Monday, October 8, 2012

What does this blog want?

Well, the blog is three years old today. A blog’s philosophy tends to come out in little pieces over time, so I thought I might use the occasion to try to put into words what this blog is ultimately about.

I’ve posted about a lot of topics here -- authoritarian education, behavioral rewards, standardized testing, school lunch periods, and many more -- but if you asked me to identify the central fact about K-12 education, I’d say this: Kids don’t get to vote. And when you don’t get to vote, you get screwed.

I’m not saying that six-year-olds should get to vote; kids are disenfranchised as much by their circumstances as by any law. But disenfranchised they are. And the history of enfranchised groups acting “in the best interests” of disenfranchised groups is a particularly sorry one. Think of the history of African-Americans, of women, of mental patients, or of prisoners. If there’s one thing we know, it’s that people cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of disenfranchised groups.

Our country’s treatment of children is a part of that history. I don’t mean that they are as bad off as slaves or prisoners, but they are similar in that they are seen as less than fully human, as more different from “us” than they actually are. At its worst, this means they get used for other people’s ends. I’m always struck by how openly politicians now express an instrumental view of children. They don’t even bother talking about what’s good for kids as individuals; the entire debate is about how we can best use kids as soldiers in the battle for global economic supremacy. (Granted, they may not see this as instrumental: What’s good for business is necessarily good for kids, right?)

Kids are at the mercy not only of those who would exploit them, but of those with the best of intentions. There has never been any shortage of clipboard-carrying “experts” eager to improve other people by coercing them into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise choose to do. The main protection adults have from being treated that way – from being seen that way – is their political enfranchisement. Kids don’t have that protection.

If someone were to give me a token prize in a transparent attempt to manipulate my behavior, I would feel patronized and used. If I were ordered by the government to use my free time to take classes that didn’t interest me, I would experience that as an unjust intrusion on my liberty. If I were made to sit silently in an uncomfortable chair at someone else’s whim, required to ask permission even to use the bathroom, given only ten or fifteen minutes to eat my lunch, and made to feel shameful or defective if I couldn’t comply with these “expectations” – all while being given no say over my treatment – I would quickly either become a revolutionary or settle into a clinical depression.

Yet we not only do those things to children, we think nothing of doing them. The idea that their freedom from coercion and manipulation might have value, like ours does – the idea that it should have any weight at all in our policy decisions – seldom even occurs to people. It’s as if children existed precisely for us to manipulate them. The guiding spirit of our treatment of children seems to be: “Look, there’s a child! Let’s do something to it! For its own good!

So what does this blog want? I want people to be more conscious of the moral hazard posed by their power over this disenfranchised group. I want them to be less quick to find reasons to treat kids differently than they want to be treated themselves. I want them to be more aware of the possibility that we might be acting out our fears and neuroses on our kids. I want people to take kids’ freedom, autonomy, and dignity as seriously as they take their own. I want people to recognize that the central ideals of our society – democracy, civil liberties, constraints on authority, the importance of the individual – do not suddenly become irrelevant and frivolous at the schoolhouse door.

One reason I want to see more humane, less authoritarian schools is because I want to see a more humane, less authoritarian world. I worry that our schools are reflecting and modeling some of the worst impulses of our society, which seems increasingly ready to curtail individual liberties in the name of “security,” increasingly prone to using human beings as a means to an end, as in our brutal foreign wars, and increasingly draconian in its approach to crime and punishment, as it imprisons a huge chunk of its own population. I worry that our schools are teaching our kids to accept and conform to that world. This blog wants to ask whether that has to be so.


PsychMom said...

Thank you, Chris for illuminating these issues.

I listened to two radio show hosts the other morning sneer over the topic of children being driven to school (rather than walking)and thought again at how miserable their attitude was. Their contempt was aimed at the children for being lazy and pampered. And then parenting took a licking too, all in the course of 30 seconds as they cast these parents who drive their children to school as silly at best, weak at worst. Children are not treated fairly in our seemingly civil society and I'm so glad there are people like you saying so.

Suzanne Lamb said...

Can you hear me applauding from Kentucky? Great post, Chris.

Chris said...

Thanks, PsychMom and Suzanne.

I wonder if those radio hosts walk to work.

FedUpMom said...

Chris, congratulations on 3 years of blogging.

Treating kids with respect and kindness ought to be the first priority, but too often it becomes the last.

Anonymous said...

Wow. This might just be the most instructive piece of writing that I have read for a long time.

In the world of education, we get so caught up in analyzing numbers and considering ways to make them increase that we forget there are real people, with real feelings and real dreams, behind them. This is the detrimental mentality that leads to the conditions about which you elaborate, and this is the notion that we have to drop if students are to get engaged in their education.

I think the saddest part about this aspect of our schools is that kids believe that this is the way it has to be. It never crosses our minds to voice our frustrations to the people who have authority, mostly because we are taught that we are to always and forever respect their them and their decisions. We are teaching students to never question their world, and that is not okay.

Chris said...

Nicholas J – Thanks. One of the problems is that in many ways it makes perfect sense *not* to think about things that you are given no say over, so our system basically leads a lot of people to drift through their schooling without giving any real thought to what it ought to achieve, whether it is working, and how it might be different. People sometimes ask me how my kids are liking school, and, though I can usually give some kind of answer, I think my kids, like most kids, aren’t even really conscious of liking or disliking school in any meaningful sense. They’re stuck with it, so why think about it? You might as well ask how they like living on Earth. That’s not a recipe for producing students who are thoughtful about their own education.

FedUpMom – Thanks, and agreed.

Karen W said...

Chris--a late congratulations on three years of blogging.

I think there is a feeling that not much can be changed so it is easier to just move along through the system without questioning it--but I am glad that you are asking questions anyway and inspiring others to question too.