Kids Are Being Ruined by Coercive Schooling

Everyone, especially parents, should read this article by Carol Black called On the Wilderness of Children. In it she most eloquently lays out several ideas that I have been, perhaps less articulately, trying to point out. We are ruining children by forcing them through public education, we are ruining ourselves with a coercive society, and we are perpetuating this destruction every generation.

She’s not glorifying tribalism, and she’s not pretending there is a simple equation that will make kids perfect angels; Carol is pointing out how many social problems are created by treating children like caged zoo animals. In fact, when public education was created, the authorities were very upfront about removing children from their natural habitat, and raising them in a way to get them used to working in industrial factories.

And we never left that model behind. Practically everything sick about our society can be traced back to the systematized abuse children suffer that many consider integral to raising children. I recently summarized a different article with the same general theme, that our society is sick with coercion, and it is literally driving us crazy!

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And Carol points out that this coercion is normalized in a public school environment, so that a master/ slave paradigm seems like the only way to solve problems.

But as Odawa elder and educator Wilfred Peltier tells us, learning -– like all human relationships –– must be based in the ethical principal of non-interference, in the right of all human beings to make their own choices, as long as they’re not interfering with anybody else.  As Nishnaabeg scholar and author Leanne Betasamosake Simpson tells us, learning –– like all human relationships ––  must be based in the ethical principal of consent, in the right of all human beings to be free of violence and the use of force.  Simpson explains:

If children learn to normalize dominance and non-consent within the context of education, then non-consent becomes a normalized part of the ‘tool kit’ of those who have and wield power… This is unthinkable within Nishnaabeg intelligence.

Interestingly, the most brilliant artists and scientists in Euro-western societies tell us exactly the same thing: that it is precisely this state of open attention, curiosity, freedom, collaboration, consent, that is necessary for all true learning, discovery, creation.

Once you think about the causes of social problems, it all becomes so clear! Why do we think there are huge drug problems–both prescription and illicit–in our society? People do drugs for much the same reason that they starve themselves, behave violently, become depressed, or “act out”: they can’t stand the environment they are in and have no idea how to remedy what has been done to them.

For decades our model of drug addiction has been based on research done on laboratory rats provided with a lever they could press to deliver water laced with heroin or cocaine.  Researchers found the rats would press the lever and consume the drug until it killed them, and they concluded that the drug itself was the cause of the addictive behavior.  But then a psychologist named Bruce Alexander noticed something.  The rats who killed themselves in this way were isolated in an unnatural environment, a barren Skinner box where there was nothing rewarding to do but self-stimulate with drugs.  When they were placed in a more varied, more natural setting, able to interact freely with the environment and with other rats, their drug use was reduced by more than three quarters.  In other words, if you gave them a life they wanted to live, and a world they wanted to live in, they did not destroy themselves.   Or, as author Johann Hari has put it:

“It’s not you. It’s your cage.”

And as a byproduct of our cages, most people end up being terrified by the prospect of free humans. Many people do not understand the world outside the cage, and simply assume it would be chaos. Maybe the cage is a bleak, depressing, violent place to live, but its all I know! The outside must be worse. 

But by studying un-caged societies, and the progress being made on un-schooling the “civilized” humans, it is a pretty safe bet that free animals are happy, productive, well adjusted animals.

Political theorist Toby Rollo has pointed out how the forcible subjugation of children by adults forms the psychological underpinning of every other model of political and economic subjugation.  This is not a metaphor; it’s a structuring principle of political reality.  During the days of overt empire and colonialism –– the same days in which our modern school system was created –– Indigenous people, people of color, women of all colors, and lower-class whites were all viewed as childlike, in need of fatherly tutelage and discipline.  And because it was understood that children often required violent “chastisement” –– for their own good! –– it was natural that childlike adults would require the same.

Those who realize how harmful “traditional” education is to children have the opportunity to create a better society in one generation. We can break the cycle, we can cure the human race, and we can set in motion a cycle of freedom, love, and happiness, instead of a cycle of oppression.

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Government is Like a 5 Year Old

Something happened in real life that ended up being the perfect analogy to describe government. Specifically I thought of this as similar to how government has inserted itself into marriage, but it could apply to many scenarios in which government has barged in and messed things up.

A few months back I was hanging out with my sister watching my two nieces and their friend, all 5 and under, play on the swings. Although there were three kids and only two swings, this had not yet presented a problem, as my younger niece was playing nearby happily without a swing, until…

My older niece decided it was time to announce that the swing she was swinging on was her swing (actually it was the neighbor’s swing set) and that her sister could swing on her swing because she was her sister, but their friend could not swing on her swing.

Well before this announcement, the friend couldn’t care less about swinging on my niece’s swing, she had her own! Ah but the forbidden fruit! Now she wanted to swing on my niece’s swing. “No!” my niece insisted, “I just said this is my swing!”

My sister, annoyed that my niece had created a problem, and wanting to appease their young friend as well as promote sharing, forced my niece off of the swing so that her friend could have a turn. (Keep in mind there is now an identical empty swing for the taking.)

When my older niece was finally wrenched off her swing crying, so that her friend could have a turn, my younger niece swooped in and attempted to usurp the chosen swing, as according to her sister, it was her birthright. In the end one swing was empty, one was occupied by a crying friend, and my two nieces were crying and being gently restrained as not to attempt to retake the desirable swing.

In this scenario, my older niece would be the government, arbitrarily making up rules and instigating fights. My younger niece would be the anti-gay marriage people who have always been “allowed” by government to get married. And the friend would be the pro-gay marriage people, happy until others were granted special privileges by the government, at which point they felt wronged by comparison.

But my niece is actually generally well mannered, friendly, and caring, as opposed to the government. Oh yea, she’s also 5 years old! Yet everyday the government acts exactly like she did in this scenario.

Gay couples were living together and dedicating themselves to each other for life, for better or for worse, long before the government decided they were going to be the ones who said if people were married or not. But when the government arbitrarily excluded gay couples from the special marriage privileges they gave to straight couples, instead of saying, “Hey, the government shouldn’t decide who is married!” many gay couples said, “hey, we want to be married too!”

So, like the excluded friend, they left their swing, in pursuit of what appeared to be a better swing, according to the government. But with support from anti-gay marriage types, the government refused to leave the swing, and when they were finally forced into a corner, the anti-gay marriage types ran to fill the swing, insisting that they be the only ones who government calls “married”.

And in the end, no one is happy. Not the gay marriage advocates who still feel wronged, not the anti-gay marriage advocates who didn’t get their way, and not the government who’s authority to label people has been challenged.

Ah-ha, you say, but indeed there were only two swings, and three children. Yes. That is one swing for gay couples who just want to be left alone, and one swing for straight couples who just want to be left alone.

The ones who want to force their will, the ones who arbitrarily make up rules, the ones who exclude some, and reward others, in a word, government, can shove off. They don’t deserve a swing to play on.