The Thinking 

Why Are Schools So Ugly?

November 19, 2009

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Most people probably would say that America’s school buildings resemble prisons with windows – and without the barbed wire – because it would be too expensive to make them otherwise. But, that doesn’t make sense. Some of this ugliness is enormously costly.

In 1906, William Torrey Harris, U.S. Commissioner of Education, wrote in his influential book The Philosophy of Education:

The great purpose of school can be realized better in dark, airless, ugly places…. It is to master the physical self, to transcend the beauty of nature. School should develop the power to withdraw from the external world.

I agree with John Taylor Gatto, author of a more recent book on education, Weapons of Mass Instruction. This architecture serves one of the main purposes of school. Its aim is to create a shallow inner life.

Rita writes:

It’s so true about schools.  I’ve often lamented about California Schools.  So much money is poured in to school systems and yet, we are left with these dreary, strangely musty places.  Some don’t even have cafeterias. Kids eat outside no matter what the weather.  (It does get cold here sometimes).  I had no idea this was part of a master plan but it makes a lot of sense.  Thanks for pointing it out.

Laura writes:

This is not to say that schools are deliberately and consciously made ugly today. It’s just that beauty has never, from the dawn of modern compulsory schooling, been considered important. And, anything controlled by centralized authorities, essentially out of the hands of local communities, does not take account of the immaterial needs of human beings. Safety, crowd-processing, convenience – these are the highest goals of school architecture.

Where I live, the schools are very well-funded, and yet even in the richest of communities they are appallingly ugly, with flourescent lighting, unadorned brick facades, cinderblock walls painted yellow and green, and dusty yards bereft of ornamental planting. They’re as soulless as urban parking garages.

It’s fascinating to me that even quite educated people don’t think children have any appetite for beauty. They do seem to accept this early credo of educational experts that beauty or ornament is distracting. And, that’s the problem with modern schooling in a nutshell. It doesn’t view children as human beings nor could it possibly identify what beauty is.

Hannon writes:

While I would not doubt that a preponderance of U.S. public schools are dreary and even repellent, there are some notable exceptions. Here is Santa Barbara Junior High School:

My understanding has always been that schools are deliberately designed to avoid distraction, so that students can focus on school work. A similar principle operates in designing roadways– the fewer signs and eye-catching elements, the better and safer they will be.

Laura writes:

Yes, there are notable exceptions and that is a very impressive one. Do you know when that was built? I have never seen a beautiful school built since the 1970s.

As far as distractions, I think that’s what Harris meant by “mastering the physical self.”

Hannon writes:

It looks like 1932 or thereabouts.

Hannon  continues:

Or how about a beautiful church built since the 1970s? Or a museum or car design? People seem to willfully ignore the signs that our civilization is withering away, whether they be in social performance and behavior or everyday physical objects. Perhaps they cannot maintain their belief in modernism without constant verification of its visible progress.

Rita writes:

This school was considered cutting edge in design and for technology when it was built a few years ago and it seems to combine classic and new design fairly well. It’s in a quaint New England town and the exterior is loyal to the design of many old buildings in the town. Having grown up in the area, I’m biased but it seems more beautiful than most of the schools in my part of southern California. I must say, the school in Santa Barbara is just gorgeous.


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