Friday, October 30, 2015

Why is school a traumatic experience?

We've all gone to school. It doesn't matter which class we happen to belong to - working class, upper class, struggling remnants of what used to be the middle class. We all went there.

And we all have stories to tell therefrom. Good, bad, indifferent.

The biggest argument in favor of public schooling is that society needs a common fount of shared experience to cohere. Which, in a sense, is true. But it does point towards the question of what these poor pupils really get to learn during these experiences - especially as the notion of them getting their own personal experiences is frowned upon during the process. Johnny can't read, and thus he's not allowed to do anything else until he can.

You learn things in school, and not only those who are specified in the curriculum. Even more effectively, you learn things that are not in the books, by the very design of the school as an institution. Things such as the inevitable ordinariness of rising and shining in the early morn to be punctual and on time yet another ordinary day.

Now, there's nothing in the act of educating children that demands that things begin in the morning hours. The school day could just as well begin at noon without loss of utilized learning potential. But it simply would not do to have a generation of kids who weren't disciplined to rise in time for business hours.

The kids also have to get used to other things. Such as constantly being interrupted. Most brutally through the schedule, where the day is segmented into predetermined blocks of arbitrary content. As soon as one activity is initiated, the bell rings and it is time to go to the next block, which may or may not have any relation to those previous. Which hampers the learning of those interested and uninterested both - those interested are interrupted in their learning, and those uninterested won't have enough time to become interested.

They learn to ramble aimlessly between arbitrary activities, and to indifferently obey the arbitrary instructions given. Without any note of their interests.

Moreover, they learn to be constantly surveilled. Not only by their teachers, whose stated functions are to be present and vigilant, but also by virtue of the records. Everyone present is noted, those not present are sanctioned. Thus they learn to constantly monitor their relationship to the system - no one gets away, even when they get away. Those who do are swiftly punished.

Especially for younger pupils, whose attendance is measured down to the last minute. What is taught by such constant combination of documentation and surveillance?

The definition of being disciplined is the preparedness to be watched. In a strictly controlled environment such as a school, being watched is the default mode. Not just in relation to the teachers and the ever present schedule, but also in relation to other pupils. There are very few private spaces in a school where it's possible to breathe and look less than presentable. They will be seen and noted.

Speaking of other pupils - one of the most repeated lessons is that cooperation and mutual effort is a sin. The words used to describe such behavior tend to be synonymous with "cheating" and "plagiarism". And punished as such. In order to judge and discipline the pupils properly, they need to be taught to do things on their own, and woe betide those who dare to improve their learning capabilities by mobilizing available social resources.

So. What are we teaching kids these days?

To wake early, to arrive on time, to tolerate constant interruptions, to move from one arbitrary boring activity to another, to be constantly watched, to be constantly judged, that cooperation is cheating, and that there is no escape.

If this sounds eerily familiar to being imprisoned - well, Foucault did say that schools, prisons, factories and military bases operate on similar principles. Discipline and punish.

Is it really that strange that many think school was (and still is) a traumatic experience? And is it really necessary to systematically perpetuate these experiences in the name of social cohesion?

There's no lack of those who'd answer yes.

Originally published November 15, 2011

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