Public School Pandemonium
My experience as a public school teacher
by Rachel Baxter
"A tax supported, compulsory educational system is the complete model of the
totalitarian state." -- Isabel Patterson, The God of the Machine
Remember the movie The Stepford Wives, starring Katharine Ross?
It was about a small town where all the men, through some sort of clandestine medical
procedure, turn their wives into robotic, zombie housewives. These creatures' primary
goals in life were how clean they could get their floors, and how nauseatingly subservient
they were to their husbands -- no matter how inept and ridiculous they were.
Ross knew there was something really wrong when her normally outspoken, feminist best
friend turned into one of these Betty Crocker androids. Ross was the only one who knew the
women were behaving strangely and that something was frighteningly off kilter. Her
desperate attempts at trying to alert her friends to this bizarre situation fall on deaf
Like Ross's character, I have experienced this Stepford Syndrome, although in a different
context: As a teacher in the public school system.
Let me explain.
Being a libertarian for 20 years, particularly a libertarian woman, I've often felt
somewhat apart from the crowd; certainly a contrarian in many ways. Couldn't imagine being
Although it frustrates and saddens me, I'm accustomed to most people shutting down,
resisting, or getting angry at the profound and crucial message of freedom that
libertarians like myself speak of. For a variety of reasons -- lack of knowledge,
emotionalism, laziness, or fear -- people shut their eyes, ears, and hearts to the insane
butchery of individual rights that is taking place all around them.
Yet, I've known this for a long time; it certainly isn't anything new. But no matter what
I've come up against as a libertarian, nothing (other than my own public education and my
beliefs on how kids learn best) prepared me for the harsh reality of what I witnessed
being done to kids in the public schools.
And like Ross's character, I was stunned that nobody -- teachers, parents, and
administrators -- thought anything was wrong. These were seemingly nice people, which made
it much harder to understand why they didn't see the enormous amount of harm they were
causing. Everywhere I turned, kids were subjected to some sort of emotional, physical,
intellectual, or spiritual carnage. The cruelty and madness of the system demanded that I
treat the children as they did.
Fortunately, I failed: I lasted six months.
I taught special education to 10 "intellectually disabled" (labeled
"ID") kindergarten, first-, and-third graders. A few of them had legitimate,
physiological problems, such as speech disorders, but the rest of them -- God forbid,
individuals that they were -- simply did not fit into a system that was incapable of
recognizing and nurturing the talents they already possessed or were developing.
In fact, the system was bent on destroying any uniqueness, intellectual curiosity, or
self-discovery that these kids brought with them into the school.
This wasn't just true for the special education kids. It is required that all children who
enter the doors of public schools leave any semblance of themselves outside. The intention
of government schooling is not to encourage kids' natural love and passion for learning,
and it's definitely not in the agenda to foster independence.
The system is specifically designed to chip away, piece by piece, a child's inherent right
to develop into an independent-minded, psychologically aware, autonomous human being.
This is not an exaggeration. Because I saw what was happening and was not able to stop it,
it felt like I was in prison.
By the way, ever notice how schools look like prisons? This is no accident. A friend of
mine calls the architectural style of some of the older schools "Gothic
Penitentiary." The school I taught in had ugly yellow institutional tiling lining the
hallway walls that reached above the childrens' heads. I imagined the kids must have
wondered if they were in one giant bathroom.
The environment was so madly chaotic that it was virtually impossible to learn anything,
let alone finish a conversation. Many times I'd be in the middle of a discussion or
project with a child and a bell would blast so loud, I'd have to cover my ears. Everyone
else would be oblivious to the intrusion and move to another place -- like rats in a cage.
Everybody rushed around as if something important was going on. If a child was in the
middle of doing something, he'd better HURRY UP and finish so he could move on to the next
In his book The Underground History of American Education, former New York State Teacher
of the Year, John Gatto writes, "By bells and other concentration-destroying
technology, schools teach that nothing is worth finishing because some arbitrary power
intervenes both periodically and aperiodically. If nothing is worth finishing, nothing is
worth starting. Love of learning can't survive this steady drill."
How do public schools curtail, control, or trample a child's growing sense of self? And
what are the real lessons learned by the child lurking behind the lessons being taught?
Here are some examples I've seen in the short time that I was teaching. There are many
* A 7-year-old boy walks into the class and finds his desk upside down and the contents
dumped all over the floor. All the kids listen while the teacher admonishes this child for
having a messy desk.
The child remains standing, immobilized and embarrassed, looking at the floor. He learns
it is okay to humiliate someone in front of others and that his property can be gone
through without his permission. He learns disrespect for the property of others.
* Children being forced to waste an inordinate amount of time waiting. They wait for other
kids to finish their work; for recess; to go in after recess; for lunch; to go in after
lunch; to answer a question; to ask a question; to go to the bathroom; to get on the bus;
to take roll.
They learn that wasting precious time is normal. They do not learn how to manage time for
* One teacher refused to open the windows or shades and kept the class in a continuous
semi-darkness. The psychological impact of sitting in a dark room every day is
devastating. It causes depression -- not to mention eye-strain. To not be able to look out
a window can certainly be likened to a prison sentence.
* Bribery in the form of food, stars, prizes, "free time," alone time, grades,
or other means of manipulation in order to get kids to learn material they found useless
and boring; to get them to stop moving, talking, or anything else the teacher thought was
disruptive to "the learning process."
They learn to shut down their own natural joy of learning for its intrinsic rewards; and
instead, perform like circus animals in order to get rewards.
* Legally drugging kids with amphetamines or other psychotropic medications in order to
control behavior. This is medicalizing and drugging normal childhood behaviors to control
kids; which in turn, causes dangerous side effects and even death.
Kids learn that they have no rights with respect to their physical and intellectual
* Punishment in the form of humiliation and physical pain (corporal punishment), failing
grades, isolation, prohibiting physical movement (taking away recess and making them sit
in desks for hours on end), or verbal insults.I would cringe every time a particular
teacher walked down the hall with her class. She always had something mean and nasty to
say to some poor child.
Kids learn that disrespect, cruelty, and physical force are the means used to getting what
they want. They learn to treat themselves in the same fashion and they equate learning
with drudgery, confinement, and pain.
* Preventing healthy, meaningful relationships by artificially fragmenting time,
separating younger kids from the older; "slower" from the "quicker";
popular from unpopular; competing with other students for teachers' attention; or teachers
and administrators functioning as guards instead of caring mentors.
Kids are conditioned to have a short attention span. They do not learn to effectively
socialize with varying age groups or intellectual abilities. They learn contempt for
"weaker" students and fear toward those who appear "stronger."
* Making ridiculous rules and regulations that children inevitably break; such as not
allowing toy guns, baseball bats and balls, and countless other fun toys and games that
kids throughout all of human existence, in some form or another, have used for play.
Along with all of the above, my school wouldn't let the younger kids climb too high on the
playground equipment. It was on the playground, but they couldn't use it! The learning
experiences of play are severely curtailed. Instead of the exhilaration and pride felt
upon mastering developmental skills, kids learn hesitancy and fearfulness.
* I was having a mundane conversation with a teacher. A child was sitting close by,
timidly watching us. In a spiteful tone of voice this teacher says to him, "We're not
talking to you; mind your own business."
The child immediately looks down and tries to be invisible. The child learns not to be
curious about what adults are saying and doing -- which is natural for children. He learns
it is fine to speak to someone with harshness and contempt.
* Kids have no privacy. There is nowhere to go to be alone -- even the private act of
going to the bathroom requires permission and often surveillance, and the child had better
HURRY UP and finish and get back to class!
Children learn to be uncomfortable with being alone. They have problems taking initiative
without asking an authority figure what to do.
* There is no time for the child to discover what he or she loves. All time is taken up by
what others deem to be useful or appropriate.
One child I know of always had a messy desk and had trouble writing neatly. The teachers
were always reprimanding him for this. One day he asked me if he could read a book to me.
We sat in the corner while he read perfectly from The Lord of the Rings. He was 9 years
The child learns that what he loves is unimportant and secondary to what others think is
significant. After a while, what he loves is so buried, it is barely -- if at all --
accessible, especially to himself.
* Kids being constantly told: "You need to learn this because you may use it when
you're an adult." Or: "Follow directions without questioning because when you
have a job, your boss is going to expect you to do as you are told."
The student learns that for the rest of her life, she'll be a subordinant -- always being
told what to do -- never being the boss herself. She learns that the present moment means
nothing other than to provide for some obscure time or reason in the future.
* Creativity, self-initiative, and originality are stamped out. All art classes (or other
extracurricular classes) require kids to construct replicas of what the teacher makes.
Successful artists, poets, and writers are not created within the public schools -- they
survive and prosper in spite of their schooling. Again, a child learns that ingenuity is
not something to be valued.
Why is it that very few people are aware of what's happening to kids in the government
schools? One reason is that most of us went to public schools so we don't even notice the
huge detrimental impact they have on kids, families, and society. I think kids are
retaliating with a deadly violence (Columbine, for example) to a system that mercilessly
Another reason, of course, is that the government should never have gotten involved in the
business of education in the first place. The vast bureaucratic system of government
schooling, like any dictatorial establishment, must fail. Let's hope so -- for the kids'
* References: Gatto, J. (2000). The Underground History of American Education: New York:
The Oxford Village Press.