Why was school such a load of shit? (Give examples)

March 10, 2008

“Officially the purpose of schools is to teach kids. In fact their primary purpose is to keep kids locked up in one place for a big chunk of the day so adults can get things done….Kids are sent off to spend six years memorizing meaningless facts in a world ruled by a caste of giants who run after an oblong brown ball, as if this were the most natural thing in the world. And if they balk at this surreal cocktail, they’re called misfits.”

If you ever wondered why it was necessary for you to suffer so terribly
from the ages of eleven to seventeen, well, this man has taken the time
to explain everything in what I think is the best piece of prose I’ve yet found online. (That’s not such a great achievement, considering, but at least you know I’m not exaggerating.)

Read this essay. Seriously, it’s amazing. It’s long, so if you’re in a hurry just bookmark it for the moment. Later on, print it out, pour a glass of wine, put some good music and read it like you’re some kind of dude from the past, reading in your library because that is what you do for fun. You’ll thank me. Link


  1. I’ve always said school is like a part-time prison – sadistic authorities, mind numbing tedium and the ever present threat of violence.
    I left as soon as I could.

  2. a) the most important part of school is socialization, not education or (snort) imprisonment.

    b) the author makes an elementary fallacy, that being smart makes you unpopular, when in fact the opposite is more commonly true. I was one of the “table D” folk, but I knew plenty of smart “table A” people. They were smart, but I knew more (two different things, which the author doesn’t grasp). Unpopular people have more time on their hands to accumulate data, but that doesn’t make you smart by itself.

  3. I’m pretty sure I learned in sociology that the original purpose was to get kids used to the routine of getting up in the morning, going out (to work) and doing what somebody else told them to do all day. Prior to that, they did mostly agricultural stuff and had trouble adapting to the industrial era of “9-5” or whatever it was back then.

  4. When he writes ” … In general, to make great things … ” He’s absolutely right. Going to school in Southern California meant that I was shuffled from dingy bungalow to flimsy trailer in classes of 40 plus kids. I hated these buildings for their decrepitude and lack of design and I believed that a proper school was something with ambitious architecture, like something out of Oxford. I wanted the buildings themselves to be great and I would dream about what school would be like in a future world. I think that’s when I really started to notice that I was a nerd and I made it my priority in every school I attended to find the nerds immediately and attach myself to them (we moved a lot). But the popular kids didn’t seem to care at all what their environment looked like because they were more interested in themselves.

    Now, there were plenty of smart-popular kids in my schools, but their intelligence gathering was mostly targeted towards increasing the benefits from a high charisma. This wasn’t always superficial either. There were plenty who were very sincere in the art of charisma building — as sincere as I was about science fiction, certainly. So I went into school thinking that this was already a dismal place. What did it matter if I believed that I belonged to the nerd group? Everyone was low because of our surroundings and the popular kids were just deluding themselves. I didn’t think that at first, but I certainly did by the time I graduated.

    “Another reason kids persecute nerds is to make themselves feel better.” I think that’s the most profound observation he makes. There’s a great many more, but that one is the best.

    It reminds me of a landlady I once had who was so delighted that Martha Stewart was going to prison. Most tenants avoid their landlords because they can’t pay but I was avoiding mine because she was bringing up Martha Stewart so much it was surely some form of uncomfortable neurosis. Well, uncomfortable for me that is. She seemed fine with it. In school, from what she described, she had been a popular drunk and pseudo-punk (I say pseudo, because the real punks I knew in high school were also intellectuals). As an adult, she would sit outside the door to my cottage on a bench she placed there, slowly rubbing her pug’s belly for hours, and anytime I walked outside it became Martha Stewart hour. One day I finally snapped and said, “Please! Come on! Why do you care if Martha Stewart goes to prison?” It was obviously the stupidest question she had ever heard. She frowned and said with a disappointed tone, as if addressing a child, “It props you up.” That pretty much confirmed everything I ever suspected of the rift between the smart and the popular. Even as adults, they can’t let go.

  5. Some very good points brought up there.
    I preferred to separate myself from what went on in my small town high school (grad. class of 60 poor souls) – which would have made me unpopular but I obviously wasn’t bothered by what anyone thought of me in that shithole, we’d all grown up together since preschool (knowing who shit their pants in 2nd grade gives you great leverage for any potential personal attacks) and I developed an ability to be far, far away mentally because I was so unchallenged in every class but “advanced” English.
    Any teacher that tells you to read any book you want and write a reporton it rather than have to slog with the rest of the class is great.
    I retain my ability to zone out/tune out to this day so thank the FSM for that.

  6. This is great stuff. I and many like me didn`t have a very positive experience at school- I was convinced there was a big board in the staffroom with a heading “Kids to not bother your arse with”. I was on that list. But then if my teachers had paid a blind bit of attention to me then maybe I mightn`t have ended up doing what I`m doing. Is that a good thing I wonder. As it is I seem to spend my time offending radio presenters.

  7. At my school the teachers found that the best way to solve the “problem” of “problem pupils” was to treat them better than those of us who actually sat down and got the work done.
    So, when it came to needing help pupils like myself weren’t given any and the trouble makers were given all the attention. My teachers spent more time trying to be “cool” and “trendy” than they did teaching.

    I remember once in a P.E lesson, my teacher held myself and some other girls back to speak to us because we weren’t as sporty as the others. Seriously. She said “I genuinely believe that people like you are worse than the trouble makers”.

  8. Good link, Graham. Saved for a proper read later.

    High school, for me, wasn’t necessarily bad, it was just a five-year void in my life where nothing happened, nothing was learnt, no actions had any real consequence and individualism was frowned upon. Apathy ensues.

  9. I married a teacher, and though my own experiences at school pretty much mirror those in the essay, there are definitely other things to consider.

    Sadly, it is true to say that education policy has being raped by one government after the next, but there are glimmers of hope on the thin pointless hope that league tables matter a fuck.

    Those of us will remember our schooling based on incidents you could number on one hand and tarnish the education we received on those and less so about other important externalities. Parents are the worst. The last people on earth who should have kids are parents. If parents actually worked with the school and took more of a direct interest with their child’s education that child would feel the efforts are more validated and purposeful. Those of use that say our schooling was shit, how many can say that equally our parents knew exactly what we were doing at school, why we were doing it and our own feelings about it. Not many.

    My Primary-education based wife teaches children foremost to think, and her results in the children are wonderful. Despite this article teetering on the self-indulgent, there are still some adults like my wife that see the economic value in people and teaching them to think can really change things for the better.

  10. I think he sees teachers as prisoners AND wardens in the current system, JK. And the latter not by choice either.

  11. This doesn’t really have anything to do with the article, but i thought some of you may find it interesting that my old headmaster forced everyone to call him “Doctor Stevens” even though he wasn’t a doctor.

    Maybe some weird sexual fantasy?

    Opinions please….

  12. “Teachers want homework to be abolished for primary school age children.

    A motion for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference will also seek a Royal Commission to examine why children are unhappy at school.”


  13. You bastard! You’re supposed to grow up, realize how horrible children are, then help to perpetuate the fiction that school is good and necessary! It’s the only way we can keep the little monsters from interfering in the serene procession of our lives! For God’s sake delete this post before some children see it and start to get ideas.

  14. I loved school and I was neither Intelligent or popular.

  15. You were right, Graham. That read was well worth-it. His experiences pretty much mirrored mine but sadly it doesn’t stop at high school. I’m in college now and have found that while the social hierarchy isn’t quite as bad, going away for four years seems like just as much of a waste of time and money. College is no longer a place to expand your mind; it is simply an excuse to make the career path longer. Even students in the arts (theatre being the exception) seem more focused on making socially acceptable art works than anything bold or interesting.

  16. I hated school. I hated (with very few exceptions) my teachers. I even don’t like people of this profession today as they tend to show a know-it-all-attitude towards everything they encounter which is hardly bearable. And this gets worse with age – I guess that being daily confronted with people who are for the greater bit below your intellectual capacity and having a lot of power over these people eventually wrecks your personality.

  17. […] (via why that’s delightful) […]

  18. Great essay, except it misses one point. While the nerds (that would have been me, if I’d been smarter) were staying out of the popularity wars, the rest were learning vital political and networking skills for the future. Progress in most organisations demands grovelling, showing perceived loyalty, conformity, and conflict avoidance, all taught excellently in the schoolyard.
    (Being Irish, my extensive knowledge of US high schools come from “Grease” and TV, but the jock/nerd culture seems to be mostly a US phenomenon. Not that being head of the senior football team is a handicap to getting laid anywhere, I imagine.)
    The world is not a meritocracy. Small networks control the power, influence and money, and do their damnest to pass them on to their kids, however inept. (See UK Royals and Bush family) So you can take them on directly on merit or try to infiltrate them using political and social skills.
    Taking the pure nerd path rarely works. Even heads of scientific research establishments are more political that techy. In business it is all tall white guys with good hair at the top, to quote Dilbert.
    For women, it is even less logical to follow the nerd road. Glass ceilings in business and the fifteen year timescale to make a reputation in science do not facilitate reproduction. A beautiful girl who is good at science can choose to study physics for fifteen years in a known stacked deck or else ally herself to an alpha male. Guess which one will get her the Porsche and live-in maid and childminder first.

  19. This is one of the subjects I wanted to ask you about at our phone meeting at midday today (12th March). The number I was given was either incorrect or there was some trans-pond fault, because I couldn’t get through. Sorry to have left you waiting, but I did my utmost. I hope we’ll get another chance… [Martin]

  20. Dear Graham,

    I’m an enormous fan of your work. I mean I’m not enormous, I’m 5 foot 3 and really quite tiny but you know what I mean.….

    I read recently in Broadcast that you were heading up a new “yet to be named” company geared towards working with new comedy writers/talent under the umbrella of Talkback as part of the Fremantle Media Talent Fund.

    How can I apply to be part of this new talent developing/nurturing/mentoring scheme. Having just called Talkback they won’t give me any sort of email address for you so I’ve resorted to the tactic of posting here.

    Also… I’ll cut to the chase (I’m a busy girl pretending to work) I’ve got a rehearsed reading of a sitcom I’ve written upstairs at The Soho Theatre, 26th March 2007 at 20.00 as part of The Comedy Project. I would love you to come down and see it. It’s an evening out and saves you the bother of reading the thing… Whaddyasayheh? I could also just send you the script if you’d prefer.

    Let me know if you’d like comps and I’ll arrange everything.

    Cara Jennings

  21. Although I agree entirely with Cara and Martin (???) above, I still find it a difficult piece absorb with any serious conviction. And even his follow-up article on the feedback he received doesn’t hold much water with me.

    I am happy to restate that years 11-17 were an absolute vacuum to me, but all this article does is string out one-sided nerd-centric problems that have been around for 30 years, and presented them in a nerd-centric arena. So of course they will sound like they are ringing truths, but it is like enduring a London-pub stand-up do a 20 minute routine about how crazy mini-cabs are. It’s nothing new that hasn’t already been said before ad infinitum so just drop it.

    Conveniently fastening his opinions onto scenarios that even non-nerds will recognise first or second-hand is too transparent. Just because we’ve all had an education doesn’t mean we all understand it. Even the few bits I do agree with are merely reiterative of stuff that would fill several chapters in the book of Common Sense.

    He also closes with the notion that the article is optimistic, but that is just a cheap get-out because the article quite blatantly isn’t, and Graham if you believed it your blog post would not be titled as it is.

    Perhaps 2003 times were different, and I may have been reading it with entirely different eyes and am also a little too emotionally inclined to defend the efforts the state makes in trying to make better citizens of it’s youth. But to me it is almost as if the author has dug up and re-hashed an old sociology essay of his that he has forever resented being marked with a low grade. I’m sorry, but I still can’t give it more than a C+

    [Christ, I’m miserable! … sorry!]

  22. Personally, I thought school was fantastic.

    I was neither a ‘jock’ nor a ‘nerd’ although I’ve developed into quite the massive nerd in the last few years, and am also enjoying that immensely.

    I don’t think that the article can be applied to the Irish school system either (unless maybe you went to Clongowes or Blackrock college etc.)

    That article just made me want to dig out my Freaks & Geeks box set, if nothing else.

  23. Good points. Read John Taylor Gatto’s book DUMBING US DOWN. Short read, with some marvelous points from a fantastic teacher. I only have experience with the US school system though. Most of my Irish friends had better experiences.
    Thanks for the blog Graham!
    Careful Now!

  24. I was educated in the US public school system, in the ’70s. Received a very good education, from mostly wonderful, incredible teachers. The same schools I attended these days aren’t even up to half that standard. Students are given magazines to read, classes are terribly over crowded. They don’t hire teachers who specialized in their given subjects. I spoke with one of my old teachers last year just before he retired and he was heartbroken about how education had changed (for the worse).

    Now, I’m a liberal democrat, but the changes that have been implemented (by extreme leftist administrators) have been pigeonholing students. There’s decreased expectations, tutoring is discouraged and at times denied.

    When I was a student, you had fairly affluent, middle and working class students attending the same schools, no more. Since the ’80s, too many in the US allowed themselves to be slotted into rigidly defined class systems.. and each has been at each others throats ever since.

    Yes, I know that I’m not writing about high school groups, cliques and what have you..

    When I went to school, we had jocks, cheerleaders, nerds and stoners. There was also a great majority that fit in to none of those classifications. Some were more popular than others, and of course some longed to be more popular. I guess back then I didn’t want to be defined by terms straight out of “Happy Days” and the ’50s.

  25. Well, I loved the piece. Maybe the details change from country to country, but the essence remains true wherever you are. Schools are often (not always, Josef K) holding pens where kids are forgotten and forced to fend for themselves. Teaching them ‘socialization’ in this manner is like teaching them to swim by throwing them in a pool.

  26. Well, I have experience of schooling in Ireland, America, and England. I won’t say which was the best, for fear of insulting anyone, but it wasn’t the last two ;)

    I think teaching, especially in America, has got to be a very treacherous job. We had security patrolling the halls armed with pistols, and no teacher dared to chastise a pupil for fear of being executed in the car park.

    At the end of the day, teachers are paid pittance to deal with unruly, potentially lethal, miscreants.

    When I was at school, I was neither a jock, a nerd, or the middleground. I simply didn’t exist. And that was fine by me. I was the school ghost, observing the halls and cafeteria.

    As I don’t have children yet, I’d hope that teaching them at home, and making sure that they are not socially retarded, before they reach school, might aid the future generations of miscreants yet to come. As I believe this practice is waning in modern society and its the majority of parents who view the schools as day holding centres, and lack the discipline at home, needed to keep their unruly children in check. Petrified and underpaid social workers, er sorry, teachers, have my respect and admiration.

  27. Hey Graham,

    I’m just wondering what were your experiences at a certain ‘University School’ on Leeson Street. They still name you as one of their most famous graduates.

  28. Graham,

    I started out enjoying the essay, but it stopped ringing true after the first quarter of the piece. The writer (Paul, if memory serves), ultimately was reducing everything to stereotypes, and it felt awkward.. he started acting exactly like those he sought to hold up as the problem.

    Schools aren’t supposed to be holding pens or babysitters, nor are they supposed to be teaching socialization. As a former student, and a parent it’s become apparent to me that many of the educational reforms that were implemented during the 1970s (I can only speak for what has happened in the US), were disastrous… an example of “fixing” something that wasn’t broken. As in all things, situations arise that require addressing, it happens.. but the reforms made were ghastly.

    What irks me the most is the fact that the left always claims to be the ones seeking to end stereotyping, to support enlightenment, etc.. yet they have sought to pigeonhole students, and to actually limit opportunities available to poor and middle class students. Increase failure rates, and they then use that as justification for their stereotypes.

    To Paul K. of course there are schools in the US like those you described, but they aren’t in the majority. We’ve had a declining economy since the 1980s, and that has impacted poorer communities first and the hardest. Take the only jobs away from working poor and lower middle class citizens, and it destroyes families, watching ones parents, or parent, as the cae may be, struggle, and fail. The stress of facing the possibility of homelessness, critical illness with no health insurance, any number of problems destroys children and adolescents ability to have hope.. to believe there is a future that they have a stake in. The result is rising crime rates, alcohol and drug use.

    These are human beings, and those same situations exist the world over.. even in Ireland. My daughter and I traveled to Ireland a few years ago and we saw first hand that the government there ignoring dire poverty. We sat next to a fairly wealthy looking man and his friends in a restaurant, and over heard his crass remarks about not being able to solve a problem by throwing money at it. I dare say that he wouldn’t have considered sending his children to university, or pay for them to receive training or certification in some field of work as “throwing it away”.

    I won’t whinge on and on.. it’s just that these problems all require clear linear thinking, and I believe that the people involved deserve a place at the discussion table. What I fear is the fact that as a society too many of us tend to make value judgements based on prejudice and ignorance. Even the best educated people seem incapable of thinking beyond what likes directly beneath their noses, or even attempting to challenge their own prejudices and presumptions.

  29. I see someone has already mentioned http://www.johntaylorgatto.com, but I’d like to recommend also the writings of the unschooling movement (which JTG is tangentially a part of). Very eye opening stuff, in a “the emperor is all nudey” kind of way. My kids are unschooled, and in the process we (the parents) are getting there.

  30. Sorry Mr. Linehan, but I find the essay quite troubling. The author takes his experience in a relatively privileged suburban environment and tries to generalize it to the U.S. public school experience at large. For students in socially and economically depressed areas, public school is so much more than a prison or a place where wealthy parents “kennel” their kids while they toil away at office jobs. Think about the children of drug addicts, the children of single parents who work two minimum wage jobs just to make rent, kids who have one or both parents in prison and homeless kids. High school is the only structure they get in their lives. It’s the only thing they can count on, and the only part of their lives they control. It’s a beacon of hope. Schools are safe places, something we suburbanites take for granted.

    Drug abuse is a tool of rebellion for privileged kids, but it’s a way of life for kids in many economically disadvantaged environments. Kids do drugs not to rebel, but they get caught up in it because their parents do it and/or deal it and/or the kids get recruited by local dealers to traffic it. Believe me when I tell you that there are kids in this country with drug dependency problems before they hit puberty; that’s not an issue of rebellion. Geeks and freaks and the D table is such an irrelevant problem in places where middle school kids are dealing crack in order to help their parents pay rent. Another common problem is that kids drop out of school in order to care for younger siblings when they desperately want to graduate and lead a different life. What sticks in my craw is that I’ve been working with folks for whom high school was a dream that never materialized due to a combination of social and economic circumstances and bad (yet difficult) choices, while the author takes that experience for granted. I know people who would trade their high school years for the author’s in a minute. They would have done anything to be sitting at the D table or the E table or the F table if it meant finishing high school and getting into college.

    School is an opportunity, and a very real opportunity for many disadvantaged kids. It’s a window into a different world. It can be something so wonderful and so unique from what many kids experience at home and in their neighborhoods. For wealthy suburbanites who are too smart to play the high school game like the author, there are other options. In my state, kids can enroll in home school and concurrently take college courses in lieu of a traditional high school education. Alternatively, they can take online courses and never step foot in a high school classroom. So, people like the author don’t have to “suffer” the trials of attending a suburban school in a good school district.

    I don’t mean to trivialize the problems of being an outcast; I was certainly sitting at the E table from 3rd grade on and it was horrible. Like the author mentions, I feebly attempted suicide, and I do wish teachers would respond to bullying in ways other than blaming the bullied. Certainly, the essay rings true for me. I’m just troubled that the author seems to have a myopic view of public schooling, and he seems rather ungrateful for the opportunities he’s had. I will agree that the education system can be improved. Teachers need to be paid more so that all districts, especially high-needs districts, can attract the top talent and so forth. Let’s just largely limit the essay’s applicability to suburban and privileged school districts, though.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: