Why does Emerson criticize schools as bureaucratic institutions?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The great Transcendentalist who wrote Nature perceives in the bureaucracies of public school the "costly machinery against nature" in which the modes of education aim to save labor and expedite learning rather than exercising the patience of Nature:

Whilst we all know in our own experience and apply natural methods in our own business -- in education our common sense fails us, and we are continually trying costly machinery against nature, in patent schools and academies and in great colleges and universities.

When the teacher must watch the clock, teach several classes in which the "dullard" is mixed in with the "genius," there can no true learning, Emerson contends.  For, there is no mechanical method that can nurture both minds at the same time.  Emerson states that the following of nature

...involves at once immense claims on the time, the thoughts, on the Life of the teacher. It requires time, use, insight, event, all the great lessons and assistances of God; and only to think of using it implies character and profoundness; to enter on this course of discipline is to be good and great. It is precisely analogous to the difference between the use of corporal punishment and the methods of love.

The child who asks a though-provoking question that digresses from the subject being taught should not be disciplined, but embraced for his curiosity and pensiveness, Emerson states.  The bureaucratic rigidity of fixed rules hinders imagination, wit, and thought that the hierarchy of authority would control.

The "feminine" thought, the love of knowledge in teachers is lost in the routine of schedules and demands for teaching rules, Emerson states.  Instead, the "masculine" authority imposes itself upon others to the detriment of the natural youth.  The secret of Education lies not in schedules, rules, and tests; rather, "the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil."

It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions. Respect the child. Be not too much his parent. Trespass not on his solitude.

The bureaucratic institutions of education hinder the natural freedom of the child's mind and stifle the fancy and imagination that always lead to significant thought by imposing fixed rules and the hierarchy of authority.

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