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We're Making Our Kids Miserable in School

03/31/2015 12:49 pm ET | Updated Aug 07, 2015
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Years ago, I was in a coffee shop and overheard the following conversation between two fathers sitting at the table next to me. As I listened, it became clear they both had children in the sixth grade. One of the men said, with a downcast expression on his face, "Dan hates school. He drags his feet onto the bus every single day. He hates math. He says there's no point to it. He thinks English is boring. There isn't one part of the day he looks forward to."

The other guy scrunched up his face skeptically. "What's that got to do with anything? He doesn't need to like it. He just needs to do it. I mean, jeez, it's not a birthday party. They're going because they gotta be ready."

His friend tilted his head a little. "Ready? Ready for what? " "Ready to make something of themselves. It's a snake pit out there. I don't know about you, but I want Rudy to have a leg up. And if he thinks I'm gonna pay for some fruity-tooty college, he's got another think coming. There's a reason for all this schooling. It's not just so he can feel good."

Nor is it just parents who think that education is first and foremost a path to a job. Many of our nation's most ardent advocates for education have made their case by showing that schooling pays off, both for individuals and for society.

When Bill de Blasio became mayor of New York City in January 2014, he quickly proposed making early childhood programs available to all children in the city. His concern reflected his progressive values and an understanding (long overdue on the part of politicians) that a good social and intellectual environment in early childhood is key to healthy development. As soon as de Blasio put forth his plan, he ran up against intense opposition. But what really stood out in the first days of this political conflict was how the newspapers covered the issue. The first articles describing de Blasio's proposal and the opposition to it said virtually nothing about actual children -- what their daily lives were like with and without good care. Instead, the articles discussed the economic and political ramifications of the proposal -- what might be gained in the long run if the city provided day care to its youngest inhabitants.

Reading those accounts, you would never know anything about the real little boys and girls who were or were not eating, napping, being read to, playing freely in safe and pleasant places, getting their needs met by kind adults, and enjoying their days. Our somewhat single-minded focus on education as a means to a financial end, rather than on children themselves, evokes a much earlier time when children were viewed primarily in terms of their financial utility.

In 1729, Jonathan Swift proposed a solution to the terrible poverty plaguing Ireland, with the long and expressive title A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public. In it, Swift suggested that the people of Ireland could kill two birds with one stone by eating their babies. That way, he argued, they would both have an endless source of food and cut down on the population of those needing to be fed. Moreover, he added, it would be good for the restaurant business.

His satire seems ludicrous. Who would eat their children? Who would sacrifice the well-being of children for the well-being of the adult community? Only a society that hates its young. On the face of it, such a view seems opposite to the one we hold in the United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century. We bubble over with concern about children. This can be seen in the abundance of child care information, educational products, clothing lines, healthy menu plans for children, and media featuring cute children and offering advice about how to be the best possible parent. We appear as if we are a society obsessed with children. But actions speak louder than words. And just like the adults mocked by Swift, adults in the United States today neglect the well-being of children, particularly other people's children.

We allow children to be served food that will make them sick, both at home and at school. We tolerate the fact that millions of children have no access to good day care. Employers force parents back to work soon after the birth of a child, preventing them from spending essential time at home with their new babies. Perhaps most paradoxically, our educational system forces many children to spend their days in crowded and unpleasant classrooms in unsafe school buildings, encountering boredom, constriction, harshness, and disregard. So Swift's satire is a bit more relevant than it might seem at first blush.

Disregard for children's daily well-being expresses itself in other less direct but no less potent ways. For example, we encourage our least qualified graduates to go into teaching and discourage our most qualified from doing so. Soon after I got my doctorate in developmental psychology, I applied for a job teaching second grade. The principal looked at my resume and asked, "Aren't you overqualified to teach little kids? " Many of my students at Williams College tell me that their relatives beg them not to become schoolteachers, because it would be a waste of a stellar education.

Taken together, all of these facts about the lives of young children suggest that we care little about the daily joys and sorrows of our youngest citizens. Public discourse about children is usually framed in terms of what will happen when they are adults, and those outcomes are usually framed in economic terms. But this long-term connection between early childhood and economic outcomes need not, and should not, preclude a concern for what young children actually feel, think, and do. Money in the future should not obscure well-being in the present.

Our tunnel-vision emphasis on the importance of money has led to another pernicious problem. It has fueled an insidious two-tiered vision of education, in which there is one kind of school for the needy and another kind for the masters of the universe. Often it is the rich who promote such a view, thinly disguised as concern for the poor. In 2010, I wrote an op-ed piece for a newspaper in which I argued that we should replace the ever-growing laundry list of skills and information we demand of our classrooms with a simpler, shorter list. I argued that children needed time to play, to think, and to talk. The reaction to the piece was overwhelming. Some readers loved my argument and others hated it. One of the most vehement responses came from a venture capitalist, someone who had contributed significant time and money to supporting a group of charter schools in the city where he lived. He ranted about me in his blog, and I discovered how angry he was when the Internet lit up with responses from teachers across the country who were gleeful that I had made this man so mad. When I wrote to him to correct some misinformation, he wrote back to tell me that while the kind of school I had in mind would be great for his three girls, it would never do for "these other kids" -- poor kids, the ones he was trying to help.

Over the past hundred years we have, without exactly meaning to, stretched schools in two directions at once. On one hand, we have demanded with greater and greater urgency that our schools lift up the bottom sector of society, bringing our poorest children, those with the greatest social, emotional, and intellectual deficits, into the middle class. While we've tinkered with schools to make them ever more able to do this heavy lifting, we have also demanded that our students learn more and more skills at the upper level -- not just the basics of reading and computation but also literary analysis, algebra, history, computer literacy, public speaking, a second language, and the scientific method. Some people have argued that we should shelve one of these purposes and concentrate on the other. Others have claimed that we need two kinds of schools -- one for those at the bottom, who need lifting, and the other for those at the top, who need stretching. In both cases, we have been misguided.

By allowing the pursuit of money to guide our educational practices, we have miseducated everyone. We are so hell-bent on teaching disadvantaged children skills (both academic ones, such as reading, and social ones, such as obeying rules) that will lead to a job that we fail to teach them the pleasure of being part of a literate community, how to make their work meaningful, or how to draw strength from the group -- skills that might offer them a satisfying life. Just as bad is that middle-class and privileged children are pushed to view every stage of their schooling as a platform for some future accomplishment ending in wealth. This deprives them of the chance to figure out what they really care about, how to think about complex topics with open minds, and how to find a sense of purpose in life.

But there is an alternative. Some of the most intractable problems in schools could be solved if we replaced money with a different goal, one that would be good for all children, both now and in their futures -- the goal of well-being, or what some people know as happiness. As psychologists and philosophers have been pointing out for centuries, humans spend their lives seeking happiness. And most parents, deep down, want that for their children above all else. The capacity for real happiness (as opposed to transitory pleasures) is what separates us from other species and makes the gift of the human mind so precious. School should be a place where children feel joy, satisfaction, purpose, and a sense of human connection, and where they acquire the habits and skills that will enable them to lead happy lives as adults.

Ironically, happiness seems like a dangerous aspiration to many people. Not long ago, I gave a talk in small town on the East Coast. I was arguing that the first task of high school principals and teachers is to make their schools places teenagers would want to be. A senior attending the local school came up to me at the end of the talk and said, "Most of my friends spend all day waiting to be done, so they can leave. It makes no sense." He hesitated, then added with a wry smile, "Well, maybe it does. Maybe deep down a lot of people believe that if kids don't enjoy school very much, they'll be better prepared to be miserable later on in life." He's not far off. Mark Bauerlein, of Emory University, has argued that it is a mistake to worry too much about student engagement in high school. He reasons, just as the high schooler I talked to had surmised, that since students will likely have to endure a great deal of boredom in adult life, we'd do better to prepare them for boredom than to try to make school interesting to them. It's a tempting thought experiment: why not work hard to help children and teenagers become really good at tolerating tedium, irrelevance,and frustration?

Our educational system, however unwittingly, has been guided by the premise that boredom in school is an acceptable price to pay for future success as a bored adult. This approach rarely works.

Far too many children in this country spend their energy warding off the tedium, frustration and constriction of school. At worst, they end up dropping out. At best, they simply put their heads down and try to get through it unscathed; sometimes this means getting through school without being damaged, but just as often it means successfully resisting new ideas, new experiences, or any fundamental change in outlook. Even when it works, though, it's a poor solution. Research suggests that even when students can tolerate 16 years of suppressing their needs in the interest of future wages, things don't turn out well. They become dissatisfied adults. Which of us hopes for that for our child?

This post originally appeared on AlterNet.org.

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Susan Engel is a professor of developmental psychology at Williams College, where she is also the founder and director of the Williams Program in Teaching. She is the author of The Stories Children Tell, Context Is Everything, Real Kids, Red Flags or Red Herrings?, The End of the Rainbow, and The Hungry Mind: The Origins of Curiosity in Childhood. She lives in New Marlborough, Massachusetts.