Monday, June 21, 2010

My Objections to Mainstream Schooling, In Brief

I wish that I felt able to homeschool -- or, more likely, unschool -- L, my six year-old. I have in mind two or three short posts talking about why I think that and I why I don't actually do it, and this is the first.

It seems to me that if you have serious concerns about what is, about the ways in which our lives and our world are socially organized, then you also have to have serious objections to compulsory mainstream schooling.

It does not take much exploration of mainstream discussion of schools, either in the present or back when the current model of mass education was first being instituted in the 19th century, to see that one clearly intended result of the school system is to help reproduce what is and to help youth fit into it. The great educational reformers of the 19th century often saw compulsory, state-run schooling as important for producing a working class that met particular moralistic standards of conduct and behaviour and that met the needs of employers in other, more practical ways. Much of today's debates about education also use the language of "labour market needs" and even "individual opportunity" to talk about taking the haphazard cacophony of potentials and impulses in any random sampling of youth and ease that into adulthoods that meet the needs of elites and do not challenge dominant social relations. If, as I said, you object to the violence inherent in the way those social relations are currently organized, you also have to have some concerns with how those social relations are reproduced and the mechanisms by which people are trained to accept them. Schools are far from the only such mechanism, but they are certainly one of them.

There are a number of ways in which this happens in schools. The formal curriculum, the social organization of schools and consequent hidden curriculum, and the immense social pressures on and in any mass institution not to challenge dominant norms all play a part. Youth are relentlessly exposed to discourse and ideologies that both organize and obscure the relations that comprise how things are, which in turn supports the reproduction of how things are. Many youth also experience material consequences of schools being organized in these ways. For instance, mainstream schools are frequently sites where kids of colour experience interpersonal and systemic racism, queer kids are made unsafe, sexual harassment and more subtle forms of sexism are ubiquitous, and so on. Kids who are privileged in those areas and others, on the other hand, have that privilege reinforced and normalized. And all kids experience the organization of the institution and its pedagogy in ways that trains them to obey arbitrary authority and to do pointless work when ordered to or for a reward, and often they emerge with the autonomous joy of learning with which children enter the world battered, if not broken. This happens unevenly, and it reproduces class and other inequalities by pushing different kinds of relationships to learning, to authority, and to work, on different groups of kids, but it is broadly harmful to one degree or another.

Of course it isn't that simple. This is, after all, a short post, a summary. There are educational contexts that are better and worse. The school system is not monolithic. There can be quite cool experiments within the context of mainstream schooling. As well, children and youth are not passive agents, and they take up and resist these things in various ways, and find strategies to co-opt the good things that schools can offer while resisting the harms. I also want to emphasize that this is not meant as teacher bashing -- there are definitely things that individual teachers and teachers as a group can reasonably be held accountable for, but there are many passionate and committed teachers that skillfully use the constrained space in which they work to do positive things with youth. As well, mainstream rhetoric around educational reform is often grounded in attacking the ordinary folk who work in schools -- I can clearly remember the right-wing attack on education by the Ontario government of Premier Mike Harris in the late '90s and the success that the Tories had in getting otherwise smart, fair-minded people to buy into the idea that teachers are the problem with the school system. I don't buy that.

Nonetheless, and without yet making any claims about how we can individually and collectively respond to it, I am pretty firm in my conviction that the social organization of mainstream schooling is a major problem that requires attention.


andrea said...

our friend chris suggested i check out your blog. we were watching thomas & friends and i was jokingly trying to do a marxist analysis (are the trains workers? means of prodxn? etc.) and he said you might have a post on it.

i hear you on mainstream schooling. i certified and taught at the high school level because i really liked my subject area. but, curiously, high school education has changed very, very little since the beginning of the 20th century. discrete classes, factory model, blabla. i hated teaching at the big school i taught at because i felt more like a prison guard than a mentor.

primary schools have changed a lot more. major overhauls in organization, curriculum, teaching methods. i don't mean that those changes resolve the problems you point out, but the contrast is an interesting one.

Scott said...

Hi Andrea...pleased to meet you, at least in a virtual way! I've heard lots about you from Chris.

I wonder if the contrast you note between minimal change in high schools and greater change in elementary schools is as true in Ontario. There are at least some ways that things have gotten worse in elementary schools from when I was L's age. I find it hard to get a useful sense of what goes on in L's classroom from him, though -- a lot of it doesn't interest him so he doesn't talk about it, and what he does talk about tends to be pretty fragmented. But there seems to be lots of use of worksheets, which I am unenthusiastic about, and the school system in general seems to push more homework, earlier, than when I was a student, which I am even less enthusiastic about. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised to learn that there are also more varied and less traditional things happening in the classroom as well, especially compared to the two-years-from-retirement grade one teacher I had oh so many years ago.

Do you still teach? Are there any possibilities where you live of working in some sort of alternative school setting?

And in terms of a marxist analysis of Thomas, as a matter of fact I do have such a post. You can find it here:

Thanks for reading!


Anonymous said...

As a former kindergarten-grade 1/2 teacher and education student focusing on early childhood, I agree with you whole-heartedly about mainstream schools. I personally would homeschool or find a small private school which supported my values. And one reason is the hidden curriculum which you mention. In schools "cooperation" generally means "obedience." So if children don't start school (including traditional nursery school) early, there will be less need of unschooling later!

Alfie Kohn discusses many problems with mainstream schooling in Punished by Rewards and No Contest. I once told someone that they were two of my favourite education books and heard a disdainful response "So you're of THAT political persuasion"! Nowadays I'd take it as a compliment. In those days I was puzzled because I was regarding rewards and competition from what I thought was a purely psychological perspective.

Have you read John Taylor Gatto's book Dumbing Us Down? It's a good summary of what education does to children..... or should I say "schooling"? There is a difference between "education" and "schooling" and unfortunately our students in mainstream schools are too often "schooled" and not "educated"! Also check out Gatto's website His Underground History of American Education is fascinating and available online. It provides lots of reasons for not sending a child to mainstream schools. Do we need more well-schooled politicians like Harper, Ignatieff, or even Layton? How many Libby Davies does our school system nurture and educate?

All the best from NS, not far from the multinational naval exercises in the Bay of Fundy, hidden in heavy fog right now!


Scott said...

Hi Kaisa!

Yeah, I agree that homeschooling and alternative schools are both important options, though both have other challenges associated with them. Alternative schools that are privately funded can reproduce oppression and exploitation in different ways than public schools because of the ways access is limited by money.

I really like Alfie Kohn. I haven't read those two, but I've read and enjoyed Unconditional Parenting, his book on homework, and one other one related to education. He's great!

I'm less familiar with Gatto. I know friends of mine who have unschooled their kids are big fans of his, though I'm a little wary of him because one piece of writing of his that I came across -- and it was out of context, so I definitely want to read more of what he has to say before I draw any firm conclusions -- seemed to be more or less endorsing a number of the key neoliberal changes to education in the United States. Like I said, I may have misunderstood, but it made made me a bit wary.

And it is grey and wet here in Sudbury today too...I'll be looking for excuses not to go out any more than I have to!