Are schools inherently coercive?

David Deutsch

From the archives: First published in Taking Children Seriously 25, 1998

Are schools inherently coercive, or is that just a property of all (or nearly all?) existing schools, and come the revolution, could there be Taking Children Seriously schools?

In this article I want to consider whether there can be such a thing as a non-coercive school.

Well – what is a school? In our society one could very accurately define a school as “a place where children are herded together for the purpose of having unpleasant things done to them”, but such a definition begs the question I am addressing. So how should we define “school”, for present purposes? A place where children go every day to learn? Well, in that case, almost every child’s home is a school, and Taking Children Seriously is dedicated to the proposition that non-coercive ones can exist. A block of flats is a place where hundreds of children learn every day, in their own homes and in each other’s. A block of flats could be non-coercive too. But that’s not what people mean by “school” when they ask whether schools can be non-coercive.

At the opposite extreme, I have no doubt that even existing schools are fairly non-coercive for a few of the children attending. This may be especially true in “vocational” schools such as sports academies or music academies, where some (small?) proportion of the children are there because they are passionate about the subject and can’t get enough of it. They get pleasure and learning and personal growth from the experience of high-intensity interactions with expert practitioners in the relevant fields. Every morning they wake up and think “wow! today I can go to the X-School again, and interact with these great people! And when I get there I’m going to start work right away on that backhand volley (or Liszt study, or whatever) until it’s absolutely perfect” (by their own standards), and at the end of the school day they are still pestering the teacher/coach with ideas they have had, and ask for advice and comments and criticisms until he says that he really has to go and have dinner now, but promises there’ll be another opportunity tomorrow. Remove from such a school all the children who do not feel the way I have just described, and what you have left will be a non-coercive school – won’t it? Well, yes, but that doesn’t really answer the question that people have in mind when they ask whether schools can be non-coercive. For there are very few people under 16 (say), and virtually none under 12 (say), who have a “vocation”, i.e. whose passions happen to be focused on a socially-recognized profession in such a way that what they now need is to follow the narrow track to professional expertise. Therefore the great majority of children could never benefit from any school of the type just described.

Is catering to children who have vocations the only way in which an educational institution could be non-coercive? Or is it possible to concentrate generalized learning resources and opportunities in one building, say, which would be open to children and run non-coercively and which most children would voluntarily turn to for several hours on most days during most of their childhoods? This is, I think, what people mean by the question about non-coercive schools; for if we are only looking for places that educate some children, a little of the time, and cause little or no coercion, we need look no further than the local cinema or video arcade – or library, or museum, or hamburger restaurant – or indeed virtually any public place in our society except a school.

I fear that it is all too easy to invent a fantasy-answer to this question, by considering existing schools and then imagining (without having to solve the problem of how) that everything coercive about them is removed – exams, authority, boredom, fear, obedience training, rules, punishments, violence, curricula, compulsory lessons, compulsory attendance, etc. – and replaced by such wonderful things as “resources” (computers, gymnasiums, workshops) and knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and caring teachers who are only there as the children’s expert assistants, and who are instantly fired if they utter a single harsh word. I don’t think it would be efficient for me to labor through the countless problems involved in getting from A to B. Rather, to understand my critique of this fantasy, consider it from a more logical point of view: instead of imagining modifications of the existing institutions that are least like “non-coercive schools” (namely, existing schools), consider modifying those that are most like them, namely (say) cinemas.

Would it be feasible to modify a small town’s cinema so that most of the town’s children spend most of their time there – without being forced to, and without being coerced when they get there? Suppose that currently, in a typical week, 30% of the town’s children spend 2 hours in the cinema. What would it take to raise that percentage from 30% to 90% (say), and the 2 hours to 30 hours (say), as required for the cinema to become the fabled non-coercive school.

What would it take to entice more children to visit the cinema every week? Well – in Hollywood there are smarter people than us considering that very problem every day. When Stephen Spielberg manages to create a blockbuster, it might indeed happen that 90% or more of the children in town watch it. But that’s a rare event; our supposed average weekly figure of 30% already includes it, for there are some weeks when far fewer than 30% of children attend. We can take it that if the film industry knew how to make movies more attractive to children, then they would, so the current attendance represents the best that present-day human ingenuity and creativity can manage. The attractiveness of movies to children is already quite close to optimal, given the best available knowledge.

All right, then: would more children attend the cinema if it put on attractions other than movies? Of course. Consider the mall in which the cinema is situated. It is already doing its best to do that very thing. There’s an ice rink, and bookshops, and burger bars, and so on. A small proportion of the town’s children do spend much of their time there (though I don’t think that it’s the children whose parents are doing their best to give them a wonderful time at home!). All in all, the mall, too, is already close to optimum in its ability to attract children. And it attracts few of them, for little of the time.

The trouble is that children’s interests are very diverse, and personal, and sporadic. Most of the children won’t go to the mall’s burger bar every day if there is an exciting pizza place in town. Most of them won’t go to its wonderful ice rink every day if they prefer playing tennis or football. Most of them won’t go to its interesting little bookshop every day if there’s a bigger and better bookshop – or a specialist bookshop for an interest of theirs – in town. Most of them won’t even go outside their own bedrooms if they are currently building a fascinating model there, or if they had a late night last night, or if there’s an interesting program on TV. And so on. A mall is a wonderful, diverse, highly educational place, but it cannot outshine the town as a whole in any of these respects. If it could, it would!

So if we pursue the vision in a logical way, we come to the conclusion that the existing institution that comes closest to a non-coercive school is the entire town (or city, or society, or internet) that the children have access to, including their homes, and their friends’ homes, and excluding only the existing schools.

David Deutsch, 1998, ‘Are schools inherently coercive?’, Taking Children Seriously 25, ISSN 1351-5381, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/are-schools-inherently-coercive/