Sunday, August 22, 2010

school is abuse

Someone online posted about a school that gives students DAILY assessment tests. I remarked that this sounds like hell to me. A few people countered that it's much better than leaving kids to do homework and only occasionally checking in on how they're doing.

I had to admit I'd been glib, and so I broadened my remark by saying, "Homework sucks, too. A school has failed when it has our kids captive for EIGHT HOURS A DAY, for TWELVE YEARS, and that's not enough time to teach -- when it needs to force kids to do even MORE work at night, when they finally get to go home. Good LORD! What is happening during those eight hours?"

To which I got this...

It's school. It's not something you necessarily need to like. If I had my way I never would have gone and played Nintendo all day instead.

"We will probably never agree about this," I said, "but learning should be fun." Learning IS fun when we're small children. When we're babies, learning is FASCINATING. Then something kills this fascination for many people. I would argue that "something" is school -- traditional school (with homework, tests and requirements) as it exists in America and many other countries.

I would also argue that school needn't kill the joy of learning (and that the fact that it does so, for so many people, is extremely damaging to mental development). It sickens me when people treat school as a Force of Nature: "Whatcha gonna do. That's just the way it is."

I understand (and sympathize) with this feeling, because it's how most of us experience school. It's certainly IS something that "just happens" to us. Everyone we know goes through it; Our parents went through it; our children went through it. It seems like a natural part of life, like teething and going through puberty. But it's worth remembering that this is an illusion. Whether you agree with me or not that school sucks, it's not natural -- it's a human construction.

When a ritual becomes this embedded in culture, it stops being open to debate for most people. Not because they're close minded. But because ... who debates whether or not trees should have leaves? Good or bad, school becomes a rite of passage. It may be crap, but it's that crap we all have in common.

And questioning school is dangerous. If there's something fucked up in our upbringing -- in years and years and years of it -- that means, on some level, our parents abused us (generally unwittingly), and who wants to think of their parents that way? It means we're abusing our kids. And who wants to think of ourselves that way? I probably damage my own point by even suggesting that or by using the word "abuse." The knees are GOING to jerk.

But fuck it. Stunting someone's mental development; making them spend twelve years of their life in a crappy environment ... I don't know what else to call it.

Well, I could call it "just school" or "that's how it is" or "I went through it and I turned out okay." All the platitudes that usually tumble out...

When something is embedded in our culture, it also tends to make us very unimaginative -- at least when it comes to that thing. You can't change a rock or a tree. They are the way they are. Same with school, right? Institutions are institutions because they are institutions. The Post Office may be fucked up -- but it's the Post Office!

Please argue with me and tell me what school is fine (or the best we can expect it to be) and that it does little damage to people. Or that it's great and it helps people. But BEFORE you do that, please read everything you can about education (including the hundred-years-worth of literature on alternatives to what we do now), as I've tried to do over the last 30 years. And please spend 20 years in the classroom as an active thinker, as I have done. During that 20 years, make sure you question the institutional defaults EVERY DAY. Don't (necessarily) reject them; QUESTION them. Isn't that what you're teaching your students to do -- to question?

Read Vivian Paley's books; read "How Children Fail." Read about Summerhill in England. Read reports of adults who went through non-traditional schools and see how they fared in life and how they look back on their school experiences. Do all that, and then, using logic, reject those books and experiences. I'll be waiting and I'm open to be convinced.

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