“He who opens a school door, closes a prison.”- Victor Hugo
Long ago, a rather inept wizard who failed all his exams at magic university and had a rather pointed aversion to being even remotely heroic made a somewhat profound statement about creating social change: “If you want to help people, build a big library or something somewhere and leave the door open.”[i] It is quite an obvious argument that building schools promotes education, leading to increased employment opportunities, and employment leads to fewer crimes. And that is true enough, and important too. If you have a legitimate way to earn money, then you don’t need to steal or rob or kill to feed yourself or your family. Schools enable us to physically sustain ourselves. But the importance of schools run deeper than the degrees one can list on one’s CV.
For most of us, school is a first look at the world outside our homes, our first lesson in interacting with people we are not related to by blood. Schools are thus a practice in socialization, and also in discipline. They make you part of a group, of a world beyond your home, and therefore they open up the whole wide world for you, while teaching you how to act and behave in it. At school, a child learns to love outside the family, to share outside the family, and to be loved back in return. It is also the place where we discover our hobbies, our interests, our talents; the place where we come into our own, beginning the process of finding ourselves. For those with unhappy or abusive family histories, school becomes an escape route, but even for those who come from normal, functional families, it offers a chance to expand and grow into one’s own identity, and to form and maintain independent relationships. Of course, a child doesn’t learn these lessons on their own. It is the job of the teacher not to simply teach letters and numbers and chemical formulae, but also to ensure that children under their charge treat each other fairly, and when they don’t, that they learn to own the consequences of their actions. For a school is not just a building but a doorway, and it is our teachers who hold the key to that door. Their job is to walk the child through it, and to teach him or her how to unlock other doors on their path. At school, a child meets other people and hears other stories; they experiences a cross-section of the world they’ll encounter as adults and find the tools wherewithal to navigate that world with understanding and empathy. And these are the keywords in creating a less violent world, for if we can build a world where we can empathize with others, then we are less likely to want to harm them. Fewer crimes means less need for prisons.
In his lecture for the Reading Agency delivered at the Barbican, London, on October 14th, 2013, Neil Gaiman spoke about a talk in New York he attended regarding the building of a private prison. In that talk, he recalled learning that the prison industry could chart its future growth by a very simple algorithm. The need for more prison cells was directly proportional to the percentage of ten to eleven year old children who could not read.[ii] Increased literacy leads to a decrease in crime, and schools are our first line of defence against the curse of illiteracy. But literacy, as Gaiman went on to suggest in that same lecture, was only a stepping-stone towards true education, which involves reading for pleasure. Schools teach us to read, enabling us to read on our own, to read beyond our textbooks, and inhabit worlds embedded in print inside our heads. Letters are like secret codes that, once deciphered, are the passwords to distant worlds. And by participating in these worlds, not only does the child learn empathy and understanding, but also imagination and a craving for something beyond the regular, everyday mundane world that is available to us.
This imaginative craving is the basis of what makes us human, of why our ancestors made frescoes on the walls of prehistoric caves or gazed at stars or crossed dangerous seas or wondered why the apple fell to the ground. It provides the impulse to make a difference in the world that is given to us, to move forward in a positive, harmonious manner towards a better world and a better self. This craving to be something more than we are, to discover something more than we know is innate to the human spirit, but education is what fires it into action. And while it is possible to receive education outside the confines of the traditional schooling system, in most cases, by depriving a child of schooling, we deprive him/her of a chance at education, and by default, a chance of discovering his true self. Education and self-discovery are both life-long processes, but we can safely suggest that schools jumpstart the process. To quote Gaiman’s statement on libraries that we can perhaps equally apply to schools: schools are the pathways to freedom, “Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication.”[iii] In an ideal education system, school teaches a child to ask questions and to find answers and thus begins the journey towards wholeness – and wholeness precludes greed or anger or hate.
[i] Rincewind in Terry Pratchett’s Interesting Times.
Pratchett, Terry. Interesting Times. 1994. Corgi Books: London, 1995.Print. A Discworld Novel.