Why Don't People Learn in School?
Our brains and spirits are the freest things in the universe.
Our bodies can live in chains, but our intellects cannot. It's
that simple. The mind will be free, or it will be dead. It
can be numbed, quieted, and restrained so that it memorizes names
of Portuguese explorers and plods through grades one to twelve. If
it is fiercely alive and teamed up with a forgiving spirit, it may
find a way to be free even in school, and stay awake that way. But
these strategies are defenses, not full-fledged learning. Albert
Einstein, as compassionate and insightful as he was brilliant,
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; for this delicate little plant, aside from
stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it
goes to wrack and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake
to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be
promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.
There are other reasons school prevents learning too - fear of
"bad" grades, lack of faith in one's abilities (usually
due to previous unpleasant experiences with grades - including A
minuses), an occasional uninformed teacher, illogical or
inherently dull teaching methods and books, lack of individual
attention, oxygen-starved classrooms.
These problems are the ones the educators can see. They exhaust
themselves seeking solutions - hiring the smartest teachers they
can get, searching the ends of the earth for easier ways to learn
spelling, providing counseling services, buying textbooks with
technicolor photographs, working hard on "anticipatory
sets" (the beginning part of lessons which are supposed to
"grab students' attention"). Most of these educators -
especially when they are teachers rather than superintendents of
school boards - do some good. If lots of people continue to go to
school, I hope that the idealistic educators continue their
efforts. These efforts make school more pleasant, the same way
that clean sheets and warm blankets make a prison more pleasant
than do bare scratchy mattresses with thin covers.
Their efforts cannot, however, make you free. Even if they
encourage you to write research papers on topics that interest
you, even if they reduce the amount of homework they assign, they
cannot encourage you to joyfully follow your own intellectual
mysteries, except in your spare time after your homework. To do so
would be to completely undermine the basic structure of the
Because they can never make you free, schools can never allow
you to learn fully.
Love of Learning
If you had always been free to learn, you would follow your
natural tendency to find out as fully as possible about the things
that interest you, cars or stars. We are all born with what they
call "love of learning," but it dives off into an
elusive void when we go to school.
After all, school does not help you focus on what you love,
because it insists that you devote equal time to six or so
"subjects." While interviewing an unschooled actress for
GWS #73, editor Susannah Sheffer made an astute
observation: "It's funny that people think kids should be
well-rounded but don't seem to have the same expectations of
adults. Adults seem to realize you can't do everything." In
Thoreau laments, "Our lives are frittered away by
detail," and admonishes, "Simplicity, simplicity,
simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a
hundred or a thousand."
Beyond the love and pursuit of something specific, there's
another quality you might also call love of learning. It's simple
curiosity, which kills more tired assumptions than cats. Some
people move around with their ears and eyes perked open like
raccoons, ready to find out something new and like it.
However, curiosity is another stubborn quality that thrives on
freedom; therefore, school squishes it. Curiosity is an active
habit - it needs the freedom to explore and move around and get
your hands into lots of pots. It needs the freedom to thumb
through Science News and stop only where you want to. It
needs the freedom to browse through your library's whole shelf of
poetry. It needs the freedom to visit the zoo solo, spending an
hour with the prairie dog colony and walking right past the
giraffes, or vice versa.
Curiosity puts itself on hold when it isn't allowed to move at
its own pace. I am thinking of the week-long field trip our middle
school took to Washington, D.C., and of how my own curiosity took
a nap during most of our "guided tours," even at the
"fun" places like Williamsburg and Jamestown, and how I
raced around excitedly when we had an unleashed day at the
On the up side, the ironic truth is that everyone loves to
learn - or at least did as a baby, and can get to be that way
again. As John Holt points out, "Children do not need to be
made to learn about the world, or shown how. They want to, and
they know how."