Discover more from Wrong Side of History
The modern cruelty of schools
Lockdown showed how miserable many teenagers are in these institutions
Many brave men and women have held views outside the mainstream of their society and been pilloried for it, only for the world to later view them as visionary humanitarians ahead of their time; take William Wilberforce, for instance; or think of Annie Besant; or, say, me.
By far the most anger my writing has ever provoked came about just before Covid with a piece, which seemed pretty uncontroversial to me, arguing the case for the return of child labour. I couldn’t believe the reaction from some people.
My point was that children might be better off entering the workforce at an earlier age, perhaps 14, and continuing in part-time education until they were 16. But since then the effects of the pandemic and lockdown school closures have forced me to reconsider my views — in the sense that I now think I was even more right than before.
My view on this issue probably stems from my own experience of school, where it was clear that by the fourth year (14-15), some of the less academically inclined boys were learning nothing, hated being in school, were often disrupting the education of others and making their teachers’ lives a misery.
My argument was that teenage boys in particular need to feel useful. The idea really came to me when I was with my children visiting a castle while the terrorism problem in Europe was at its peak; being a neurotic parent, I was a bit security conscious about what I would do if the ISIS lads suddenly turned up. Obviously, if it was just me, I would barge past all the families and elderly people to make my escape, but with children one feels very vulnerable.
As we queued to enter, a group of teenage boys larked about in front of us, being boisterous and physical with each other in a quite annoying way; it suddenly occurred to me that my instinctive reaction to this — these kids need to be treated as a problem — was completely warped.
Rather than being a nuisance, these were exactly the people I wanted around if there was any danger; the traditional role of young men is to protect the community, and to take on physically demanding work, but it was now a position that society had no real need for. Instead of exploiting young adolescent males, we have come to treat them as a problem to be warehoused.
We do this under the illusion that very long periods in education will have an enlightening effect for everyone, when there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise. In my piece I cited the argument made by Bryan Caplan in The Case Against Education and Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann in The Education Myth. The Caplan view is that extended education is in itself not especially beneficial, it’s more about signalling to future employers. There is also evidence that extended years at school don’t have much of an impact on life outcomes or actually improve the lives of pupils, nor make them richer.
Even the argument that education reduces crime, which is true but largely only because potential offenders are being locked up — in school. Much crime is indeed committed by 15-18-year-olds, but rather than incapacitating repeat offenders, this way we punish everyone that age. Which doesn’t seem very fair.
Anyway, that didn’t go down well, and some people were quite offended by the idea. Things really deteriorated after hostile quote-tweets by a number of vaguely high-profile figures, including a prominent annoying lawyer and a Labour MP who likes to alternate between lamenting ‘tribalism’ and calling his opponents Nazis.
That snowballed into literally hundreds of abusive messages, including emails and Facebook messages. Some wished to see me tortured, or hoped I died horribly, for my deeply terrible opinions. It was, I have to admit, pretty unpleasant, and is why I don’t hostile quote-tweet people, however annoying I find them.
I can understand why people might instinctively react against child labour. As Tom Holland put it in so many words, political debate in the post-Christian era is all about who gets to go on the Cross, and there is no more easily sacralised victim figure than children (except when this goes against the most powerful taboos).
One reason for this reaction is that we tend to associate child labour with the cruel employment practices legislated against just as education was becoming mandatory. People wrongly assume that the part-removal of one will lead to the return of the other, when this is illogical.
As an example, earlier this week a video went around social media showing a 3-year-old chimney sweep working with his father in the 1930s, a tragedy viewed by more than 3 million people on Twitter. Underneath were some understandably angry responses about the suffering inflicted on the poor child, and sarcasm about the ‘good old days’, with some suggesting that this is what the current government would like to bring back.
But the video obviously doesn’t pass the smell test. Child chimney sweeps were legislated against in Britain way back in 1840, the work of Tory peer Lord Shaftesbury, and the illegal hiring had been completely suppressed by the 1860s or 70s. The video looked like it was from central Europe, possibly Germany, and would Germany — with its progressive welfare system under Bismarck — have still had such horrors so much later? It seemed very implausible and, of course, it’s fake.
Chronological snobbery is very appealing, the comforting idea that things were much more cruel in the bad old days, but people unfairly tend to judge an era by the conditions it inherited rather than the one it left.
As well as passing various workplace safety laws, the Victorians also pioneered the idea of compulsory schooling, so that from 1870, and the Education Act, all children had to attend up to the age of 13 (although education levels were already high by the time of the Act). The school leaving age has risen since, to 14 in 1918, 15 after the war and 16 in 1972; it was further raised to 18 in 2015, although people may also start an apprenticeship from 16.
And the trend is still moving towards ever longer periods of enforced education: the Prime Minister’s latest suggestion is that all children be forced to endure some form of maths up until they’re 18.
People get angry at the thought of changing this system because they associate the idea of child labour with early Victorian labour norms, but if we returned to the legal school age as it was between 1918 and 1947, there is no reason why we would return to health and safety conditions of the inter-war era, let alone of the mid-19th century. Under-18s would obviously be prohibited from any dangerous work; they can’t even buy fireworks and small knives in Britain.
And while people feel like they are protecting children by keeping them in schools, in many cases they are doing them harm.
A few months after my article appeared, as every parent will remember, school was out for everyone, thanks to Covid and lockdown. Many people warned that closures would cause adolescent suicide to go up, or in other ways make life worse and more miserable for teenagers, because the kids would be so lonely and isolated.
In fact, just the opposite happened – while many adults found lockdown isolation stressful, younger people were considerably happier away from school, and teen suicide fell.
Although there is already plenty of evidence showing that teen suicide falls drastically with the arrival of school holidays, as studies from the United States and Japan show, last month came further evidence linked to the lockdown.
The report cited Boston College psychology professor, Peter Gray, who has been writing about the link for some time. Gray has written elsewhere that ‘In the late 19th and early 20th century, many people became concerned about the ill effects of child labor on children’s development and wellbeing, and laws were passed to ban it. But now we have school, expanded to such a degree that it is equivalent to a full-time job — a psychologically stressful, sedentary full-time job, for which the child is not paid and does not gain the sense of independence and pride that can come from a real job.’
Prof Gray advocates ‘unschooling’, which sounds a bit like the ‘child-centred education’ that became very popular from the 1960s in Britain and was largely abandoned before the millennium. This might work for a small number of teenagers who do not thrive in a structured environment but are otherwise intelligent and motivated; unfortunately, while such people are often prominent in later life in the arts, they tend to be small in number.
There is a much larger number who aren’t very academic, who don’t get much out of education, who aren’t motivated and by the age of 14 are not really learning anything. For them, working might be less miserable than school.
In many cases the only reason for teenagers to be in school is to incarcerate them, to keep them from getting into trouble, whereas they might be better entering the workforce, where they would be motivated to earn money. Since unemployment tends to be a habit, and worklessness at an early age has a particularly crushing psychological effect, this would be preferable to extended schooling and the higher risk of unemployment at 18 (when they are more expensive and disruptive). They would also help Britain’s increasingly acute labour shortage, doing work which is otherwise being filled by low-skilled migrants (a population Ponzi scheme that cannot go on forever).
Instead of allowing them to learn from older adults, and to make employment a habit, they are being forced into extended or even permanent adolescence, subjected to the destructive influence of their peer group. They are also denied the burden of responsibility, a good thing to have at an early age and something school can’t really teach, because the school doesn’t really need you, while an employer does.
I appreciate that there are some reasonable concerns. There are small numbers of people who don’t do well in education but who are still bright and curious, and later regret leaving, but under the current system I don’t see much evidence that such people are being turned around at 14-16. Usually, it takes some experience of the outside world to appreciate the importance of education.
Perhaps the answer to that is more opportunities for adult learning, for those people who only discover a love of education later in life. In Denmark there are ‘folk high schools’, in which about one in ten adults enrol at some point, about half paid for by the state. Old people sometimes die there, which the Danes don’t consider a waste, but rather a noble way to go; I support the idea of education for education’s sake, but it has to be voluntary. Much better to invest in a 50-year-old who wants to be there than a 15-year-old being held against their will.
Another objection is that poor families might pressure bright young children into going into the workforce to make ends meet, rather than staying on. That might happen, but it’s possible to offer financial incentives for poorer children with good grades to continue schooling if they wish to from 14, as they already do from 16. If they don’t have good grades, then staying in education is not going to particularly help their future earnings anyway, even to degree level where education inflation has not led to rising incomes.
For all that we view with horror the idea of 14-year-olds being sent to work, for many teenagers school is actually quite cruel, an unnecessary and painful ordeal that ruins their best years. We now obsess about mental health, and even have professionals sent into schools to talk about the issue, when perhaps school itself is the problem for some. Are we sure that future generations will not judge us harshly for the way we treat children? Maybe those of us advocating the abolition of mandatory schooling from 14 are far-sighted visionaries ahead of their time.
Alternatively, we could just be cranks. There is always that possibility.