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Compulsory Learning Just Does Not Stick

A little more than half way through Plato’s Republic, Socrates says something that’s bold, honest, and dispiriting enough to send even the heartiest of high school teachers on a two-day bender: “Compulsory intellectual work never remains in the mind.”

He means exactly what you think he means. You can’t force someone to learn anything they don’t want to learn—or you can force them to “learn” it for a test, but you can’t force them to remember it for more than a few minutes after classes let out for the summer. Any lesson which is forced on students won’t stick. You can’t force someone to remember the moral lessons of Pride & Prejudice, or the metaphysics of Anselm’s Proslogium, or the acrobatic hermeneutics of Gregory of Nyssa. You can deliver a heartbreakingly beautiful lecture on Till We Have Faces, but if your students are only listening because they have to, they will forget everything you’ve said in a few days.

You know Socrates is right.

How do you know he’s right? Because you’ve forgotten just about everything they compelled you to learn back in high school: the lists of kings, the amendments to the constitution, the elements on the periodic table, the parts of a cell, the antebellum presidents. I could go on. It would take me all day just to list the things you kinda used to know. But it was all forced on you—it was all “compulsory intellectual work”— and as soon as they quit applying pressure, nearly every bit of it leaked out your ear.

Mind you, I’m talking about high school here. Not elementary school.

Oddly enough, elementary school was just as compulsory as high school, but it didn’t feel compulsory. You still remember your times tables, cursive, the planets, the little songs about being nice to others and cleaning up after yourself. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars… you remember it all. It’s high school that’s the problem. High school is when it all gets fuzzy.

There’s a reason for that.

Something happens between sixth grade and seventh grade wherein the compulsory nature of American schooling becomes very noticeable. In third or fourth grade, life inside the classroom and life outside the classroom are fairly similar. The books you read at school aren’t all that different from the books you read on your own. The songs you learn at school aren’t all that different from the songs you hear on PBS kids programming. You run around and play on your time and at school. You draw at home, you draw at school. And there are plenty of decent elementary school classrooms wherein quiet time and snack time are a regular fixture of the day, just like they are at home. All this to say, if you don’t like third grade, you probably just don’t like life all that much.

In seventh grade, the divide between home and school suddenly deepens. School changes. There’s no snacks, no songs, no formulaic routine. A class period is like a business meeting—it starts when someone at the front of the room says, “I guess we ought to get started.” An elementary school teacher would never begin the day with those words. Like home, an elementary school classroom is where you keep your stuff.  At home, you have your room; at school, you have your desk. Your desk has your name on it, just like your room at home. High school students are more like vagabonds or hobos, though. They carry a heavy load from place to place and sit wherever they can find room. It’s nothing like home.

But there are far more important changes heralded by the onset of middle school.

During the elementary years, parents tend to be fastidious about what goes into their children’s eyes and ears, but about seventh or eighth grade, many children find they have suddenly gained significant control over what they watch, read, and listen to. By high school, very few parents retain any real influence over their children’s tastes, which means their children incline toward things that are either popular or easy to like, neither of which are very good. Plenty of parents send their children to private Christian schools so they aren’t taught evolution, critical race theory, or gay propaganda, and yet these same parents are perfectly content for Drake to teach their children sexual ethics and for TikTok stars to teach them identity politics.

Why do parents quit overseeing their children’s tastes so early?

There’s a strong cultural pull to grant “teenagers” autonomy over their lives provided this autonomy is not coupled with any responsibility. I put the word “teenager” in quotation marks because it’s relatively new. The number “thirteen” is as old as the hills, but “teenager” was a term popularized by advertisers back in the 1950s. You won’t find “teenager” in the works of Austen, Dickens, and Twain because it didn’t exist back then. As far as I know, you won’t even find it in Salinger or Hemingway.

“Teenager” is one of the most lucrative ideas of the twentieth century.

You see, if teenagers are not a distinct kind of person, they can simply share or borrow their parents’ books, music, clothes, and so forth. If there’s no such thing as “young adult literature,” then a high school freshman can read the kind of books his father reads. If teenagers are a distinct kind of human being, though, they need their own stuff, which means more things for their parents to purchase.

Of course, if teenagers need their own music and clothes and television shows, they also need their own territory, their own time, their own culture—their own little universe, really.

The distinction between adults and teenagers became deeply hardwired into American culture after the Hays Code ended in 1968 and Hollywood began specifically creating films for different age groups: G, PG, R, and ultimately PG-13 and NC-17.

From the 1930s through the late 60s, most movies could accommodate a fairly wide age range. Take Roman Holiday, for example. A family with a nine-year-old, a seventeen-year-old, and two forty-somethings could all enjoy it. This is true of most Cary Grant movies, for that matter, and most Jimmy Stewart movies, most Gregory Peck movies, most Ingrid Bergman movies, and so forth.

This is not true of most Mickey Rourke movies, though.

A good deal of stuff for teenagers these days is obnoxious to adults (sometimes unintentionally, often intentionally), or adults don’t get it, and so adults feel the need to give teenagers space to do whatever it is their kind do. Teenagers are nearly their own culturally-protected nationality; telling them they have terrible taste is tantamount to refusing an insect delicacy at dinner in some foreign country. What’s best for teenagers is for them to spend as much time as possible together, away from adults, doing things adults find absurd or grating (or degrading), and any adult who is active in determining what teenagers watch and listen to is being “overprotective,” or “sheltering” them too much, or “not giving them space.”

As the teenager’s life outside of school becomes less and less like school, the compulsory nature of school is felt more and more acutely. The sort of books he reads on his own time, if he reads at all, are unlike the books his teachers ask him to read: Pride & Prejudice, Hamlet, Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter. While the elementary classroom experience mirrors life at home, the high school classroom is a good bit like a modern office. Lots of meetings, lots of notes, lots of wasted time. The fact the high school classroom doesn’t connect with anything in the teenage experience—it’s not like home, not like church, not like play—means it feels wholly unreal, which is one of the many reasons high school students ask, “When am I going to need to know this?” but elementary students don’t.

The only way to make the high school experience anything other than compulsory is for home to be more like high school. I don’t mean home needs to be more like a business meeting, but home does need to be something other than a pop culture free-for-all. You can get kids to enjoy just about anything provided you start them young enough—and that goes for classic books, decent music, and talking with adults about spiritual matters. I probably sound like a bit of a hippie here, but “compulsory” is a state of mind. You can’t force me to split a chilled Pouilly-Fuissé and talk about why the Purgatorio is better than the Paradiso. Why? Because you can’t force me to do something I’m dying to do anyway. The same is true for children and classical education.

If you don’t allow your children to blow out their senses on screens before they’re ten, you can give them Jane Austen novels to read when they’re eleven, and by the time British Literature rolls around junior year, there’s nothing compulsory about it. Every parent gets to decide just how compulsory Jane Austen, Mozart, and Michelangelo is going to feel in high school—it’s all in the way parents shape the tastes and habits of their children. God has empowered parents to normalize whatever they want from the time their children are 3 and 13. The most essential forming happens quite young.

The more facile the books and music children indulge in at home, the more forced classical content will feel at school, and forced intellectual work doesn’t remain in the mind—which is another way of saying it doesn’t do any good. If your children don’t want to read Jane Austen, nothing they’re forced to read in Pride & Prejudice will stick with them when they go off to college. If you’ve ever wondered why so many classical Christian graduates quit going to church once they get to college, it’s because so few of them actually wanted to go to a classical Christian school to begin with—and so few of them actually want a classical Christian education because the fashionable musicians, actors, and influencers of our day are constantly telling them, “The stuff your teachers care about is dumb, the stuff your teachers enjoy is boring, the stuff your school believes is hateful and bigoted.”

You, dear mother and dear father, get to determine what your children find compulsory. If you start feeding them bleu cheese when they’re two, they’ll gobble it down by the time they’re twelve. If you give them chicken nuggets every night, there won’t be any point sending them to a culinary institute at nineteen because they won’t know what real food is supposed to taste like. The same is true of real books and real music and anything that requires an attention span. Apart from a classical home, a classical school is nothing more than a jail.

4 thoughts on “Compulsory Learning Just Does Not Stick”

  1. Despondent Teacher

    The level to which I am experiencing this right now! I feel like I’m seeing this in real time since I’m currently teaching a sixth grade section and a 7/8th grade section and the divide between the two sections is staggering. Partly a very expected developmental/maturity divide, and partly the phenomenon you’ve described.

    The existence of the teenager as a protected class is a core belief of many families in my classroom right now:
    “We’ve started letting her have unsupervised time by herself with her phone” (led to several cheating situations).
    “I think it’s good for him to be able to have things that are just for him and his friends” (this 8th grader is now an Andrew Tate fan along with his friends and who knows what other rabbit holes he’s fallen down, all while his parents have absolutely no idea).
    “We’ve been wanting to give him more freedom now that he’s older” (this 7th grader tells me that when he gets home he is on 2-3 screens…. at the same time….for hours….).
    And so on.

    And you’re so right, there’s the underlying parent-guilt of being “overbearing” that seems to be the basis for the code of ethics of most parents of middle and high school students.
    Honestly, I’m glad my parents were phenomenal taste-makers; always telling us if something was beautiful or ugly, sometimes even judging my interests. I love that now, I love that they never withheld their moral and aesthetic judgement even on my own life. I’m grateful for it and I wish there was more of that in students’ lives.

    How do you communicate with parents like the ones I have in my classroom? I can tell them what I see and hear in the classroom, but the bigger picture that has to do with taste-making and home culture is utterly lost on them. And especially since I don’t have children yet myself, I feel very timid and unqualified from advising them — just doesn’t seem like my place. How can this change? How do parents go from libertine and following the narrative about who teenagers are and what they “need” to understanding just how important the home is? Can it change? I’m a little despondent these days…

    1. There’s probably not a lot you can do for the parents that already let their kids be so influenced by trash. Your effort will likely go farther with parents of younger children when you tell them that their kids will resort to the lowest desires if they let their kids do what they want at 13.

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