Monday, September 6, 2010

Guest Post: Back to Jail -- Ugh!

From northTOmom at Parenting is Political:

Back to Jail—Ugh!

Between the ages of eight and eleven I kept a diary. Although I like to think I was a fairly imaginative kid, my diary entries are strikingly unimaginative and repetitive. But they are interesting to me nonetheless for one reason: every weekday entry during the school year started this way: "I went to jail, ugh." Throughout the entire course of the diary I never referred to school by any other term. The reason this interests—or rather confuses me—is that I didn't actually dislike school. I didn't love it, I may have been a little bored, but I had several good school friends, and I was comfortable there. My elementary school, and even my middle school were second homes to me. I do not remember experiencing them as places of stress or undue misery.

As I prepare to send my own daughters back to school, I've been reflecting on what a difference two or three decades makes. My daughters are in the throes of back-to-school dread, and for good reason: to them school does indeed feel like a sort of prison. Despite the "progressive," child-centered rhetoric of the last thirty years—rhetoric that is especially prominent in school boards such ours (Toronto District School Board), which pride themselves on their forward-thinking approach to education—I would argue that schools have become more repressive, more prison-like than when I was a kid. Take lockdown drills, for instance, which every school in the TDSB is required to conduct twice yearly. This is a practice that originated in prisons as a means of containing riots by controlling the movement of the inmates; its adoption by school boards throughout North America is justified by citing hypothetical threats to "security." When my children were subjected to their first mock "lockdown" in grade 2, they were traumatized, their minds filled for days with images of potentially violent intruders skulking around the schoolyard or wandering down hallways. Around the same time, the school implemented new anti-bullying policies and procedures, the literature for which was full of references to "safe" schools. Could the administrators not see a contradiction between the two policies? How is subjecting children as young as four to lockdown drills conducive to creating a psychologically "safe" space? Have school boards ever performed a cost benefit analysis of the practice in terms of psychological harm versus physical security? (When kids get to high school, the "lockdown" effect is in many cases compounded by the presence of armed police officers enforcing "zero tolerance" policies. But that is a subject for another post.)

Today's schools are punitive and authoritarian in a subtler but arguably more harmful manner as well. Without much debate or any overt change in policy, schools have begun in recent years to exert more and more control over children in the most basic, bodily of ways. In the playground there are rules against running, against using the playground equipment in an unapproved manner, against play fighting or roughhousing of any kind. Within the school and classroom, access to the bathroom is even restricted. If a child asks to go to the toilet before or after recess, his or her request is likely to be denied. I witnessed this policy being enacted in a junior kindergarten class a few years ago while I was volunteering in the school library. A junior kindergartner (i.e., a four-year-old child!) had the audacity to ask the teacher if he could go to the bathroom soon after recess. I didn't hear everything the teacher said in response, but I did hear her when she began to yell loudly at the child who was slinking down the aisle toward the nearest bathroom, "No, it's not okay. You know you're supposed to go at recess. You know the rules. It's not okay!" When Michel Foucault wrote about the ways in which the state exerts it power at the micro level, including at the level of the human body, he probably did not have this scenario in mind. But for me, it is a perfect example of the early "disciplining and punishment" of the human soul.

A few more anecdotes to drive home the point, especially the under-acknowledged fact that schools have become more, not less, authoritarian in recent years:

My older brother recently told me that when he was in elementary school—this would have been in the late sixties—a teacher berated him in a manner that he felt was uncalled for and unfair. My brother's response? He simply left the school and walked home at recess. The school called my mother, who actually defended him!

Fast forward forty some-odd years. I picked my daughter up from school one day in fourth grade and upon seeing me, she immediately burst into tears. She'd been feeling physically ill for the final half hour or so of school, and upon arriving home she promptly threw up and took to her bed. I later asked her why she hadn't told the teacher she needed to call home. "It was close to dismissal time," she explained. "The teacher would have said I had to wait."

On another occasion, my daughter had a total breakdown after she accidentally dented her trombone. Even though my daughter considered the band instructor to be one of the "nice" teachers, she claimed he was nonetheless going to "murder" her for denting the instrument. I have rarely seen her so distraught. She cried for one hour straight, repeating over and over again "he's going to kill me." I asked her why she couldn't just tell him the truth: that someone had accidentally bumped into her and the trombone got dented. She looked at me as if I were stupid and said, "I can't just say that, because he's an adult and I'm not, and teachers don't believe kids." I went into the school the next day and talked to the teacher, who nonchalantly told me he'd send the trombone out to be repaired. He even provided another trombone for my daughter to use in the meantime. But I was left wondering whether he would have responded as casually had my daughter actually done the explaining herself. What is it about him, I wondered, or more generally, what is it about school that makes my daughter feel so utterly dis-empowered as a human being?

This, I believe, is the kind of question we, as parents and as citizens who pay for public education, need to be asking not just about specific schools, but about the current culture of public school in general.


  1. I don't think it's just a matter of school and teachers. Kids see adults as different beings, acting in a completely different way then they and their friends are. And to tell the truth, when observing our actions from outside, they may have many reasons to believe that we really are like they see us...

  2. I'm reading this and going, parents continue to send their children... why? Do the children even want to go at all? Has anyone asked them?

  3. Authoritarian...that pretty much sums it up.

    You forgot to mention the contracts that teachers send home the first day: "You WILL do this...You WILL NOT do that...Late homework gets a ZERO, NO EXCEPTIONS!"

    I refuse to sign them, but my wife does. I tried to convince her otherwise, but she doesn't want our children to be singled out by the teachers.

    That's how the schools get away with one stands up to them.

  4. Here's a nugget for's all our kids' faults:

  5. On the local radio this morning, the topic of the new school year came up and it's been announced that the education department here in Nova Scotia is going to "get tough" on students because we apparently have a high absentee rate from school. They want to give principals and teachers more leeway to punish students for late assignments as well. The overwhelming message is: the kids don't come to school and do their work, so we're going to Make'EM!
    Apparently parents don't escape the wrath either...we take them out for long periods of time too often for frivolities like family vacations!
    I guess I have to agree..schools ARE more authoritarian........and so outdated.

  6. Oops..I meant to add my heading...that last comment was from PsychMom.

  7. Matthew: Thanks for the reference to the article, but how depressing! Another instance of blaming the "victims" (and unfortunately, I think the term is applicable to kids in many schools).

    PsychMom: I heard something similar in Ontario, educators wanting to introduce tougher "consequences" for things like late homework. They seem to keep cycling through old ideas, but never seem to get to the root of the problem.

  8. Just started reading this excellent post, northTO, and already I'm nodding vigorously. It's excellent. You've only just begun but I suspect this is your seminal statement, this is the crux.

    "I would argue that schools have become more repressive, more prison-like than when I was a kid." And it reminds me of Chris who is alarmed (alarmed, right?) that schools are becoming increasingly authoritarian. We need to keep a very vigilant eye on repression. Any society can veer in that direction; we Americans have become too complacent, we take freedom too much for granted, in this great land of ours. And it needs to shake up and scare each and every one of us.

  9. Great post. Jade's comment also got me thinking. I would add that adults, in general, also see the kids as totally different beings. We're just much readier to accept impositions on kids that we would never put up with ourselves. I mean, how many of us would tolerate being in a situation where we couldn't use the bathroom without permission? If anything, we should err on the side of being less authoritarian in schools, because there will be a natural tendency to overimpose on any group that has no say in their own treatment.

    On the issue of school being like jail, you might enjoy reading some of Peter Gray's posts over at Psychology Today, particularly here and here. He takes the anti-authoritarian approach further than most people are willing to go, but a lot of what he is saying is hard to deny. And it's interesting to hear how bothered some people are by his comparison of school with prison.

    Finally, as for the value of the coverage you find in sources like Time and Newsweek, you might get a kick out of this.

  10. PsychMom sent me a link to a new article by Alfie Kohn, How to Create Nonreaders.

    There's a couple of good quotes:

    "Thus, the average American high school is excellent preparation for adult life. . . assuming that one lives in a totalitarian society."

    "But the fact is that kids learn to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions."

  11. PsychMom says:
    It sounds stupid, but part of the reason I send my child to a small private school is because I want to be allowed inside the school whenever I want. I like being able to walk in the front door at any time of day and talk to pleasant people. This is not the case in the public system. Parents aren't allowed in public schools. I know the reason why but did anyone ever consider what the message is to families. It's the school administration keeping parents at arm's length in another way. Ah, but they'll demand you help with homework.

  12. Chris: Thanks for the links to Peter Gray's posts (and the hilarious video clip about the new "Adult Time Magazine"). I find Gray's pieces wryly humorous but actually very astute. I agree with almost everything he says; I have even looked into a Sudbury-type school for my daughters, although I'm torn because part of me still believes in the notion of a well-rounded, "liberal" education.

    But I do think the lack of democracy in education is why kids experience school as a prison. Students have virtually no say in what they do or learn, day in and day out and, as you point out, teachers and other adults within the school are allowed to treat kids with an astonishing lack of respect (eg, restricting when they can go to the bathroom). I'm not sure why conventional schools have to be so authoritarian and prison-like. Parents should not have to choose between "unschooling" (which is not feasible for everyone) and prison.

    FedUpMom: I find the first quote from Kohn, about high school preparing kids to live in a totalitarian society, interesting. My brother (the one mentioned in the anecdote in my post) told me about a book written in the 70s called The Hidden Curriculum by Benson Snyder. Apparently the idea is that within any educational system there is an overt curriculum, and a hidden one, which has to do with training students to be obedient, to follow rules, to prop up the status quo, etc. So perhaps this explains why schools are authoritarian and prison-like: that is how they "teach" the hidden curriculum. Anyway, the book is out of print, but my interest is piqued--I put a hold on it at the library.

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  14. (Sorry--just fixing a typo.)

    Yeah, I find the whole Sudbury School phenomenon fascinating, but I don't know whether I'd send my kids to one or not. (I still have visions of Lord of the Flies in the back of my head.) There's no point in thinking much about it, since the nearest one is probably two hundred miles from here. There are so few options here, and when you have three kids, even less expensive private options are awfully expensive (multiplied by thirteen years, and that's not even counting college!). And I'd love to unschool, but I see any kind of homeschooling as the most expensive option of all, since we'd basically have to give up my entire income (or my wife's). So I sympathize completely when you ask why we should have to choose between unschooling and prison.

    Sometimes people will say to me, "Well, why don't you homeschool, then?", which drives me crazy. "Love it or leave it" is such a lame argument. Even if I homeschooled, I'd still be paying for these schools with my taxes, and more importantly, I'd still have to live in a world populated by people who attended these authoritarian schools. I'd be upset about it even if I didn't have any kids.

  15. "I'd be upset about it even if I didn't have any kids,"

    My daughter graduated high school in June and I'm STILL upset about it. I hear you that even if you homeschool, your child will still have be surrounded by young adults raised in authoritarian climates. But homeschool I did, anyway, for one blissful magical year and I'm here to report it is so good, so magical, there's nothing like it.

    And no, in case anyone asks, I'm not a religious zealot or a hippie isolationist. I'm just a normal mom, raising my child in an intellectual vibrant household of consummate bibliophiles, with a determination that life was too wonderful, curious and exciting to waste it with school indoctrination.

  16. northTOmom, a slightly belated thank you for your post. I hope we'll hear from you again.

  17. FedUpMom, you're welcome! Thanks for providing such an intelligent and lively forum for all of us "disaffected" parents.

  18. northTOmom, I've heard about that Hidden Curriculum book and will someday check it out. I think I already have one disagreement with it, though: *hidden*??? I wish that Hidden Curriculum was a little more hidden at my kids' school!

  19. Chris,
    I agree, it's not too "hidden" at my daughters' school either. The other day they had an assembly about--in my daughter's words--"the things kids can and can't do at school," but my daughter commented that it was really about all the things they can't do. (For example, close their eyes for even one minute while on the play equipment!) But I suspect by "hidden," the author means that it's not what the schools advertise as the curriculum they are delivering.

    In any case, I checked the book out from the library, and although it's interesting, it is mainly concerned with universities and colleges. Snyder specifically looks at the experiences of kids trying to navigate the two curricula--covert and overt--at MIT during the 60s. One of his interests is in how the dissonance between the two curricula turns off some of the most talented, intelligent kids.

    Anyway, though the book has a kind of dated feel to it, I think a lot of what the author says applies to all educational institutions (and he does talk a bit about high school). The book was pretty influential at the time, and I'd be surprised if in the 40 years since its publication, other researchers had not extended his ideas and produced either a book or papers looking at the double curriculum in elementary/middle school. I'm going to do some digging, and if I find anything, I'll report back.
    (Sorry for such a long-winded post!)