First, all aspects of life are conducted in the same place and under the same central authority. Second, each phase of the member’s daily activity is carried on in the immediate company of a large batch of others, all of whom are treated alike and required to do the same thing together. Third, all phases of the day’s activities are tightly scheduled, with one activity leading at a prearranged time time into the next, the whole sequence of activities being imposed from above by a system of explicit formal rulings and a body of officials. Finally, the various enforced activities are brought together into a single plan purportedly designed to fulfill the official aims of the institution.

This is a quotation by sociologist Erving Goffman, defining the structured format of certain institutions. I think we all had initial impressions about what institutions Goffman was describing, but his intended focus was to illustrate the similar natures of nursing homes and prisons. Of course, it’s easy to see how the educational system fits into this format as well. There are definitely others. Feel free to keep them in mind, and come to your own conclusions.

This rigid, structuring mentality comes from the great Industrial Revolution, where everything became a process built for optimum efficiency. We reduce everything into their base parts, and use assembly line tactics to create a product. We’ve broken down schooling into different faculties to allegedly ease education: reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, as the old saying goes. Similarly with nursing homes, we’ve isolated what medically keeps human beings alive, and attempted a system that perpetuates that for as long as the body allows. Then, with logical efficiency, we lay out these programs like clockwork, dragging the participants along for their own good. It is a “good” thing to be educated, as well as, you know, alive, so these institutions are considered a necessary foundation for life as our culture dictates.

That is until you realize that these same processes are used as the punishment we have decided is appropriate for the ne’er-do-wells of our society. The same reason that little Johnny doesn’t want to go to school, the same reason that Grandma Betty doesn’t want to go into the nursing home, is the same reason Roy “Mad Dog” Earle would rather suicide-by-cop than go back to jail. Yes, there is abuse that occurs in prison that could lead to the aversion we have for it, but as prevalent as that is, it is not universal. Even those doling out the violence in prison are unlikely to want to go back. Also keep in mind the abuse that occurs both in schools and in nursing homes. It’s almost as if a dominating power dynamic can have frightening consequences? Another blog, maybe.

It seems that human beings inherently reject structured regulation of their lives. Scratch that, we are creatures of habit and often find it comforting, so that’s probably not the issue. The issue is having structure imposed on us from the outside. We don’t crave recess as kids because running around is more “fun” than learning. Ask anyone who reads, or chooses to take night classes, or likes documentaries… Learning is not the antithesis to a child’s happiness. Humans, at every stage of our lives, require autonomy. We love recess because it allows us to choose how we spend our time. We need to be the author of our own story.

Why would we do this to our children and our elderly? Prisons are meant to break the spirit; it seems more than a little dastardly to apply the same mechanics to both our future and our past. One theory is that my ideals of education and safety trump your concerns for personal autonomy. It is the parents who sentence their children to schooling out of love, just as the children in time condemn their parents to the nursing home. We want what’s best for them, and the promises of these institutions play in to what we believe to be their best interest, even if they disagree. We make their choice.

A more cynical answer would be that the education system is a Machiavellian ploy to crush the spirits of our youth, so as to soften them up for the world of capitalism, wherein the workplace runs in the same assembly line fashion as our structured institution model. Would anyone really serve up fries to assholes or churn out TPS reports if they hadn’t already become broken in some fundamental way?

More likely we’re just stuck in an antiquated paradigm where streamlined efficiency is the trump card that begets our cultural attitudes. We send Grandma Betty to the nursing home, despite everyone involved realizing that it’s terrible, because we are blind to alternatives. Of course, just like all paradigms, this one too is beginning to shift. There is a growing prevalence of assisted living facilities, where tenants essentially live on their own, but with measures in place that allow for care to be given if and when the time calls for it. There are even experimental schools that allow for child-driven learning, that allow the child to explore what they will, with a teacher only to provide guidance and assistance.

Maybe you think a child left to learn on their own would not actively pursue education. Like a child asking “why?” all the time isn’t a trope, or a child running off to explore doesn’t happen, or a child poking and playing with something out of natural curiosity is a fantasy. If you think that they won’t learn about anything that might lead to them getting a paying job, then you’re playing into my cynical answer, and fine, sure, but also keep in mind that that’s terrible. You’re terrible. Let’s break someone so they’re contented enough to sell fucking hamburgers. That’s an improvement.

Maybe these experiments will fail, but we will have to find alternatives. This current model is woefully obsolete. Human beings need freedom. We need to choose our own paths. A society that systematically attempts to break that freedom is a society of slavery.

Post-Script: This post brought to you in part by the book Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. Y’all should read it.