Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Centrality of Schools

with 4 comments

THERE’S a title calculated to turn off any lurker who might fight his way over here.  Or hers.

But I’m going to try to backtrack a little here.

I agree with Cheryl that there has to be some way to insure that most people at least get the chance at a basic education, and that means that there are going to have to be schools, and probably some version of public schools.

But it seems to me that, as late as when I was growing up, “school” was something people did for a very small part of their lives and then never thought of again.  It was admitted to be an anomalous case–the real world was not like school, and what happened to you in school was not particularly important, because actual life ran on other rules and assumptions.

It further feels to me that, somewhere since the 1960s, that assumption has changed.  Now we tend to think of school as the default mode, the norm for the rest of life, and any problems a kid may have in school, academic or social or otherwise, become crises that must be addressed by aggressive action.

To go back to the example I brought up before somewhere, only a school would think that a teen-aged boy who liked being a slob and hated doing homework had some kind of “disorder” that required “therapy.”  If that same kid has a job at Wal-Mart or Stop ‘n’  Shop, his manager will bitch at him until he looks neat enough for the customers and won’t assign homework at all–and he’ll get paid, giving him something of an incentive to keep his shirt tucked into his pants.

The psychomedicalization of childhood and adolesence requires a set of assumptions that would be perceived as lunatic outside of schools–that it is “normal” for children to be willing and able to sit still for long periods of time at small desks all facing forward; that any “healthy” child wants to be neat and clean at all times and never wants to get dirty, or enjoys it, or doesn’t care;  that faced with adults who order one about and don’t seem to like him, a student’s “rational” response will be to do what they tell him and try to make them have a better opinion of him.

All of those assumptions are, quite frankly, wrong–they describe nothing true about most human beings.   I’m considerably older than a teen-ager, but I know how I respond when people try to order me around–if they’re paying me, I may just put up with it, but even then, I push back.  And I can push really hard. 

Any look at any website purporting to describe the “mental health issues” of children and teenagers will throw up a stunning array of behavior deemed symptomatic of psychiatric distress that the rest of us would call normal–because it is normal.  

“Oppositional defiant disorder” is only a “disorder” if you think it is somehow abnormal for teenagers to rebel against life in general and to resist authority.  I suspect that it exists for one reason only–because the courts have shown little patience with juvenile authorities whose basic attitude is, “it’s a child, so I get to lock it up for any reason I want to.”

Psychology enjoys enormous prestige as “science,” and it has been used successfully to circumvent due process and basic rights protections for children and teenagers.  The SCOTUS  put a stop to jailing teen-aged girls for getting pregnant somewhere in the early Seventies,  I think, so now we have  ODD to “diagnose” them with and then it’s okay to jail them on that, since we’re only trying to help.

When I  say it’s time to ditch the centrality of schools, I mean it’s time to go back to seeing schools for what they are–UNusual environments, whose norms cannot provide a basis for judging behavior in the real world.

And the first thing we need to do to do that is to reduce the power schools have gained over the lives of those children and teen-agers.  At the very least, there should be due process protections for children, teenagers and parents who resist the use of psychotropic drugs, and we should end the practice of allowing such resistance to be “evidence” of the childs disorder or the parents’ incompetence.

The next thing we need to do is to provide alternatives–if the reason for having schools at all is to make sure children learn a certain set of things at a certain level, then it’s not clear that schools are doing all that good a job to begin with.  

In 1930, the large centralized school where everybody did the same thing at the same time made a certain amount of sense.  We had a large population to educated and not a lot of alternatives for how to do it, and what alternatives there were were expensive.

With the Internet, the availability of courses (and good ones) on audiotape and DVD, and a system of standardized tests already in place to judge achievement, it’s unclear to me why we should see “big bunches of kids sitting in small rooms all listening to the same thing at the same time” as the default position here.  

Somebody–it may have been Charles Murray–has suggested that there should be a set of national tests that any student could take at any time–think you already know enough about algebra?  take the algebra test and your score is your grade, whether you’ve ever been in an algebra classroom or not–and colleges and employers could decide which tests passed at which level constitute the prerequisite for getting admitted or getting the job interview.

I know a fair number of kids who would do better under such a system than they do under the one we have now, and at least two who could have taken SAT-II tests in fairly advanced mathematics while they were still in grade school.  My two would almost certainly have aced any test in English or American literature pitched at a high school level, and I think my younger son could probably do fairly well on a literature AP exam even now.  

Why, exactly, are we putting any of these people through year after year of being forced to sit still and be good while even the teacher at the front of the classroom knows less about the subject matter than they do?

In case you think this is an issue that affects only gifted children, I think it would work at the other end of the talent scale, too–what good are we doing the child who can’t grasp the elementary concepts of algebra when we stick him in a room full of kids who can and demand that he “buckle down” and “study”?  Give him an interactive program he can do at his own pace, and he might actually learn something.

The bottom line, for me, is that schools are the wedge for the psychotherapeuticization of everything–I wonder if that word is longer than antidisestablishmentarianism.  Maybe not.

If we’re going to save th is culture from the gross stupidity of that particular approach to human nature, getting rid of the wedge, or marginalizing it, is the place we have to start.

Written by janeh

March 13th, 2009 at 7:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The Centrality of Schools'

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  1. Well, there are children who WANT to behave in ways that will gain the approval of others, including teachers. Adults, too, although some of the tendency wears off as children grow up and learn that the bigger, older, fascinating, whatever the lure is, people have clay feet too. At which point, the child/adult sometimes goes to the other extreme and demonstrate that they don’t want anyone’s approval, even if they have to stir up disapproval for the purposes of this demonstration.

    Anyway, I’d probably agree with you more, but as I do periodically, I’ve been reading some reports behind news stories, and this time I’m left not only with the feeling that I’m missing something; there are some details not included, but with the conviction that there really are children who cannot be dealt with at all by normal methods. Nowadays, these children are medicalized, and no doubt in the past their behaviour was put down to bad parenting or original sin or even possession. But they do exist – whether you invent a disorder to attribute their behaviour to or not.

    The person whose short sad life I was reading about this time was Ashley Smith, who choked herself to death in prison at 19. She’d started having behavioural problems at 10. She’d been through schools, counselling, youth corrections and finally adult corrections. One psychiatrist had thought she was not mentally ill; the ombudsman clearly thinks she was. She was supposed to have been investigated for personality and mood disorders. She had essentially no psychiatric or other treatment for the last period of her life, during which she was treated abominably – but was clearly almost impossible to handle. She’d alternately attempt suicide, and fake an attempt – and then attack the guards when they came into the isolation cell. The guards were ordered not to interfere so as to avoid reinforcing bad behaviour. She died.

    What do you do with people like this? Clearly, labelling her as an ‘oppositional defiant youth’ didn’t help anyone. A personality disorder, if she had one, isn’t, AFAIK, and I’m not a medical professional, a mental illness. She couldn’t function in society – she assaulted people. Prison clearly wasn’t the right place. I’m led right back to the mental health system – which no longer has the funding to care for people who need long-term, highly supervised care.

    OK, this has nothing to do with education. But I think it shows that medicalization of disruptive youth isn’t always about drugging basically healthy youth who are a bit messy or lazy or bored.


    13 Mar 09 at 8:24 am

  2. Unfortunately, we’ve invested schools with functions other than education, and those functions also have to be addressed if we are to successfully decentralize them.

    1. Babysitting. Formerly, Mom was at home when Junior was in school, and if homeschooling was desired, well there she was. Now Mom is at work, necessarily because few can make it one income, or Mom’s income is all there is, nobody is at home, and no matter how you tailor an at-home-over-the-internet educational program, somebody has to mind the children. Feed them, keep them safe, prevent them from burning the house down. So we end up back in a group environment…gee, it looks something like a school.

    Address this issue and it might be possible to phase out ordinary kindergarten-high school education, but otherwise, not. It’s a toughie.

    2. Social aspects. These are the parts that most students actually enjoy. Face time, running about, recess, sports, musical and other creative activities, you know, the things that happen in spite of the schools’ best efforts. Even for those students who get the short end of the social stick, there’s value in enforced togetherness, if nothing else in learning to deal with people one doesn’t like.

    This is easier to replace, since there are all sorts of extracurricular programs out there. However, the benefit of school is that you get to try out a lot of different things all in one place, for very low cost, and in the course of that, you might find something you love. In the absence of motivated parents and easy access to outside programs, kids could easily stagnate.

    Schools currently are the source of a lot of bad social processes, we recognized this years ago when we realized that every school official had had their sense of humor, proportion and common sense surgically removed. Things got WAY too serious, and every infraction was treated like a federal crime. Any sort of loving, caring relationship between student and teacher is forbidden now. Personally I don’t know why teachers even bother any more…there can’t be many rewards for them.

    Working in such an environment, I don’t entirely blame the people at the school for resorting to medicalization to solve problems. What are their other choices? No corporal punishment any more. Even restriction of privileges gets them censured by parents. They’re expected, in the lower grades, to teach students manners, diligence and civilized behavior (clearly a parent’s responsibility), and in the upper grades, to monitor social and sexual behaviors that are also family responsibilities. Medicalizing problems is one of their last resorts, a “maybe if I shove this onto the doctors *somebody* will pay attention” bid.

    So how do we give existing schools another method of dealing with problems? Everything old is discredited, even when it worked. What new process isn’t worse than what we’ve got now? (I have lost all faith that the educational theorists can come up with anything but utter crap. Not one idea since “New Math” has held water.)

    I too would like to see students that don’t fit well into the school mold be given other, better choices. But without addressing the additional functions of our current educational system, we aren’t going to be able to change it substantially.


    13 Mar 09 at 10:45 am

  3. Kipling wrote a poem called The Sons of Martha. The verse I recall went “It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.”

    I went to grad school in the early 60s. That is significant because people born in 1900 were still working. A physics lab needs people to run cranes to lift heavy equipment, to do the plumbing and run lathes. I met plenty of people who dropped out of school after 6th grade or dropped out of high school after 2 years. They were often our best lab technicians and could talk intelligently about politics.

    I soon lost the idea of judging people on the level of their book learning.

    I agree with Lymaree that we’ve invested schools with functions other than education and I think that reduces the time spent on real education.

    The insistence that every one must finish high school seems silly to me.


    13 Mar 09 at 5:09 pm

  4. “The insistence that every one must finish high school seems silly to me.”

    I do partly agree with you – with the caveat that there should be options for getting back in the system should the person eventually decide to do so. More night school (or, I suppose, online courses at the appropriate level).

    The problem is partly one of a society with an excess of labour. If you have too many applicants for too few positions, you tend to use educational qualifications as a filtering device.

    OTOH, I don’t know about the situation in Australia or the US, but there are employers crying out for people with certain skilled trades, and periodic articles in the media about how in Europe they provide better training to their techincians, whereas here we tend to encourage students with any intelligence at all to try for university. But you can’t learn to do these trades unless you are intelligent and often, unless you have certain aptitudes – math, science, spatial and manipulative skills.


    13 Mar 09 at 5:25 pm

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