Last night, I dreamt that I was trapped in a box.
I was in high school again, sitting at an antique desk with a wraparound writing surface (right-handed of course, for a left-handed child) and I was more bored than any person should ever be. As the teacher played out their sanctioned role, trying to make compulsory education “fun” and “engaging,” I sat in a stupor, craving some stimulation lest the torpor become permanent and turn me into a compliant drone for life.
I refused to be turned into a cubicle occupant. In the dream, my solution was to stand up and start removing the bug screens from the windows. My boredom was temporarily cast aside, and the fresh air flowed into the classroom, enlivening the other occupants, reminding them of the real world. The teacher frowned in annoyance.
It was a win-win. A small act of rebellion, no doubt, but I would not be cowed into sitting meekly.
This dream could have been a flashback. I behaved this way in high school, pushing the boundaries as far as I could, ignoring teachers unless they earned my respect (and even then ignoring rules that seemed silly to me), giving friendship only to those teachers who in turn pushed the boundaries. I respected them as people, but after all, they were being paid to attend school. I was legally obligated.
Education can be a great experience, but at least here in the United States, the school system exists entirely to serve the dominant economic system. Grades separate out those with the combination of traits—intelligence (defined in the most culturally blinkered and capitalist terms) and obedience—that make them suitable to be the next managers. Those who fail will make up the poor and working class from which wealth will be extracted. Punitive measures and the brutal, relentless school-to-prison pipeline enforce and inculcate white supremacy.
It’s the Prussian educational model, barely modified in the last 250 years.
Industrial schooling also deepens the damage caused by abuse, homelessness, and neglect. Children in distress, far from receiving the love and care and attention that they need, are expected to sit still, shut up, and play nicely. The school system’s academic framework not only fails to serve these kids; it makes everything worse. Bullying, social competition, stigmatization, criminalization, and social cliques that mature in full-blown xenophobia are the inevitable results of a framework designed for one demographic: white, bourgeois, nuclear-family, patriarchal households.
As a system of education and social control within a brutal empire built on slavery, imperialism, and land theft, our schools function perfectly.
I’m all for reform. Small improvements are meaningful where they can be made. My 10th grade journalism teacher kept me—and countless others—thinking critically with his hard-hitting analysis of how advertising and mass media manipulates thought to encourage racism, nationalism, warmongering, consumerism, and objectification. There were a few other bright spots, islands of sanity in an ocean of conformity to the status quo.
But by itself, reform is never enough. The school system isn’t broken; it’s functioning exactly as it was meant to. Liberalism’s incessant focus on education as the solution to social problems channels endless streams of idealistic young people into the school system, where they are almost inevitably broken by endless bureaucracy and 50-hour work weeks. Otherwise that energy could be put to revolutionary purposes, and that doesn’t suit the system.
My dream last night reminded me of the truth. School, far from enlightening us, is stultifying. The school system—like capitalism, like American empire, like industrial civilization—is functionally irredeemable. Beyond a certain point, it’s incapable of being meaningfully reformed. Sure, improvements can (and should) be made. But might we be better off just scrapping the whole thing and starting from scratch?
I’ve been told that in Mohawk culture, children are treated as “miniature adults,” and are expected to learn mainly through participation in the activities of the community. Real learning comes from being embedded in a functional community engaging in the tasks of survival and self-governance—not from being trapped in a box.
This is taken so seriously that children remained beyond the barricades during the Oka standoff near Montreal in 1990, standing with the warrior societies as the Canadian military flexed its colonial muscle to stifle indigenous sovereignty. We can learn from this level of commitment to teaching children things that have real value, and exposing them to the real world.
In a world flush with refugees, overwhelmed by neo-colonialism, sweltering under global warming, sweating in fear of rising fascist elements, and yoked with the chains of sex and race oppression, perhaps it’s time we gave up on the school system and started working to tear it, and the system it supports, down.
Max Wilbert is a writer, activist, and organizer with the group Deep Green Resistance. He lives on occupied Kalapuya Territory in Oregon.