By Roland Watson

This article is titled Issues with Schools. But first, I want to make some final comments about family form.

The "value" of competition

To begin, I want to expand on the idea that the family is the first place in which children are exposed to the "value" of competition. (That was a pun.) Many people first realize that there is such a thing as competition through their relationships with their brothers and sisters. They - your siblings - want what you want too and, if they get it, such as food, then you may not!

This is a zero-sum, which we already know we want to avoid. Hence, we have the good parenting principle of not showing favoritism.

However, children learn about competition in other ways from their family as well, through observing their parents' circumstances and interests. They understand if you are losing or winning at work, and they also copy your attraction, or lack thereof, to competitive activities such as sports.

Many parents are oblivious to the fact that they are having these types of effects on their children. They fail to recognize that they may well be leading their children to believe that winning is everything, and that there is no need to be a good winner, or a good loser, meaning one who is gracious in either victory or defeat.

More generally, they are not teaching the fact that while competition, and the winners and losers it creates, has historically served as both a fundamental structure and objective in society, we would be far better off if it were eliminated and replaced with equality as our goal. In the series on education, I reviewed the paramount responsibility of parents to give their children the right type of education, and to protect them from the wrong. This is the wrong type of education.

Behavioral form in schools

Moving on, I want to continue with schools, and review briefly the messages to which children are exposed at them, from the teachers, from other students, and from school administrators, staff and security.

The great American observer H. L. Menken had a pithy comment about this. He said:

"The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed a standard citizenry, to put down dissent and originality."

While public education in general regularly has this objective, individuals schools vary widely, both in their pursuit of it and in their other basic characteristics. For instance, in developing countries, if schools even exist, they are often pathetic, with abusive teachers, poor teaching methods and materials, and infrequent, overly large, and multi-grade classes.

In developed countries, schools vary from the finest "progressive" institutions, which seek above all to educate about form and egalitarianism; to upper class private schools, which provide an excellent "schoolbook" education, yet which serve to entrench inequality; to general public schools, ranging from the best to the worst, and with the latter characterized by a prison atmosphere, with frightened teachers and students, and where the roles of giving and receiving an education have fallen victim to reactionary and anarchistic tendencies.

Grading schools

As a parent, there is therefore much for you to evaluate, before you entrust your children to such an environment. This includes:

The school's history and reputation.

School conditions, including its location - and distance from your home, and setting and facilities, such as the library, and computer and science facilities.

The security situation, both in and around the school.

The size and diversity of the student body, including its internal culture. Diversity in general is good, but this benefit is lessened if it is polarized and clique-ridden.

The teaching staff, including their numbers and educational background, and the average class size.

The devotion of the teachers to your child's education. Are they committed educators? To what degree do they demand, and receive, a strong effort from their students?

The school curriculum. What subjects are taught; how are they taught; and is there any overriding form of which you should be aware, such as elitism, a liberal or conservative bias, or of a particular religious group?

The performances of the students relative to this curriculum, and also in a larger context, such as on standardized tests.

And finally, the school administrators, the school board, and other staff, including school development plans and the existence of internal disputes.

This is a lot for you to know, and it will take some research. Also, you can't do it on your own. Since you are not a student at the school, you can't get the inside perspective.

You therefore need to get it from the students themselves, foremost from your own children - if they are already enrolled. It is essential to find out what the students themselves think of the school, since only they can tell you what it is really like. Their views are the balance to the opinions, and propaganda, of the administrators and teachers.

If your children are already students, you must also understand how they relate to the school, and - in turn - how the school relates to them. Important issues include: do they have a reasonable number of friends, or are they isolated? Are they under any form of pressure that is inappropriate, particularly from their peers, such as bullying? And, how are they responding generally? Do they find school - and education - interesting and enjoyable; are they indifferent, or bored; or do they hate it? Most importantly, why do they feel this way?

As to the school's view of them, are they recognized as individuals, or are they non-entities: just filling chairs? And, if they are recognized, are they viewed positively or as troublemakers?

Children come first

What all of this should demonstrate is that your children must come first. The importance of family needs may vary, but the priority that they get a good education is one of the very highest, right up there with having food and water and a roof over your heads.

If the local school has problems, or if your children have problems in it, and if over time they cannot be resolved, then you must find an alternative. The importance of education is too great. If need be, your children must be transferred to another school; or you must move, so they can attend another school; or you must assume the responsibility for their education yourself, and teach them at home.

At the moment, formal education is largely the domain of the government. Most children go to public schools. But this is also evolving. In the United States, for instance, parents have gained a far greater say over their children's education, including the place of education. Your ability to oversee all aspects of your children's schooling is now greater than it has ever been before.

The "value" of competition in schools

As a final comment, I will review briefly one of the ways in which the social value of competition is reinforced in schools; specifically, in school sports. The competition in school sports is one of the first public situations where children develop a conception of equality and inequality. It is often the first proving ground that they must face, where they learn how well they "shape up"; how "good" they are; and if they can aspire to being a "jock" or a cheerleader, or if they must settle for something "less."

Such competitions lead some children to realize that they can win, but many others learn to think of themselves as losers, and also as victims, since in most cases they lose due to factors outside their control. Their bodies are not as well programmed as those of the winners, and at this stage they are not able to overcome the influences of their genes with their will.

In modern society school sports are the first direct social influence that tells us it is important to compete, and to win. This influence is far stronger than grade competition. Also, it is regularly reinforced by parents, by those parents whose children have to win, by those parents who win - who live - vicariously, through their sons and daughters.

Children have to be taught about the bad form of society, and the unfairness of child sports is a good place to start. They should be taught that even though sports in society are treated with a reverence formerly reserved for god, there is far more to life than them. If they fail at sports - or are just not interested in them, there are many other things in which they will be able to excel. Also, with time they will be able to develop their fitness and coordination. Conversely, if they do well, that's great, but they need to learn that there is more to life, much more, than simply winning a game.

Even more, I believe that we, the adults, who hold the responsibility for the values and structure of our society, should eliminate school sports, involving competitions between schools, from the educational system. And, this should extend from grade school through to university.

Such activities do not supplement education. Instead, they undermine it. There is a role for physical education in school, though, but this can be supplied with exercise classes and intramural athletics. Indeed, the educational systems of many nations around the world do not have school sports programs at all, and they are none the worse for it.

In the next series, I will examine the behavioral form of organized religion.

© Roland Watson 2014