David R. Henderson  

Schools and Socialization

Home Schooling and Socializati... Selfish Reasons to Have Mor...

Warning: Not for the faint of heart.

The following is an outtake from my chapter on education and schools in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist's Odyssey. I was always torn about whether to include it because it was so upsetting and my wife persuaded me to take it out. You judge whether it should have been included or not. Here it is.

I have my own horror story. In high school, we were segregated by gender for Phys. Ed. class. Our Phys. Ed. instructor was a lazy man who often would sit in his office off the gym through the whole class and not pay attention to what was happening. Incidentally, every year when I go back to visit my home town, I drop in on my favorite high-school teacher, who was the vice-principal at the time. When I told him the story I'm about to tell you, he told me that the Phys. Ed. teacher often slept when hidden away in his office. Maybe he was sleeping the day this happened. It happened in 11th or 12th grade--I don't remember which. I tried to forget.
I was called "the brain" by many of my classmates, and not usually with a complimentary tone. Our gym had ropes hanging from the ceiling. We were milling around when suddenly three or four boys picked me up and held me horizontal. They then put my neck through a hangman's noose that they had tied in one of the ropes. When I looked into their eyes, they seemed to be weighing whether to hang me. I decided that my best strategy was not to protest or make any noise at all but to let them figure out that this was crazy. I don't know that they did figure out that it was crazy. The look on their faces as they took my head out of the noose was more the look of someone saying, "I guess we shouldn't hang him" the same way they might have said, "I guess I'll have vanilla ice-cream today." My friends, incidentally, although they were in that class, did not intervene. One of them, if I recall correctly, did look concerned, but it's possible that he thought, as I did, that he had better not make any sudden moves. And for whatever reason, I didn't go to the vice-principal and tell him and I didn't tell my parents, even though my father taught in that same 300-person school, or siblings. I told no one. In fact, I didn't talk about it until I was 38 years old and in a men's therapy group.
I wasn't always the victim either. I inflicted my share of cruelty. My 8th grade teacher, Miss Boas, treated most of us badly, hitting us with a stick when she had a bad day and we gave wrong answers. But the one person she singled out for special abuse was Esther. Esther was a plain looking girl without a lot of self-confidence, but probably within the normal range. When Esther gave a wrong answer, Miss Boas would sometimes hit her especially hard with her stick and a few times came down the aisle, pulled Esther out of her seat and shook her violently. As I tell this story, I sincerely regret that I didn't do something to block Miss Boas, to prevent her from treating Esther that way. I sometimes pictured sticking out my foot to trip Miss Boas as she went down the aisle. I didn't have the guts. But I did way worse, as did many of the kids in my class; we piled on Esther. We would say her name with dripping sarcastic cruelty, the way we had learned from Miss Boas. Who says schools don't teach values? Miss Boas taught us well. By the end of that year, Esther was almost a basket case.
If these stories were told by a few of my friends and me, that would be bad enough. But they are widespread. Everyone has them. Next time you go to a parents' evening at school, pay attention to how some of the parents--usually the working-class parents, I have noticed--conduct themselves around teachers. You will often see the same fear and concentration-camp caution that those parents learned as children.

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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Yancey Ward writes:


Children can be exceedingly cruel, and they certainly take their cues from adults' actions and inactions. If I ever have children, I am pretty sure I would teach them to stand up for those being emotionally and physically abused (or I would at least try to teach them this, though it can be damnably difficult for one so young to swim against the tide of their peers). Hopefully, I could spare them the shame of my own lack of action in the face of such circumstances- instances that still haunt me when I think of them 30-35 years later. However, I think, in time, most such children eventually begin to see such behavior as indecent and wrong, but perhaps not soon enough to salve the wounds of the victimized.

John Hall writes:

Great post. Teachers can't get away with physical abuse anymore, but I had a teacher with MS in elementary school who regularly heaped mental abuse on a girl in the same fashion (when her disease was acting up?). Third grade and she was telling the girl she wouldn't amount to anything.

While the mental abuse against this girl certainly terrible, I hadn't thought much about how it conditions the children to stay silent while it is occurring.

In retrospect, most kids in my (public) high school were pretty civil unless you were part of some form of hazing on a sports team. There may have been a handful of kids that may have been picked on, but I don't recall much violence against them (like pushing in Napoleon Dynamite or slushying and throwing in the dumpster Glee) beyond occasionally having their books knocked down. I think they may have been more cruel in middle school looking back on it. However, (at least?) one kid in my school committed suicide who was the target of some abuse, so I don't think we've gotten to the point where you can stamp out this kind of behavior when you put a bunch of kids in one place.

In my experience of dealing with drunk people, I have found that it is much better to not confront them and rather distract them with something else. So I agree that sudden movements would have been a bad idea, but perhaps it is worthwhile to teach people strategies on dealing with mobs of crazy people.

twv writes:

I often say, I love crowds and hate mobs. And a mob can be three people.

When I hear people talk about the "necessity" of kids developing social skills in school, by interacting with their peers, I always wonder: Were they simply lucky to have breezed through without being victimized, or were they one of the tribals, brutalizing whoever has been categorized as "out"?

Child and youth society is often extremely wicked and cruel. Many are the oppressed, and many more the oppressors. Some are both, in a weird, sick pattern of victimization in hierarchy.

I got away without much damage, but I early on came to become deeply suspicious of my fellows, myself, of human nature. I developed my individualist ethics while in school, as well as a critique of public schooling.

When I encountered libertarians, one of the several memes common amongst these otherwise like-minded folk was the notion that people are "basically good." I was incredulous. I still am. We are inborn with many primitive and vile traits, as well as empathy and universalizing moral traits, and it takes either careful cultivation or benevolent circumstances to bring balance to flower. Incentives and disincentives matter. Unconstrained group activity — quite common in most public schools — amongst youngsters is often a devastating environment.

The best that can be said of such experience is that, surviving that terrorizing imbroglio, some people transcend it.

Not all do.

Nicely, most of human life after public school is nothing like public schools.

Zach Dexter writes:

This crap happened at my school all the time. I was once suspended for a week after physically confronting a kid who had stolen another kid's wallet. Trying to be a hero is punished in most cases. I'm glad you didn't trip your teacher; that wouldn't have done Esther any good.

If you try to be friends with the unpopular kids, you become unpopular yourself. It's as true for kids as it is for adults. Those kids have to learn how to defend themselves against verbal and physical attack. It's unrealistic to expect others to come to your aid out of a general love for humanity or whatever.

School is a long-term, coercive, and concentrated environment, similar in many ways to prison. If you let someone lay their hands on you even once without fighting back, then it will keep happening, again and again. It's a classic cycle of abuse.

I hope Esther figured that out eventually, poor thing.

David S writes:

Good post. I guess it isn't just children that default to the "Lord of the Flies" mentality. I think it says something about what comes naturally to some (many?) people, particularly when they perceive themselves to be in some privileged position (in your examples, as teachers or emanating from their social standing within a group). Someone's vulnerability (real or perceived) can bring out the worst in some other people.

A story from my youth (about 45 years ago):

When I was in grade 1 or 2 (also in a smallish Canadian city), a boy in our class was beat up by another boy in Grade 4 or 5, the worst of the schoolyard bullies. The next morning before school while we were all out playing in the schoolyard, Boy #1's father arrived, walked over to the bully, grabbed him by the ear and literally dragged/lifted him by the ear into the principal's office where he was promptly given the strap. It was all over in about 10 minutes maximum, whereupon Boy #1's father went off to work and the bully came out teary-eyed onto the schoolyard. Justice had been served. The bully didn't do anything like that again. No lawsuits, no police, no handwringing, no "zero tolerance", no anger management training.

Simpler times.

Walenty Lisek writes:

I never saw anything as dramatic as a hanging, but abuse was certainly present at the schools I went to. As someone said above, middle school was probably worse than high school.

What concerns me in all this is how adults don't do anything about it. How exactly do we expect to produce healthy individuals if schools are a cross between prison and lord of the flies? Oh, I guess that's not what we are trying to do.

I'm also a bit surprised that as adults we don't look back and say, "hey that was screwed up", and then make sure it doesn't happen to our own children. Why do people have these kinds of things happen to them and then put their children in the same situation? It's because of things like this that I come to assume that America in an asylum and the inmates are running the place.

Don't take that last sentence as an exaggeration either. It wouldn't be too hard to make a case that schools make people neurotic.

"When I encountered libertarians, one of the several memes common amongst these otherwise like-minded folk was the notion that people are "basically good.""

There is a lot I like about libertarianism, but this isn't one of those things. It should be obvious that a lot, or maybe even most, human beings would be a swirling storm of terror if they could get away with it.

Those kids in the opening story didn't try to hang Dave Henderson because they had somehow become twisted, rather they did it because being cruel is fun. Being cruel feels good, and it's a damn shame that our society is so retarded that it has to deny basic truths about human nature.

Abolish public schools for the mental health of our children.

darjen writes:

In my opinion, public school is the worst possible socialization you could give to kids. It just doesn't conform to how things work in real life. Of course that's probably because I was picked on a lot too. I would never wish public school on anyone.

Bob Murphy writes:

Yep great post David. I always think it's funny when people say we need conventional schools for "socialization." To the extent that I am screwed up socially, it is because of experiences in grade school and (to a lesser extent) high school. And I don't even have horror stories.

Doc Merlin writes:

@Bob Murphy:

I imagine when they say socialization they mean in the sense that businesses or medicine is socialized, not in the sense that dogs are.

Compulsory, unpaid labor is slavery: black or white, male or female, young or old. In the US, children work, unpaid, as window-dressing in a massive make-work program for dues-paying members of the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel.

Roland Meighan
"Home-based Education Effectiveness Research and Some of its Implications"
Educational Review, Vol. 47, No.3, 1995.

The issue of social skills. One edition of Home School Researcher, Volume 8, Number 3, contains two research reports on the issue of social skills. The first finding of the study by Larry Shyers (1992) was that home-schooled students received significantly lower problem behavior scores than schooled children. His next finding was that home-schooled children are socially well adjusted, but schooled children are not so well adjusted. Shyers concludes that we are asking the wrong question when we ask about the social adjustment of home-schooled children. The real question is why is the social; adjustment of schooled children of such poor quality?"
"The second study, by Thomas Smedley (1992), used different test instruments but comes to the same conclusion, that home-educated children are more mature and better socialized than those attending school."
"So-called 'school phobia' is actually more likely to be a sign of mental health, whereas school dependancy is a largely unrecognized mental health problem"....p.281

Linda Darling-Hammond
American School Board Journal, September 1999
(M)any well-known adolescent difficulties are not intrinsic to the teenage years but are related to the mismatch between adolescents' developmental needs and the kinds of experiences most junior high and high schools provide. When students need close affiliation, they experience large depersonalized schools; when they need to develop autonomy, they experience few opportunities for choice and punitive approaches to discipline.

Hyman and Penroe,
Journal of School Psychology.
Several studies of maltreatment by teachers suggest that school children report traumatic symptoms that are similar whether the traumatic event was physical or verbal abuse (Hyman, et.al.,1988; Krugman & Krugman, 1984; Lambert, 1990). Extrapolation from these studies suggests that psychological maltreatment of school children, especially those who are poor, is fairly widespread in the United States....

aez writes:

I think the "anti-socialization" being portrayed here surely also reinforces the ill-defined but pervasive notion of The System, which some of these kids will become proudly deft at "beating" in various ways, primarily involving cheating or gaming the adult System (defrauding government for benefits).

It's not that homeschooled kids would never game "The System" as well, but that public schooling gone bad can be a better incubator for it, speaking in terms of quality and quantity.

fundamentalist writes:

I've often said we all deserve to go to hell for what we did in junior high and high school. I was one of the "brains", too, but my father insisted on me playing football from the third grade, so I learned to fight. As a result, I got a lot of verbal abuse but that's all. It gave me sympathy for those who couldn't take up for themselves, so I would often take up for others against classmates, but not teachers. It didn't hurt that I enjoyed fighting, thanks to football.

People are cruel, so I had my son take martial arts from a young age. It served him very well. I highly recommend martial arts for boys and girls. Start them young. It teaches discipline and courage.

Floccina writes:

Great post, it seems some teachers do not see it as part of their job to keep the children in their charge from tearing down the weak.

Being very timid I beat mercilessness by crazy Joe Mansillio (who ended up in mental institution). Most of the adults at the schools I attended treated such bullying like it taught valuable life lessons. They might encourage you to learn to stand up for yourself but not much more. Maybe they are correct but I doubt it. Their was a poor girl who seemed badly damaged by the cruelty dished out on her. She also ended in a mental institution. I have always encouraged my children to befriend the outcasts and the unlovely.

Floccina writes:

Addendum One good thing back then was that at about the 6th grade kids like Joe Mansillio stopped coming to school and no one cared. I imagine today that they would try to force those kids to attend until they reached 16.

Finch writes:

> I've often said we all deserve to go to hell for
> what we did in junior high and high school. I was
> one of the "brains", too, but my father insisted
> on me playing football from the third grade, so I
> learned to fight. As a result, I got a lot of
> verbal abuse but that's all. It gave me sympathy
> for those who couldn't take up for themselves, so
> I would often take up for others against
> classmates, but not teachers. It didn't hurt that
> I enjoyed fighting, thanks to football.

I had a similar experience, substituting rugby. Except that I didn't actually have to fight. The tough guys never fight each other. Sic vis pacem para bellum, I guess.

Getting onto a high school team was one of the best decisions I made in my life to that point. It ended the bullying. It immediately brings you up 2 points on a scale of 10 with women. You definitely don't need to be a potential superstar to make effort in sport a great investment.

Finch writes:

I might add, for all the nerds out there, that being smart and hard working is a huge advantage in sport, and can make up for a lot of physical deficiency, at least at the high school and college level.

Basic sports competency is a lot more accessible than you might think.

Tom Lee writes:

This story represents school at its most frightening and disturbing. But perhaps the worst part of school, especially public schools, is the sheer boredom and clock watching, day after day. This monotony instills basic lessons about learning that cannot easily be unlearned. The message is that education and productivity must be highly regimented. Headache and heartache!

I appreciate David mentioning his mens therapy group where he could talk about this incident. Most therapy emphasizes family problems, but schooling can be an even more pernicious form of abuse.

bob writes:

School was so miserable, I haven't been able to even think about it since.

Liam writes:

David, I wish you had put that in the book. It really hits home.

When I was in grade 5 I changed schools halfway through the year and they put me in an "Enriched Program". I was 4 months behind and my teacher, Mr Hendren, made it aware very early that he felt I should not be in his class. It led to an incident at recess where I was surrounded by my classmates and they all spat on me. I went back into the classroom and asked for a sponge to clean my winter coat and when Mr Hendren asked why I explained it was because everyone had spit on me. He was shocked and said (I still remember to this day) "That can't possibly be true!" and I said, "Why not? They were just doing what they thought you wanted them to do."

And if it's any consolation, when I got to High School I was that kid that stood up to the teachers who stepped out of line. Oddly, it made me very popular with some of the other teachers. The ones who were dedicated professionals. And we still keep in touch though it's been over 25 years.

Jacob writes:


I very much wish you had put this in the book. It is only by holding up to the light the worst facets of the current system that we will generate the will for change.

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