s early season,” he said, toothpick in his mouth, dungarees held up by suspenders,”but I like making exceptions for folks.” Normally I’d complain about being charged $18 admission to climb (wtf), but the old guy waved us on with his Jedi-Mormon mind trick, and we actually told him to keep the change. He was just so…nice. 

As soon as we pulled up to the crag, Soleil jumped out of the Trooper and scrambled up a boulder. Thirty seconds later she yells “Mama!” in that high pitched way she screams when she’s about to be attacked by the vacuum cleaner, and I raced over, ready to battle. After a full-body pat down and some tears, we went over the importance of paying attention to our surroundings. “If you see hundreds of red ants on a rock, don’t sit on it.” 

Fortunately a rough start didn’t ruin her day. 

Paying attention to one’s surroundings is a good lesson to learn and one I still have trouble with. I’m the hiker who gets lost a half mile from the trailhead. I’m blind to landmarks and struggle finding north unless the Pacific ocean is to my left. One time in Mexico, Kiki and I even walked into wet concrete up to our knees. “Lo siento!” I repeated, as the construction worker poured buckets of water between my toes

In the parlance of wildlife rehabilitators, I’d be unreleasable. 

But there is still hope for Soleil. 

I recently read an incredible article by Carol Black that you have to read, whether you have kids or not. It’s called “On the Wildness of Children” and it explains how children learn best through “open attention” as opposed to the focused attention we demand in classrooms.

State psychology researcher Suzanne Gaskins describes open attention as “widely focused, relaxed, alert… If something moves in the broad field of perception, the child will notice it.”

Black begins her essay with a history of modern schooling in America (it’s only been around a little over 100 years) and argues that despite our best intentions, education has become a suppressive institution that often does more harm than good.

“At the turn of the twentieth century educational theorists were quite open about the fact that they were designing schools for the purpose of adapting children to the new industrial order. Children must shed their “savage” wildness, these pedagogues maintained, and develop “civilized” habits like punctuality, obedience, orderliness, and efficiency.” 

The problem with this antiquated idea of education, Black argues, is that it aims to break children of their nature when in fact nature has endowed them with an unparalleled ability to absorb information. 

“Of course ‘open attention’ can’t teach you much if you’re confined for twelve years in a deprived learning environment: a cinderblock room with half-closed blinds…. Once you have been shut away from the world like this, and once you have turned off your natural state of open attention to the world, you don’t learn much when you’re finally let outside. Everything is a blur; everything bores you. ”

Even worse, by keeping children locked inside crowded classrooms with same-aged peers for twelve years and reducing unstructured play to twenty minutes on concrete, we’ve effectively caged them like wild animals in a zoo. Black argues that the many struggles we see in school age children today–ADHD, bullying, obesity, self-mutilation, depression, even crime–are the consequence of this confinement and forced attention.

And, yet, I loved school. All of it. Homework, lectures, report cards. I even liked taking tests. That’s how I proved my worth in life. I got As. How do you love me now bitches? But looking back I realize that even though I excelled academically, I missed out on something vital to well-being that I don’t want Soleil to lack: a nuanced understanding of nature, her nature.

All those years of good grades, and I never learned that to be happy, “you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”  (Mary Oliver). 

Which makes me wonder, if I’d started climbing when I was 21 instead of sticking needles in my arm, would it have relieved my angst and alienation and satisfied my need for adventure the way speed balling cocaine and heroin did? While I was at the climbing gym in Las Vegas, a busload of freshly de-toxed addicts of varying backgrounds showed up, and they were climbing all over the place. Never mind following a graded route, they just wanted to get to the top. It was instant obsession. And the camaraderie was amazing. They were cheering each other on, hooting and laughing. I’d never seen anything like it. Junkies in harnesses! They were taking smoke breaks, falling, getting back up again- getting STRONG.  It was awesome. Someone ought to open an outdoor adventure recovery program. 

Wait a minute. I think I might be Tree’s first patient! 

Anyhow, back to the school topic. The nerd in me just can’t write off classical education. There has to be a balance between open attention and focused attention. We need both, right? We need to be driven by passion, and we need to learn our multiplication tables.

We need to wiggle our toes in mud, and we need to sit still and read a book. 

Why do we think these things are mutually exclusive? There’s got to be something between un-schooling and ruled-by-the-bell-in-a-cinderblock schooling. Perhaps…dare I say,

Road-schooling? I’ll let you know how it goes 😉

If she’s got this kind of a smile, chances are it’s because….

her feet look like this. 

Black concludes that this de-wilding of our children isn’t just detrimental to their well-being, it’s destroying our planet. She explains that if we want to preserve the world, we need to embrace the wild within. For this reason, if no other, we must re-wild the child. 

“Species die, our planet warms, and in the name of teaching our children to save the world, we go on destroying their wildness, “socializing” them away from nature and into the cage we have built around childhood.  Our nice teachers try to find ways to make it “fun,” to limit or at least soften the damage that is done; like zookeepers giving beach balls to captive polar bears, they try to find substitutes for what is lost.  But the world is too beautiful to substitute for, and the wildest of our children––the ones they have to put on Ritalin, the ones they have to put on Prozac–– know it.  These children are the canaries in the coal mine, the ones who will not obey our masters, who will not take their place as cogs in the machine that is destroying the earth.  They are not the ones who have a “disorder.”  They are the ones who still hold the perfect Kosmos in their hearts.

The revolution will not take place in a classroom.

In wildness is the preservation of the world.”

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  1. Children aren’t kids any more…

  2. Read it and saved it. Going to read the other article you suggested

    • It’s amazing! It’s really long but worth the read. Still, I’m not against formal education. I just think it needs to be seriously re-designed. Our approach is more like prison, de-humanizing.

  3. I work for a virtual school which I feel gives children the structure they need in any environment they want and deserve. Best of both worlds.

    • Super cool. I think Soleil will probably attend a virtual school, supplemented with some educational field trips to foreign countries and special interest courses like climbing to spice it up! What school do you work at?

    • Stevie Trujillo Florida Virtual School (FLVS). Don’t be fooled by the name, we offer classes to children around the world, we just started in Florida. We have lots of kids who travel the world for various reasons, and having the flexibility to on their schedule allows them to do what they want, but still get a diploma. I love our slogan: Any Time, Any Place, Any Path, Any Pace.

  4. we are trying to figure out the same thing, keep the info/thoughts coming

    • Will do. We’re lucky there’s so much information and so many resources available these days. I’m actually excited about it. Nervous, too. It’s kind of a big deal being in charge of someone’s education. It’s a lot of pressure! But so far she seems to be learning just fine. Share any good info you get and I’ll do the same

  5. I was a Waldorf teacher, Kindergarten, for a few years. Totally trained, certified and all. Greatest thing for Kindergarteners. So much mud and dirt play it was crazy. This education is out there, just need to make it available for everyone.

  6. We were relaxed homeschoolers..very relaxed. Gus is now a freelance videographer. He never had a test until college…

  7. I’m a public school teacher and I think there are pluses and minuses to any approach. Kids need to learn to sit for extended periods of time and pay attention, but they also need outdoor activities and rich experiences outside of school. Either way, as long as you feed them, they’ll grow up. Make them the best humans you can

  8. “Don’t let school interfere with your education” -Mike Tyson

  9. Peter Gray has a lot to say about it in his book “Free to Learn”

  10. I think you’re exactly right. School was like being in jail.

  11. We thought we’d be back in a home for kindergarten. Just finished 5th grade home/road/world-schooling and I’m always amazed at what he has learned. Travel on, she’s one lucky kid!

  12. If you want your child to succeed in a system that fails the majority then school is the right choice

  13. ” I agree, especially when it starts so early each day @8:30 ” 🙁

  14. I am not a fan of public education for many reasons. It’s an interesting dilemma of course, what would all of the working mom and dads do with their kids during the day? I’m only half joking here…but really, most everyone is on a “government assembly line..” Living paycheck to paycheck.

    • You bring up a great point. School is free childcare, and most parents can’t afford an alternative to public education. So really the choices are 1) systemic change from the ground up (re-designing society), or 2) re-designing public education so that it compliments children’s natural desire to learn.

  15. Stevie Trujillo I may quickly fall upon my conservative sword by this reply, but I truly believe that the family is the focal point of education. When both parents are required to work in order to survive, traditional schools become the educational daycare programs they currently are. Some of the wisest, most open minded people are kids that have non-traditional education programs. My youngest daughter will be entering a blended program of home schooling with regular school attendance. Her school incorporates music, art, and languages in with regular studies (almost a Lycee approach towards learning). Only by allowing them to explore, venture, and learn will true education be possible. This type of learning requires a time commitment from parents where one parent likely will need to remain at home.

    • You say tomato, I say tomato. But conservative or liberal, we speak the same language here buddy. Must be our Lycée background 😉

    • Must be! I remember when my father took me around the world as a child. While at the time I didn’t fully appreciate it, now I’m older I’m very grateful for the experience. To see Europe, Egypt, the holy land, and such brought a level of learning that could never be repeated in a classroom. Also seeing various peoples and cultures made me appreciate others and the gifts of American citizenship I have.

    • I love that story. Thank you Paul!

  16. As a fresh first time mother of a 6-month old, I have opted for road-schooling. I will be homeschooling. I started the lesson plans a while ago. For example, when I’m going to teach him about the Civil War, then we’re going to head down there and see where it took place, watch the reenactments, and write about what we learned. I have similar ideas for art, science, language… math will come with real life applications, with the basics being taught on the road as games. Life is too short to be couped up indoors, and I only have a small amount of time to raise a human who believes in his own individuality and that he can make a difference. To balance this method of teaching with the traditional will be key.

  17. Nice blog, Stevie…having navigated a few children through the system…can see your nature versus conservative venue…positives to both..wish the system could incorporate both…however, when it comes to needing expert health care (total body), eye sight, dental, or otherwise…and/or financial advice…need to know that there are those that are in the know…question is now: can they only come from the traditional educational venue???

    • I 100% agree. Specialized education is a must for certain professions. And, frankly, I loved school, but I REALLY LOVED college. By the time kids are adults (college level), they can handle hours of lecture. And, ironically, you can make your own schedule in college, and I always divided my full-load up in a way that gave me ample breaks. It’s crazy that we put our elementary school kids through schedules more rigorous than I endured at UCLA.

    • If only all education could be of the montosori,integrated learning caliber…chief of staff/surgeon had K-8 integrated learning education…made such a difference for his future education…

    • True professionals need NOT come from traditional education… At least NOT before college or certification!

    • So true…highest SAT scores I have heard of came from home schooling…unfortunately not enough highy educated folks willing to home school children & the syste,

    • System is not there to accommodate all the students…(sorry about that glitch…iPad seems to have it’s own way)…

  18. The last thing I wish for my kindergartener is to be indoctrinated into “the american dream” or as I see it a prison sentence! We have what, for now, is perfect…a 70/30 in class/homeschool program! As he matures we will see how he does in this charter school program, I love it now, but as homework and standardized testing begins in 2-4th grade we will reevaluate. For now our tiny home living (5th wheel parked in beautiful RV park, with several young families) and mix of charter program is perfect!

  19. ❤️

  20. Finland is currently the happiest country on Earth. I think due in part to how their schooling takes place. They are all about play time outdoors instead of strict indoor instruction 8 hours a day. You lose sight of the world around you.

  21. From my personal experience in school, I completely lack proper education, even thou I graduated high school. My current fiancé thinks I have the education level of a 3rd grader. I am self taught in a lot of ways. I #1 grew up in rural NC on a farm of 900 acres; picking vegetables, fruits, corn, peanuts and you name it. You name it we mostly likely grew it. Because of this I feel very connected to nature and her ways. I can feel when she is in a drought, or when her soil is bountiful and plentiful for her plants and wildlife to grow and live on. I’m pretty decent at reading the sky. Like when a storm is coming our way, or some of the stars at night. I feel like I can walk around and be aware of my surroundings and not suck on my phone or electronic device. I feel knowledgeable knowing about different types of wildlife and their natural behaviors.
    I think what you doing for your daughter is fantastic. Nature is the one of greatest teacher’s in life.

  22. This is an interesting conversation. I love the approach of home schooling and letting the wildness stay in children.

  23. So I think we change the public education system. It won’t be easy but it can be done.

  24. I’m also obsessed with this topic and being back in the “charter” school system after 6 years away from public, has literally made me sick. What are we doing to our children and why?

  25. Don’t put those feet on ground they may become like Obama the failure

  26. The socialization argument always comes up, like we lived in a bubble as homeschoolers. We made fantastic life-long friends and were rarely “home”. We actually had to make sure we had “down days” because we were always with people.

  27. I always sat around the classroom looking outside, wishing I could be outside.

  28. Stevie Trujillo. This one is soooooo good and I agree with all of the points. I love you so much and hope we can get the girls together to wiggle their toes in the mud together very soon

  29. I would home school my child rather than rely on the fractured education system that is currently failing to teach key elements such as cursive writing and the importance of play and balance while inundating children with too much too soon and using illl-conceived methods of problem solving

  30. Yes to this – although my girls are only two I’m becoming increasingly concerned I’ll feel obligated to homeschool just so they can see the sky each day!!
    (But man I could really use the break sometimes with twin toddlers!!)

    • Twins! Homeschooling doesn’t necessarily have to be done in isolation. Form a group of like-minded parents and everyone will benefit.

    • I homeschool & highly recommend it! We are part of a group that does weekly classes, park days, & frequent field trips together. It’s fantastic! There are lots of things the kids can do independently when you need a break. 🙂

  31. Wren would be so all over this!

  32. As a teacher, I would agree that school is, in fact, suppressing the creative abilities of our children. But I must add to that and say, after teaching in several countries and experiencing the classroom culture elsewhere, the US offers the best opportunity for students to thrive, grow, and nurture creativity. The US is mistakenly labeled as a country with poor education (ironically by Americans) and it is simply not true. I’m grateful I received my education there and that my kids (for the most part) did as well.

  33. It’s frustrating. I have no desire to home school, I think being a good teacher takes a certain set of skills that I don’t have and frankly I think some kids work and learn better with non-parent figures than they would with their parent – depends on the kid. BUT the public school – 15 min of outside time (?!?!), homework in Kindergarten??? too many worksheets, overcrowded. I don’t like the idea of supporting a private company by sending my kid to a charter school, but that said, it seems like a necessity at least in Las Vegas if you want something (slightly) better for your child. I feel like our resources should go toward the public schools instead. We should stop the redshirting to give all kids a fair chance. Ok I am off my soapbox now.

  34. Mom of grown relaxed homeschooler here…advice – a lot of things that are supposed to be important, just aren’t.

  35. When I was first exploring homeschooling, I found this book tremendously encouraging & interesting. Highly recommended!

    • I’ll check this book out. Thank you!

    • I had a long conversation with a woman in Alaska who’d examined multiple styles of homeschooling before settling on one curriculum. Different strokes for different learners.

    • Exactly! This book gives a brief overview of the different styles so you can narrow it down to one(s) that might suit your family. I would also recommend attending a homeschool convention. There’s a big one coming up in Ontario in June- the Great Homeschool Convention.

  36. Thanks Margot!

  37. Between watching Sol grow up and the Bum kids, I get to always think, that’s how I would have done it had I chosen the parenthood path.

  38. We finally got to meet them in person the other day. The kids played a game of duck duck goose and it was very international. Sol said it Spanish, the Bums did a mid-western version, and a different boy stuck to the straight DDG version. It was really funny!

  39. Stevie so awesome.

  40. Stevie, another avenue to consider is ADHD. I agree that this problem exists, I have a son that is hyperactive (as I believe I was). I was allowed to explore, get outside, play and use up my energies. So does my son. The more physical active, exploring, playing he is, the better in school he does. Lock him in a classroom, he begins to fail.

    • The book I recommended above has suggestions for ADHD type situations. They call it “kinetic learning”. Some students learn better if they are also using their bodies somehow in the process. 🙂

  41. What a great perspective! I think there may be some generalizing (e.g. cutting is connected to some victims of child abuse, not caused by boredom). But the idea of road schooling would wildly interest my son, who was raised with me buckling them up and going on explore (no destination predetermined). There is incredible value to observing your surroundings, and delving into foreign ones to see what you appreciate and what intrigues you. Self discovery lags in classrooms, but blossoms outside. Like you, I loved school (but because home was not safe); living in my head felt safer, so academics worked. But scouts, camps, trips, wanderings, and all that time outside helped me discover and to test what I was made of…at different ages. I guess it’s all good.

    • I loved school for the same reason. It was so nice knowing where I stood. If I worked hard, I got As (Read: I was good/loved/accepted). I leaned hard, maybe too hard, on school or the mind as a means to feel self-worth. But, like you, it all balanced out in time. I guess it really is all good 🙂

  42. In the past decade home schooling has become another norm… a good thing! there are many schools that have the kids outside a lot, but it takes a bit of searching to find them.

  43. I have only inappropriate comments, look there, nevermind.

  44. Great post! I’m like you – I loved school… mostly because I was able to win at that game. I’m a pleaser so getting A’s brought me great rewards. Now, though, It’s clear to me that when I need to pass an exam, it’s time for regurgitation, not learning. I’m a kinetic and auditory learner that learned to hold on to written info long enough to do well in school. Stories and practice, though, are how I truly learn. The most disappointing thing for me was that following the formula: get good grades, do well in college, get a good job, etc. didn’t work out for me. I’ve never been paid more because I was the smartest student in the room… And that was the goal of that formula, right? The unwritten promise of wealth and, if you were the smartest and hardest working, early retirement, so you can then enjoy life.

    Now at 41, I’m career changing to something that you don’t need to be that smart to do, but that I love and is very lucrative. I think it’s taken me this long because I learned early to please a boss/teacher, etc. But in this new thing, I am my own boss, so I constantly look for someone to provide approval that I’m getting the good grades, on the right path, etc… even though I KNOW it’s the right path for me.

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