This Teen Wants to Abolish School as We Know It

Modern schools are like prisons, stifling children's creativity and destroying their will to learn. This 19-year-old, who's already written two books on the subject, says we should get rid of them.

Photo by Flickr user Ms. Phoenix

I assumed he was probably in his 30s, having only interacted with him on Twitter and never clicking to enlarge his avatar, as doing so would have made me feel like a creeper. He conducted himself with a level of maturity on social media beyond his years—beyond, in fact, the maturity of most internet users. It was only when he announced that he was turning 19 (“feeling old”) that it hit me: this guy is a kid, and he's already done so many things. The hatred was sudden and violent.

I don't really hate education reform activist Nikhil Goyal, but who among us can help but resent his success? We're not angels. And at 19, Goyal has already published one book critiquing the US education system and has another one being published by Doubleday in 2015, The End of Creativity: How Schools Fail Children. He's been named on Forbes' list of “30 Under 30” people to watch and first came to my attention when he was invited to South by Southwest to speak about education reform. No one likes a prodigy, but Goyal is nonetheless likeable and saying what most of us felt when we were back in high school: this is bullshit.

“School is really screwed up,” Goyal wrote in his first book, One Size Does Not Fit All, which he published when he was just 16 (this fucking guy). “Thirteen years of being in the system annihilated my creative potential.” When he was younger, he loved to learn because he could choose to learn about whatever it was that fascinated him about the world. As he got older, he found his creativity stifled, his education dictated from above. Learning had become so very boring.

By the time he was to graduate high school, Goyal was ready to tear it all down. “Reforms will not cut it,” he wrote in his first book. “Only revolution will suffice.”

I was interested in what exactly he meant, so I called Nikhil up and asked him questions.

VICE: Why do you hate school so much, young man?
Nikhil Goyal: Even when I was younger, I didn’t really like going to school. I consider myself to be a self-directed learner and the traditional school environment just didn’t fit well with me. I was told what to do all day. I didn’t have much freedom. And a lot of what was being taught in school, I just wasn’t interested in it.

But I think my hatred, my distaste for it, grew in high school. It was in the summer right before tenth grade, I moved from one high school to another. And this new high school, it was a very high-ranking high school, prestigious, a lot of kids go on to Ivy League and top universities, and there was so much pressure and stress put on the kids, in terms of the college applications and taking Advanced Placement courses, and that’s really where it just came to a point where I wanted to do something about it. I was just so frustrated with the system; it opened my eyes to a lot of the problems with it.

Photo courtesy of Nikhil Goyal

As I understand it, you had issues with the American school system back when you were 15, but they were very different. You thought that school should actually be more of a structured learning environment; the school year should be longer; there should be more homework; more testing. So you’re saying high school changed that?
I was looking at the Indian system—I’m Indian-American—and if you look at that system, they have longer school days, longer school years, more homework, and I was kind of under the impression that was the right way to go. And then I started to do a lot of research and noticed the psychological problems and the stress that was put on the kids and how much harm that was actually doing to them. And I saw that further when I went to this new school: that my previous opinions and assumptions were just wrong.

I said and wrote things when I was 25 that I deeply regret. That’s not nearly as bad as what I used to believe.
Even that first book I wrote. I’m 19 and I wrote that when I was about 16. And there’s a lot of things in there that now I disagree with. I’ve changed my opinion a lot and I think just reading more and experiencing more of the world has given me a much better perspective on things.

Photo by Flickr user alamosbasement

You seem to be going in a more radical direction. I take it you’re not going to quote [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman in the second book then?
That’s definitely not going to happen. I didn’t read much about capitalism or neoliberalism. I didn’t know as much back then. That’s something I find particularly interesting because I see that many young politically minded people who support the Democratic Party gain their knowledge on issues by reading the opinion pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, which espouse militaristic, neoliberal nonsense. And that's what I did for some time. So I didn’t understand the structural, institutional problems as I do now.

How does having a more holistic view of how schools fit in the institution of capitalism informed your critique of schools? I mean, it seems to be why there’s such a focus on math and science test scores and keeping up with India and China.
Even back then, I was very much skeptical of these international comparisons, but I hadn’t understood how it fit into a larger framework and narrative. Now I see that, for example, what’s happening in Chicago and Philadelphia and other cities, there's a neoliberal assault on public education. And I connected the fact that the tenets of capitalism were seeping into the sphere of education. That’s given me a lot more insight into why these so-called “reformers” are making these suggestions.

And actually making things worse, in your view.
Much, much worse.

Photo by Flickr user smkybear

You’re not a reformer. In fact, you say you’re a revolutionary. So let’s say I name you superintendent-for-life. What are the major, structural things you would address right away?
A lot of my research and reporting over the last two, three years has looked at many unconventional, alternative schools. In the early 1900s, in Spain, there were a lot of schools known as “Anarchist Free Schools.” Many of them later sprung up in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. These types of schools basically shun every principle of traditional education. They believe that children are natural learners. They believe that children should be trusted and have a voice. There should be democratic processes within the school itself. There shouldn't be any of these arbitrary features such as grades and tests; that children should just have freedom.

I’ve visited a number of these schools that are outside the framework of traditional education. The problem is that the ones we have today are mainly private schools. They’re not as accessible to low-income kids. But there are a couple of them that are not as radical but are publicly funded. The results have been extraordinary. One of them is a school in Philadelphia called “The Workshop School.” This is a project-based learning school particularly for low-income, minority children.

Are you in college?
I graduated from high school in January 2013, and I’m not in college at the moment, but I’m not ruling it out.

Why not? You’re a bright kid. Is it based on your critque of schools?
The primary reason is that I couldn’t go to college as well as continue all the work that I’m doing; I do a lot of speaking and writing, and I’m working on this new book, and I just wouldn’t be able to do both. I think that in the work that I’m doing, a formal credential is not as important as it seems. Having a credential wouldn’t actually be that much of a benefit to me.

Kids who are caught up in this public school system that is stifling their creativity—what advice do you have for them? How do you get through the system without being crushed by it?
It’s a question I get a lot from young people. It’s very difficult because, by law, if you’re a certain age you’re forced to attend school. You have no other choice. But the system, as oppressive as it is, there are some loopholes. If your family is affluent enough, you can go to one of these really great free, democratic schools that I mentioned. And there are some school districts, not as many today as there were in the 1970s, which have programs for kids who are failing or who have behavioral issues—it’s funny because these programs are actually so much better than what the other kids have to go through. You could try to graduate early. There’s homeschooling. But it’s very difficult to pursue alternatives within the current confines of the system.

A lot of people say charter schools are an alternative.
I don’t support the privatization of education. There are some good charter schools out there, but I’m very wary of them. They often leave out kids with learning disabilities. They expel kids at very high rates. They send out kids who don’t test well. So there’s a lot of discriminatory and just really awful practices that they partake in to maintain a really homogenous population of students who just test well. I live in Woodbury, New York. You’ll never find a charter school trying to make its way into this privileged community. You really only find them in poor black and brown communities.

And you’re suggesting they siphon off the best students and artificially inflate their test scores, because they’re for-profit institutions and that’s the best way to secure more contracts.
It’s strings attached, in terms of their funding, for a lot of them. They have to meet certain test scores; it just turns into this ruthless test-preparation factory.

Follow Charles Davis on Twitter.