When I was a child, much like my contemporaries, I considered what was told to me by adult authority figures (parents, teachers, and other school faculty, mostly) to be true. They had been around longer. They had a better track record; I had been wrong about many things. And they clearly had control of the situation. If a teacher claimed that the Earth was round, I would accept this as fact, even without any evidence to support this. If a teacher said that the (sole, implied) purpose of school was learning, I accepted this too.

I was far from alone in this. When other students used the defense, "Because the teacher said", I and most others would treat this as if it were gospel. A few students were both subversive and smart and made this claim in order to get what they want, but more importantly, to lie because they could get away with it. It didn't work on all of us. Some of them knew that they were lying and they were not given the full respect that with their conveyance of gospel they sought to achieve. But it did nothing to lower the sacred nature of the gospel itself. Teachers were respected -- sometimes hated, sometimes feared -- but always respected. Even before I could find the words to articulate my ideas, something about it bothered me, this blind acceptance of decree. Could teachers be wrong about anything big? I knew humans to be falliable, but this idea was dissonant with the whole of the years of education put into me. I was taught to respect your elders and betters.

In sixth grade, the congnitive dissonance broke. Looking back, it seems like a sudden epiphany, but really it was disillusion with several discrete ideas within a relatively short time-span. Being a good midwestern public school, we were taught, as a fact, that America was the most altruistic country, the freeest country, even the best country. We were taught this as if it were something important, as if being patriotic was, in fact, an innate good. In sixth grade, we learned about how Andrew Jackson provided smallpox-infected blankets to the Native Americans on the Trail of Tears[1]. I asked the teacher how this could be reconciled with the "fact" that America was the best and most benevolent country. While he gave some sort of hand-wavy explanation, he didn't really address the question. This lead me to consider the other disparities in facts with this central theme of patriotism: the idea of "Indians" as "savages", how the European colonists had the "right" or even the mandate to declare themselves sovereign over a land that had been controlled by others, the purpose of the Vietnam war (that no one seemed to want to talk about), the perception of Soviet Russia and communism as a great threat, and the inefficacy of our law-makers to do justice, just to name a few. I had to conclude, despite the considerable groundwork laid and the supremacy of teachers as right, that the facts told a different story.

Sixth grade was also the last grade of grammar school. Amongst other things, this meant that each of us talked to a counselor about where they were on the educational path. Being both a gifted and behaviour disordered child, I knew my counselor well. I was often bored in class. I liked to read. I liked to study science. I even liked doing math if it was more than rote exercises. But I was often told to put my books away during lessons (even if the lessons were much more low-level) or sometimes even in the period after I had done my execises but before the class was all finished so that a new activity could be started. This fell in the face of another taught fundamental: school is for learning. I asked my counselor about this and she, again, couldn't really answer the question. She was laying out my future path: through middle school, through high school, to that penultimate goal, college. She said that I was quite bright and that if I "applied myself, I could do anything" (another quote that raised bitterness from me from the age I was told that I could draw anything I could imagine. To this day I can't to any degree of precision), but that my grades were poor. I said that colleges don't look at grades prior to high school. I don't know how I found this out, but she said this was a poor attitude. She asked why I didn't try to make better grades. I said because the activities were "dumb" (okay, I wasn't that bright, although in the age of computers I wonder if my grade school teachers would still put up such a fuss about my poor hand-writing) and that I didn't learn anything from them.

This lead to further disillusionment. Was school really for learning? I thought about this and came to the conclusion that once again I had been misled by adults. There is some learning that goes on in school. I didn't know how to read, write, or do arithmetic before going to school and did after. But so did everyone else. If you learned at the pace of everyone else, then school flowed along smoothly without special highs or lows. But if you were too fast, too slow, or had extraneous circumstances that made the work difficult; you did not fit in the asserted mold. School was less about learning and more about conditioning. You learned to follow instructions. You learned that teachers (and, by implication, all authority figures) are right. You learned that usually problems were easily solved by chosing an arbitrary black and white and siding with the white. Even then I realized that if the primary purpose of school was learning, it would be structured much differently. But it wasn't. I realized that the purpose of school was to prepare you to be a citizen in a (presumedly unexciting) work force, to learn not to be different (as I was) or to hide your differences (and I did not).

While grade school does not carry the same dystopic overtones as George Orwell's 1984, the same Machiavellian mechanisms may be seen in action. The teachers mediate information to the children who, given no incentive to consider otherwise (and seemingly every incentive to do so), buy their explanations whole-heartedly. Most of teachers were primarily there to help (though not all, and "help" being applicably defined according to the teacher, each with their own motivations). There were, however, these subtle mechanisms of mediation in place, and "truths" told, like patriotism, for the good of the truth and not to educate. Other information was offered, and I concluded that it was more self-consistent and therefore more likely to be correct than some tenents posited by teachers. Going forward in years, some students became disillusioned as I had began to become, some students learned the system either actively or implicitly and became its agents (to their own benefit or as a benefit to others, respectively), and some could not but hold the words of their first authority figures as purely true and would actively stifle anything contradicting this belief.

[1] citation needed