Schools Aren't Prisons

I've seen the pictures comparing school design with prison design. I've heard the arguments regarding why schools are evil and coercive and why teachers actively work toward stealing children's dreams. I've seen the talking points that float around the alternative schooling and unschooling movements.

School isn't a prison. It isn't slavery. It isn't child abuse.

True, some kids don't want to go to school. Many children have awful experiences with schools that are nothing more than test-taking factories. In some states, education is not an option and home-schooling is a crime. All of those injustices need to be addressed.

However, the lack of choice does not necessarily equal abuse, slavery or prison. In many respects, I can't choose my country. I have little choice over the language I speak (even though English is such a bastardized tongue). I don't get to choose my own rules when I drive. Part of being in a community is adhering to the laws chosen.

I get it. On some level, it sucks to be a kid and have little choice in this matter. However, the greatest lack of choice a kid has is in a home. We don't choose our families and yet few of the un-schoolers argue that families are evil. They speak of walls as if the physical separation of rooms is an act of injustice and yet homes have walls. Is my child's bedroom simply a large prison cell? Is the kitchen just a really small prison cafeteria? Are family chores an act of slavery?

If we're going to look at social structures honestly, there are more broken homes than broken schools. Abuse at schools is something that makes the news. Abusive parents are so common we have to devote entire government agencies toward dealing with the issues. Do we look at the examples of dysfunction and declare that the existence of bad families means that the concept of a family is an inherently evil concept?

Don't get me wrong. I believe in tearing down many of the walls at schools. I also believe in getting rid of compulsory schooling. I love the idea of opening up the world to field trips, apprenticeships and guest speakers. I want to rethink the factory. But when it starts with the metaphor of prison, slavery and abuse, the reforms will always lack nuance. They will always be big, failed, bold steps in the name of an idea rather than an honest look at the context, community and children.

Unrelated thought:
I find it odd that many of the people arguing that schools are evil will post Facebook updates about how an educated women in Iran is a dangerous woman. They advocate for children in Africa to have access to schools. No one advocates for getting poor people in other countries into abusive relationships, slavery or prison.  


John Spencer

John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler. He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard and the co-founder of Write About. He is passionate about helping students develop into better writers and deeper thinkers.

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  1. It's easy to compare the actual physical school buildings to prisons because very often, especially in the mid-20th Century, the same architects were given the contracts by various municipalities.

    But in all seriousness, thank you very much for this post.

    1. I think it's fair to look at the similarities in power structures, though it's honestly not a new idea at all. Foucalt did it and, in many ways, took it to a non-paradoxical, modernist extreme.

  2. My classroom could be a giant prison cell. No windows. Dirty tile floors that don't come clean. Outlets that can't handle a laptop cart. Drinking fountain that trickles.

    But that's just the room. It's not the learning.

    I've been thinking a ton about choice in the classroom. I'm a pretty firm believer in student voice, students being accountable for themselves, and being in charge of their learning. This is middle school and I firmly believe that most students are developmentally ready for that.

    However, choice and voice are a struggle for one of my classes. They aren't getting it.

    Communities have laws, norms, and regulations for guiding things. I think that I've been trying do too much with individual accountability. I haven't been focusing on community. This class isn't a community. Yet.

    Okay, community.

    Thanks for letting me sort this out as a comment and for posting this post. Timely for me.

    1. What you describe in the beginning is what I've seen and in many cases, it feels depressing. But it's somehow humanized by the teachers and the students. I love the honesty in your comment. I still don't have a true classroom community yet, either.

  3. School definitely is not prison, though some teachers make the distinguishing traits harder to recognize.

    I think the big issue with compulsory education is that some (not all) teachers and administrators take advantage of the captive clientele mindset. You have to be here, so you're going to have to learn to conform and cooperate.

    I think that a certain level of conformity and a high level of cooperation are incredibly important, no matter what you are doing. But, I also feel that civil disobedience has its place too.

    When I felt that I was trapped by an unyielding and faulty system in my school days I conformed enough to get through it, but disobeyed enough to still feel like my voice was heard.

    But, as unhappy as I was at times - it wasn't prison.

    1. "School definitely is not prison, though some teachers make the distinguishing traits harder to recognize." Brilliant point. School was not a prison for me, though it was hard and restricting. Little changes would have made a difference - letting me choose some of my own content, allowing me to move around, getting rid of desks, etc.

  4. Hi Mr. Spencer!

    I am a student in Dr. Strange's EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama. I enjoyed reading this particular post along with your opinion on the matter. I feel like, to students, schools can seem like a prison because they are given no choice. In most cases, students are told what to do and when and how to do it. If teachers would give students more of a voice and allow them to choose even a small portion of classroom content, I think learning could really flourish. Still, I'm not sure how an adult could relate schools to prisons based on anything other than building structure.
    Thanks for your input. I've enjoyed reading your posts!

    1. I think that adding choice and freedom make a huge difference. The biggest "prison" feeling comes from a lack of freedom to be passionate, curious, etc.


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