It wasn't until fourth grade or so that I really cottoned on to the fact that the system was actually damaging me. Looking back, though, I think I can see why - for my first three years of education, I had the tremendous fortune to have teachers who recognized my situation, and handled it accordingly. In fact, I can deliberately trace back my enjoyment of those three years to those teachers.
I'm normally pretty self-conscious about thinking differently from most "normal" people. I've had more than one person tell me they thought I was "a little slow" or even autistic until I happened to give in and throw out something intelligent-sounding. That's largely been the result of my school experience; the system came very close to burning that out of me entirely, and pushing me to just stifle it and blend in with the status quo. That's why I find all of this so scary - it very nearly worked.
(Some of you may be chortling into your shirt sleeves at the mere thought of me being uncomfortable talking about myself. Believe me, this is pretty much the first and only venue I've used to do so. I vent all of my smug arrogance here because it never gets to see daylight anywhere else [wink])
As my parents like to tell it, they first noticed I was "a little different" when one of my first sight-words was "cholesterol" -- at the age of four. One night I copied the entire periodic table of the elements from my older sister's chemistry textbook and hung it on my wall - being five years old at the time.
Once, before I started school, I got in trouble for insulting a second grader for not knowing how to do multiplication. In the first grade, when the class was learning to trace the alphabet over inch-high, dotted letters, I was sneaking down the hall and copying the cursive alphabet reference from one of the other classes, and copying random bits of sheet music into the margins of my homework. I rarely turned in anything that wasn't covered in doodles of astronauts, spaceships, and ray guns.
I don't recall for sure, but sometime between the first and second grades, my teacher caught the "warning signs." As I look back on it, I owe pretty much my entire life to Mrs. West. She made a very strong impression on my parents about just how important it was to feed my behavior - which, she warned, would become increasingly anarchic and chaotic over the years. She strongly emphasized the fact that I would begin to fight the system, and made it absolutely clear that I was to be encouraged - even assisted - in that, no matter what.
Naturally, I didn't find any of that out for years. The only inkling I had was the "special test." The test was fine with me, since it meant I got to skip a couple hours of class. It was quite a while before I caught on to what the test was for. The only part of it that really stands out in my memory was a single question.
The guy giving the test was nice enough; he knew better than to use a condescending tone with kids, which I had already subconsciously learned to equate with people who were worth respecting. He got to a question about the "difference between a 'yard' and a 'pound'".
As I recall, I got a good minute and a half into a diatribe about the philosophical implications of imprisoning animals and confining them to prescribed spaces versus treating them as near-equal members of society (that is, pets). The guy got really bug-eyed and finally interrupted me, and explained that he was talking about units of measurement. I remember thinking that it was odd to have such a simple question on a (clearly important) test.
That kind of thing continued; the better teachers I had would give me extra challenges and leeway to screw around while I waited for the rest of the class to catch up - provided, of course, I didn't disrupt anything. The bad teachers would insist I quit drawing on my homework, quit staying inside to write out computer programs in my notebooks instead of playing on the playground, quit taking my notebooks outside, and so on. A "survey" of the students in that year asked what everyone's favorite part of the day was; the other students' answers were usually things like "recess" or "lunch." Mine was "getting done with math early and working on my own problems."
There were more incidents than I can really count; eventually, as predicted by my first grade teacher, I got outright confrontational. Fortunately, a well-timed move lined up with a perfect opportunity for me to begin home-schooling. In sixth grade I joined a weekly program that was designed to supplement home-schooling with proper lab experiments, social interaction, and so on. It took about three weeks for the teacher to pull me aside and ask if I was willing to do the eighth-grade level course work instead; that was the highest he could offer.
I dropped another couple of years into The System, and had quite a few very explosive run-ins with the more traditional, closed-minded teaching staff. I got along quite well with a couple of teachers, who quickly pushed me off into my own projects when it became clear that the regular class pace wasn't enough. Usually, they did so in the face of very severe opposition - and, in one case, harsh consequences - from the higher-ups in the system.
I formed a group of students that swore to overthrow the student-council body and cause chaos at every school event; we successfully operated for two years. If it hadn't been for the good teachers there, we probably would have explored our more elaborate plots - and gotten sent to the Big House for serious property damage.
On more than one occasion, I got into pretty deep trouble for telling teachers how they should be running their classes, or outright correcting misinformation. In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have done it in front of the entire class, but I still think it's a bit stupid for the system to discourage criticism from the very people that are supposedly being trained to deal with real life.
I technically finished high school, but, being a home schooler, have no credentials to show for it. Legally speaking, I'm a dropout. I don't regret it. In the years since, I've thought seriously about going back to college to finish up a degree; I'd love to learn, and some of the stuff I'm most interested in is impossible to study outside of academia. Through it all, the single reason I've put off doing so is always the same: I love to learn, but I hate being taught.
It is telling that so many smart kids come through the education system so thoroughly disgusted with it. I can readily think of dozens of ways in which the system can (and should) be changed, and I know from talking to other people in situations similar to my own that my views are not unique.
The more I look at the state of this nation and Western society as a whole, the more apparent it is to me that virtually all of our problems arise from a single cause: free thinking is actively discouraged. Our society is designed to create a system of automatons. For a country that is supposed to be the icon of freedom and individuality, we're doing a shitty job of it.
Why do we elect morons into government offices? Because vanishingly few voters educate themselves about the issues. Most - including many in my own family - use knee-jerk reactions and hasty decision points, or vote along party lines. It's not always because they're stupid; usually it's because they just don't know any better. Or they're lazy.
Why do our corporations topple to stupidity, greed, and corruption? Why is white-collar crime becoming an increasingly rampant problem? Why is religion being used increasingly as a mindless excuse for a vast host of ridiculously intolerable behavior? Why is misinformation on the Internet so painfully easy to propagate?
All of these problems can be cured by a single, simple thing: critical analysis and reasoning skills. The ability to consider an issue, think it through from various points of view, and come to a decision is a vital skill for living as an adult member of a civilised society. Without that skill, society will inevitably lapse into a cycle of complacency, which leads to increasing concentration of ever-greater powers to an ever-decreasing number of people, until eventually we arrive at a more or less feudalistic or even imperialistic situation. In the happy cases, a large enough underground of critical thinkers arises, overthrows the tyrrannical powers, and ushers in a (woefully short) era of freedom and prosperity.
I think right now this country is well past the complacency phase and quite a ways down the road to creating a dictatorship. I know I'm hardly alone in that assessment.
For quite a while, I believed that such a cycle is an inevitable and natural part of the way societies work. Certainly the pattern has been observed often enough. An informal look at society clearly shows that critical thinkers are a minority - the people who really genuinely care, and who have the mental skills to do something, are simply overwhelmed by the vast herds of those who don't.
The responsibility for keeping society operating lies squarely on the shoulders of those who have the ability to think for themselves, and the integrity to act accordingly. But if those people are outnumbered too severely, it is all too easy to accept defeat, and allow the cycle of collapse to take over. It is my belief that this is the predominant cause of the decay of "free" societies into feudalistic or despotic ones.
So what are we to do? If there are not enough of us to stem the tide forever, and keep the weight of entropy from destroying our efforts, should we accept that fate? Should we expend our energy and our lives in vain, and postpone the inevitable for perhaps another generation, at the most? Or should we resign ourselves to the reality that most people are lazy, ignorant fools who will gladly jump off the lemming-cliff of society and drown, if it means they don't have to turn off the TV?
Being cynical and more than a bit lazy myself, my answer for quite some time has been "eh, screw it." I figured it would be better to enjoy life and not worry about things I can't control a hundred years into the future.
But that's stupid. If nobody worried about 100 years from now, we'd leave the world in pretty crappy shape. It may be easy for us to write off future generations... but what if the people of the early 1900's had decided the same? What if, 100 years ago, someone had decided "eh, screw it" and turned the surface of the planet into nuclear-ravaged glass? Someone will suffer the consequences in 100 years; the fact that it probably won't be us is irrelevant. The survival of society is impossible if the views of every person are as narrow as their own lifetimes.
Why should we fear consequences from criticising government? For that matter, why should we fear consequences from criticising our own employers? Problems do not get fixed by people quietly pretending they don't exist. Problems get fixed by people raising holy hell until enough others get concerned and take action. Those who question and challenge the status quo should not be looked on with distaste or distrust; they should be the heroes and idols of society. Being a whistle-blower should not have the stigma of the annoying, bratty kid who tattle-tales all the time. That should be a role of honor, respect, and admiration.
I for one am sick of the situation. I'm not content to just watch it go to hell. And someday, hopefully, I'll be in a situation to decide where and how my own children will be educated.
In my mind, there really isn't much of a decision to make. My children will be home-schooled. They will be taught to be critical thinkers, to attack the system, to question weakness, and to encourage proactive change. I will raise my children to dream - fervently and with the passion of great visionaries - of overthrowing the system. My kids will tell people that, when they grow up, they want to be whistle-blowers, and the bigger the scandal they blow open, the better.
The cycle is not impossible to overthrow. It is not too late to change. There is still plenty of hope for fixing tomorrow. But it will take critical thinkers, skeptics, people who challenge anything and everything they see.
Such people are not rare by virtue of some genetic prank. They are not rare because they are unusual, or because "normal" people are incapable of taking on such a role. Such people are not required to be extraordinarily smart, insightful, or genetically lucky. They just need to be trained.
Our society has reached its current situation precisely for one reason: our educational system has caused it. The collapse and decay - so evident to those of us who do have those all-important skills of analysis - is the inevitable and inescapable by-product of a system that trains children to prefer regurgitated dogma to carefully considered opinion. The entire connotation of the word "opinion" has shifted; it no longer represents a view derived from analysis and thought. Opinions are now utterly arbitrary, purely subjective, and unassailable. In many circles, it is actually considered reprehensible to hold an opinion with any basis in logic or rationality.
Anyone can be a critical thinker. It does not require a prodigious "IQ" (although the very notion of IQ is pretty stupid and directly tied to the very system that's caused us so much trouble). You don't have to be weird, abnormal, unusual, or even especially smart to do it.
And, amazingly enough, there is a direct correlation between one's ability to think critically, and how much one cares about important issues. Complacency is an epidemic problem in our society, but not because of something in the water - because nobody has been trained with the mental skills to realize that they should care.
Daerax, I'm fully behind your efforts. Let me know how your project develops - I'd like to do the same, when the opportunity arises. It's time to fix the problem.