Monday, November 28, 2011

What is our school teaching about liberty and justice?

Reproduction of a poster that appears
in the movie “Brazil,” purchasable here

In America, if you commit a crime, the state can jail your friends and neighbors. In America, the state can punish an entire group whenever it is too hard to sort out the innocent from the guilty. In America, you have to monitor your neighbors’ conduct, and you can be punished if you fail to report their crimes. In America, it is your duty to pressure your fellow citizens into obeying the authorities, even if you have no say in what the authorities demand. In America, you must always be willing to sacrifice your freedom in the name of law and order.

Any school that taught those false statements in a civics class would be guilty of gross educational malpractice. I worry, though, that my kids’ school is teaching them every day, in the way it handles discipline. In its zeal to enforce behavioral rules, the school is willing to punish the innocent along with the guilty, and to coerce the kids into serving as informants on one another.

Take the lunchroom. As I described here, our school is engaged in a baffling War on Lunchroom Noise, even though both parents and kids report that the lunchroom is not all that noisy, and even though no one even bothers to close the door to the room during lunch, and even though the gym classes held in the same room are significantly noisier. To achieve this dubious goal of a needlessly quiet lunchroom, the lunchroom attendants make a special point of telling the kids that their whole table (of up to sixteen kids) will be punished – by having to eat in silence – if any of them are too noisy, and so they had all better pay attention to how their table-mates are behaving. If the room gets “too noisy,” the person in charge tells the kids to raise their hands if their “neighbors” are talking.

Similarly, if the school catches a child bullying another child, it doesn’t stop at disciplining the bully. Now, apparently, the school has taken to disciplining kids who happened to see the bullying and did not report it. In such a case, the school sends an incident report to the bystander’s parents, telling them to sign it and return it to the school.

Last year, as I described here, a teacher told a roomful of kids to search each other’s desks and backpacks to find an eraser that had supposedly been stolen from the teacher’s desk.

Why would a school choose to model values and practices that are so contrary to those that our country stands for?

Collective punishment – that is, punishing an entire group for the actions of a few – has a long, ugly history. In the American criminal justice system, its use would be unconstitutional. Its use during armed conflict is a war crime under the Geneva Convention. The International Committee of the Red Cross, in its commentary on the Convention, explains that collective punishment defies “the most elementary principles of humanity,” and that collective punishment and related measures “strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice.”

Requiring people to police each other’s conduct, and to report each other’s offenses to the authorities, also raises serious concerns about individual civil liberties. The general rule in America is that citizens have no legal duty to report crimes that they witness. Though such a duty would certainly have some positive effects, American law has generally rejected it, and for good reasons. Such a duty would greatly expand the power of the state over the individual. By requiring everyone to mind everyone else’s business, such a duty would make every citizen an involuntary agent of the police, and would give the state a pretext to arrest any number of otherwise law-abiding citizens. The practice evokes images of the Salem witch trials and the McCarthy era. Like collective punishment, it is one of the hallmarks of a police state.

It makes sense for the school to encourage kids to report bullying, but the school shouldn’t punish kids for not reporting other kids. Better to cultivate kids’ empathy for the victims of bullying than to depend on their fear of being punished. (When it comes to discipline, it sometimes seems like our school knows of only two ways to engage with children: carrot and stick.) As for the lunchroom, it seems like the school is going out of its way to teach these authoritarian values. The “problem” of lunchroom noise is one invented by the school; the kids in surrounding classrooms aren’t bothered by it, as the school basically acknowledges by leaving the lunchroom door open. And besides, is it really that hard to figure out which kids in the lunchroom are the noisy ones, without enlisting the other kids to become informants?

The school preaches that kids should resist peer pressure. But with these practices, it employs and encourages peer pressure as a tactic to enforce compliance with school rules.

Do the school personnel think that their treatment of the kids has no effect on what the kids will come to see as normal and acceptable? That what they model has no effect on what the kids learn? Or is it that they don’t care what the kids are learning, as long as they’re quiet and following the rules?


Chris said...

There's been a lot of press this week about this story, about a school that tried to punish a kid for doing what adults have a clear Constitutional right to do -- saying on Twitter that the governor of her state "sucked." The governor's office saw the tweet and complained that the student was not being "respectful." The girl was then called into the principal's office and scolded for almost an hour about her "not so nice" comment that had embarrassed the school. The school demanded that she write an apology, and even suggested what she should say. What a fine understanding of free speech exhibited by all these educational authorities!

The girl eventually decided that she would not comply with the school's demand for an apology. The school then backed down (no doubt having been educated by their legal department in the meantime). After getting a lot of bad press about the incident, the governor then apologized for having pursued the matter, having decided, after all, that "Freedom of speech is among our most treasured freedoms."

The school district issued a statement saying that "The issue has resulted in many teachable moments concerning the use of social media." Yeah, those kids have a lot to learn, don't they?

Hienuri Kayleuetski said...

At the moment, I'm studying Russian history at school, and we've just been learning about life under Stalin. The first paragraph of your post reminded me exactly of what we've been learning. Stalin was so paranoid that he saw nearly everyone as being a threat to him, particularly those in positions of power, and thus began the Great Purges in the 1930s. As well as numerous military officers and successful peasants (people Stalin needed to keep the country running safely, especially throughout World War Two), the NKVD (the secret police at the time) also targeted many innocent people as they were forced to meet certain quotas. In their fear some people blamed other people to avoid arrest themselves.

FedUpMom said...

Well, we do require people to report suspected child abuse. Just ask Joe Paterno of Penn State.

Chris said...

FedUpMom -- But actually, we don't require ordinary citizens to report even child abuse. People in specific positions that require working with children are often mandatory reporters under state law, but that is a narrow exception to the general rule. As I understand it, Paterno has not been accused of breaking the law (which is why he has not been indicted). He was fired, not prosecuted, and the reasons for which someone can be fired are much broader.

Doris said...

I ended up in a discussion of just this topic (of state laws covering mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse) over Thanksgiving. Look at this:

"In approximately 18 States and Puerto Rico, any person who suspects child abuse or neglect is required to report. Of these 18 States, 16 States and Puerto Rico specify certain professionals who must report but also require all persons to report suspected abuse or neglect, regardless of profession.6 New Jersey and Wyoming require all persons to report without specifying any professions."

The document from which this is excerpted is here:

Chris said...

Thanks for the link, Doris – that’s great information. I knew there were exceptions to the rule, but didn’t realize how many. But still, in a clear majority of states, including ours, ordinary citizens don’t have a legal duty to report crimes, even child abuse.

Should we want it otherwise? I can certainly see both sides of the argument, but the longer I think about the idea, the less I like it. Just how much suspicion would I have to have before I’d be committing a crime by not reporting my friends, neighbors, or total strangers to the authorities? How certain am I of what even counts as child abuse? (After all, in something like twenty states, corporal punishment is still allowed in schools.) The less clear the duty is, the more incentive there would be for people to err on the side of reporting their suspicions, for fear of getting charged with a crime if they don’t. And why limit the principle to child abuse? You could certainly make the case that people should have to report any serious violent crime, or even crimes that seriously affect people’s financial well-being. But a society where people feel they have to err on the side of reporting each other to the authorities – out of fear of the authorities – is one I’m not sure I’d want to live in.

Chris said...

Hienuri -- I was reminded of Russian history, too. One thing that was so striking, when the Iron Curtain finally fell and previously secret documents became public, was how many people were involved in spying on each other for the state.

Doris said...

Did you see the film The Lives of Others? Beautiful treatment of spying in the former East Germany . . . .

I agree with you that these kinds of laws seem like a bad idea, for the reasons you specify.

Speaking of mandatory reporting, can you explain more about what's going on w/ the requirement that students at Hoover report bullying? How was bullying defined? How was this duty explained to the children--or was it?

Btw, I don't know off-hand where best to post this, but do take a look at the current issue of The Nation. It contains a disturbing article by Lee Fang called "Selling Schools Out: The Scam of Virtual Education Reform." It's on efforts by ed-tech companies to boost their profits: "One study estimated that revenues from the K-12 online learning industry will grow by 43 percent between 2010 and 2015, with revenues reaching $24.4 billion."

In Florida, for example, a bill was passed that will replace a substantial number of teachers with computer avatars, authorize the spending of public money on for-profit virtual schools, and mandate that all high school students have to take at least one course online in order to graduate.

But, of course, all these efforts are presented to the public as being in the interest of improving the education of children, not enriching the bank accounts of (ed) tech entrepreneurs.

Chris said...

Doris -- I wish I knew the answers to your questions about Hoover's policy on reporting bullying. It will go on my latest list of things to ask the principal about.

The article you mention appears to be online, under the title "How Online Learning Companies Bought America's Schools."

Nothing surprises anymore.

Chris said...

By the way, no, I haven't seen The Lives of Others, but will have to check it out.

I did watch Brazil recently, though, for the first time in about twenty-five years. I was amazed by how it resonated with the past decade. Terrorism used an all-purpose justification for an authoritarian Security State? Check. Militarized SWAT teams seizing people in violent raids while their stunned wives and children look on? Check. Hooded prisoners being led away to torture chambers? Check. What was once a baroque, dystopian fantasia is looking more and more like a documentary every day.

I was tempted to post a clip of the brief scene in the movie where Jonathan Pryce stops to ask directions from a group of kids playing cops and robbers. In this version of the game, one boy is spread-eagled against a wall while the others point guns at him and frisk him; a child off to the side has a bag over his or her head, apparently in imitation of the hoods worn by the prisoners we later see in the "Ministry of Information Retrieval." A poster on the wall advertises "Top Security Holiday Camps. Luxury without fear. Fun without suspicion. Relax in a panic-free atmosphere." (You can see the scene here, starting at the 8:11 mark.)

Josephine said...

Where are our schools headed? I live in a rural town in Saltville, Va. There were two little girls in the same kindergarten class last year who were best friends and there was never one complaint. This year though in different classes, they are not even allowed to hold hands in the afternoon leaving school. They have been deliberately pulled apart by teachers. Yesterday they had gym class and were holding hands they are 6 years old and were hit by a child to drive them apart and then teachers stepped in and separated them putting one of them in time out the entire class. Teachers have been overheard saying they are not allowed to be together.When one of the parents complained all they were told is it is in their best interest. I have read in England kids are not allowed to have best friends, is that beginning to take place here in America?

Chris said...

Josephine – Thanks for commenting. That sounds terrible. Sometimes there seems to be no limit to adults’ propensity for “correcting” and “improving” children in their “best interest.” I haven’t seen examples here as extreme as the one you describe, but I do think there’s some resistance here to the idea of a kid becoming too attached to one other kid as a best friend. Our school seems to go out of its way to break up those pairs in assigning them to classrooms, for example. There seems to be a feeling that it will be “good for them” to be separated and to make other friends. I don’t know any adults who apply that standard to themselves.