Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Hating It

with 2 comments

Today and tomorrow are going to be messes of days, with schedules off and sleep minimal, and I’ve been thinking about why so many parents are at odds with schools these days.

In almost any discussion of education you see on the web, especially in any discussion of American education, you’ll inevitably run up against the complaint that, unlike in the old days, parents just won’t back up the teachers.  Give the kid a bad grade?  Parents complain.  Discipline the kid for behaving badly?  Parents sue.

The assumption in all these discussions always seems to be that it’s the parents who are in the wrong.  The teachers know best, and are only trying to uphold standards.

But is that really true?

The parents who are complaining are, by and large, the products of the great post-War sea change in American schools, where we went beyond teaching subject matter to concerning ourselves with the “whole child.”

Forget for a moment what objections you may have to this approach on a practical level–yes, it leads to dumbing down the curriculum and teaching mindless platitudes instead of real subject matter–and consider for a moment how intrusive this kind of approach really is.

All of us have thoughts, feelings, and fantasies that we keep to ourselves, or restrict access to only a close friend or two.  Sometimes we do that because we’re ashamed of what we think or feel, or think other people wouldn’t understand it or make fun of it, but sometimes we do it just because we want some parts of us to belong to ourselves alone.

The “whole child” approach implicitly denies that children get to have any privacy at all, and demands that they be judged not on their peformance but on their total being.  Every thought, every feeling, every daydream is tested against a standard of “emotional wellbeing,” and if it fails, the school rushes in to “address” the “problem.”

The cultures of sc hools eing what they are, teachers and staff often define as “problems” things that children themselves, and often their parents, don’t see as problematic at all.  Love to read horror novels and write your own horror stories for English?  Why are you so morbid?  Maybe you’re our next school shooter! Hate doing homework and love being a slob?  You’re probably being absued at home!  Like being off by yourself and making up fantasy stories about elves and fairy princesses?  My  God, that could be childhood onset schizophrenia!

Most of the reactions to ordinary variations in personality in children aren’t so extreme, of course, but they are indicative of a system that has, for nearly fifty years now, seen children not as human beings but as masses of problems that need to be fixed.

And those children grow up to be parents who hate schools, hate teachers, and don’t trust either as far as they can through them.

My parents’ generation supported the schools.  My generation grew up to assume that their most important imperative was to protect their children from the schools at any cost.

I don’t think most parents are championing fluffy self-esteem in opposition to reasonable standards.  I think they’re simply assuming that when the school says there’s something wrong with their child, the school is not just wrong, but maliciously so. 

All of this, believe it or not, comes back to that whole issue of English teachers trying to foster the love of reading.

What we love and what we hate are our own.   We may be introduced to things by schools and teachers that we end up deciding we love, but our inner beliefs, our feelings, our passions should be our own.  Their not the business of the school, or of anybody we don’t choose to share them with.

Schools should teach subjects.  The content of those subjects should be determined by the requirements of the field of study, or the overall mission of the school to provide a basic understanding necessary  concepts and skills. Most students will not develop a love of math, or reading, or music.   Those that will, will do better being left to develop it on their own than they will ever do by having their emotions consulted when the reading list is drawn up.

What I want, more than anything else, is for schools to do their job and stop doing the jobs they aren’t suited for.  

Students who feel threatened by a prying, judgmental system that has them as a captive victim group for better than half the year will grow into parents determined to fight their  children’s schools on their children’s behalf.

And they’ll do that even when the schools are right.

If we’re going to have schools at all, then let them do what they’re good at doing–teaching subjects to students who either want to learn them or not, and therefore do learn them or not.

And if they don’t want to learn what they’re offered, maybe we ought to accept their own decisions.

Written by janeh

April 1st, 2009 at 9:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Hating It'

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  1. I think we must be, not 10 years behind the US as we used to say, but about 50. Well, maybe 25. Sure, we get some rhetoric about the ‘whole child’, but I wouldn’t say that the current generation of parents of school-aged children dislike or distrust schools because they themselves went through a ‘whole child’ education. If anything, a lot of the complaints about schools tend to reflect power issues – a reaction against teacher as authority rather than expert, perhaps. This is seen in the parents’ refusal to accept that their children are subject to *anyone’s* authority, often including their (the parents’) own. Of course, this covers a range of issues, from philosophical ones such as refusing to have the child listen to the national anthem being played, religious ones and behavioural ones. I think the response of parents to the schools is caused almost entirely by the increasing lack of commonly-agreed to roles and behaviour in society (which isn’t entirely a bad thing, but lack of agreement does lead to conflict) partly mediated by a tendency of people who hold minority views on national anthems or religious beliefs or psychological/health issues to insist on rights rather than working towards compromises and certainly in preference to accepting the teacher’s say-so automatically. We’re barely two generations away from very authoritarian school systems, which may be why I tend to see things that way.


    1 Apr 09 at 12:58 pm

  2. There is an old Army saying that “they can’t make you fight, but they can take you where the fighting is, and let you make your own decision.”

    I am not proposing chemicals or hypnotherapy for those who don’t like books. I’m saying that if the English departments could avoid desparaging the tastes of those students who do read, offer a variety of story types and styles in the required reading, and generally act as though reading were something often done for pleasure and exercise, like swimming and walking, many students would read voluntarily. As they read more, their reading skills would improve and life would be easier for student and teacher alike. Given current reading levels, the English departments ought to be open to trying SOMETHING new, anyway.

    Yes, Heaven help the student trapped in a school system in diagnostic mode, but the English departments, together with “social studies” are also the spearpoint of the school in indoctrination mode. In history textbooks, it’s wildly distorted propaganda passed off as “facts” to be “learned.” In English courses, it’s required reading intended to make a moral or political point. Centralization of the schools and a growing divergence between the politics of educators and the politics of parents both make this worse. And, of course, the parents are better educated and less deferential. Politicians, preachers and educators all seem nostalgic for the good old days when a semi-literate mass believed and did as it was told.

    For myself, I’d rather have the current head-butting, but a wider variety of texts, including more classics, would be easier to defend, and might have to be defended less often. This assumes that the RRL drops one aspect of the current standard–that you have to be dull as dishwater to be worthy of being taught. There is no escape for anyone–students, teachers or parents–down that road.

    I asked my mother last night what she was assigned in high school, since she read for knowlege and enjoyment all her life despite ending her formal education with a high school diploma. She remembered Shakespeare–MacBeth in particular–and “O. Henry. Even the students who struggled with reading made a real effort with O. Henry, because the stories were worth reading.”

    Stories worth reading. It’s an idea whose time ought to come again.


    1 Apr 09 at 4:31 pm

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