Thursday, July 08, 2010

Critical Navigation of Mainstream Schools, Part 1

In recent posts, I have talked about my serious objections to mainstream schooling and also why those objections don't lead me to homeschool (or unschool) my six year-old, even though I think those approaches are the best. Having such objections yet deciding to put one's kid into a mainstream school leads to an obvious question: Now what do I do?

In writing about this, I don't feel like I have any answers. At best, I'm thinking through the shape of the problem and at least some of my options. If anyone out there has stories about how they deal with the disjuncture between radical criticism of mainstream schooling and lack of practicable alternatives, I would love to hear them. What do you do? Why do you do it? Who do you work with to make it happen?

I can think of at least two different distinctions that are useful in thinking about what to do in this situation. That is, activity might be focused on L and/or other children or it might be focused on the school system (or, more accurately, on acting to influence the relationship between the school system and one or many children). And it might involve doing things at the level of just one household or it might involve working collectively with others. This post talks about the household level, and a future post will talk about the collective level.

Household, Kid-focused

If, as I argue, mainstream schooling has a particular spectrum of detrimental impacts on children and youth, then it makes sense for parents and other caregiving adults to actively work against those impacts in their everyday practices with their children.

Some examples:
  • Given that schools tend to foster a particular kind of reflexive obedience to arbitrary authority, then we should parent in ways that do not encourage blind obedience and we should engage in practices in the rest of life that model anti-hierarchical relating.
  • Given that mainstream schools reinforce and make invisible the privilege of white children and youth, white parents should, through our everyday engagement with media, in conversation with our children, and in our own everyday lives in which all of our actions are models for our children, take up critical race politics, challenge whiteness and white privilege, and act as allies to racialized people.
  • Given that mainstream schools tend to function in ways that kill the natural curiosity that children experience, we should make a point of nurturing and modeling a love of learning, and of providing plenty of opportunities for children to encounter new ideas and new ways to explore and to playfully create.

There are countless other examples, all of which sound pretty great when you describe them and all of which are important in and of themselves. However, I think these answers, as important as they are, constitute a very unsatisfying response to my dilemma. After all, these are not really responses to choices about schooling -- they are everyday practices that I would be doing anyway, whatever L did for school. I mean, yes, we need to think about how to do them, and talk about them more, and experiment, and I'm sure that I don't really do many of them very well. But L going to mainstream school means he spends that much less time in environments where these practices are a priority, so saying, "Oh, well, I'll compensate for that by doing what I would be doing anyway in the rest of the time" is more a cop out than an answer. It's good, it's important, but it belongs in a different category.

Household, Mediating Between School and Kid

This plays out in a couple of different ways. The simpler of the two has to do with how we talk to our kids about school and how we relate to them about their experience of school. That is, when they talk to us about being bored or annoyed or not enjoying it, I think it is really important to affirm that. We need to be open about our own ambivalence about school, too -- let them know that since we are following the path of institutional schooling, we think it is important to jump through hoops X and Y for reasons Z and Q, but we know it has problems and we don't expect them to necessarily like it all the time, and it is perfectly okay to express dissatisfaction and, yes, such and such a piece of homework is pointless busywork. This isn't much, but affirming kids in their own experiences rather than communicating to them that their experience is wrong in some way can matter quite a bit, and can be part of modeling a critical approach to all institutions. And, in fact, through tactful and deliberately understated asking of questions and expression of reactions, we can perhaps create an opening for our kids to further develop a critical attitude towards what happens in school.

The other way this can work is a bit more involved. One of the ways that I understand mainstream schooling to happen is through organizing parents to do particular kinds of work that accomplish the goals of schooling -- which, as I've said before, include some rather unsavoury things. (For those keeping score, this chunk of analysis is based in a particular understanding of what usually gets called "the state" as a cluster of relations and practices which ordinary people can be organized into, as per a mix of institutional ethnography and a kind of heterodox marxist analysis of the state like what you might find in this book, and it is consistent with the analysis of the family's role in pinning individuals to ruling regimes like schools and asylums discussed by Michel Foucault in one section of this book.)

Some of the more obvious areas where this happens are attendance, homework, and discipline. In each of these areas, a combination of moral blandishments with implicit or explicit threats of consequences to parent or (more often) child are used to get parents to participate in practices of mainstream schooling. Many of these practices are reasonably benign if understood only in terms of their direct impact on kids or on the relationship between parents and kids, though there are exceptions, but they function to increase the hold that mainstream schooling has on young people.

For instance, if we don't let the school know in advance on a given day that L will be absent, we get a call home. Also, parents of Grade One students who were absent more than a certain number of days this year for any reason got a phone call from the principal that consisted of cajoling and shaming parents into ensuring better attendance in the future. This mobilizes parents into actively inculcating particular habits of relating to school that are very central to the role of school in turning anarchic kids into future workers.

Something similar is true when it comes to discipline. Discipline in L's Grade One class was organized around bribes and public shaming as tools to ensure obedience. When the teacher thought it necessary, this included having the child bring her/his agenda (itself a technology of organizing parental involvement) to the front of the class and writing a note to the parent. The public writing of the note is shaming, and the function of the note is to reinforce the shaming through the parent "having a talk" with the child. I should add that the explicit content may or may not be good. For instance, I think that, in general, "Don't say mean things to classmates" is a solid message. But the way the form of this disciplinary technology operates is to use parental authority to reinforce the power of authority figures within the school to determine standards of behaviour, which inevitably happens in undemocratic and unaccountable ways.

Homework, again through the technology of the mandatory agenda and the requirement for parental engagement with and signature of said agenda, is used to communicate homework requirements, with the various sorts of messaging that kids benefit from homework and will face dire consequences if parents do not collaborate in ensuring it is completed (significant evidence to the contrary notwithstanding). The parenting relationship is mobilized in the service of surveilling the child and reinforcing school requirements to engage in work, much of which is arbitrary and pointless and of little pedagogical value, with the long term effect of inculcating habits around doing arbitrary work requested by authority figures rather than spending time doing work that is interesting or valuable in some way.

If parents accept that they are going to participate in the mainstream school system, we can't just refuse to participate in these processes. To do so would, I think, ultimately require a shift to home/unschooling. There would be disciplinary consequences. However, there is definitely space for parents to make decisions about how they play this mediating role. To be honest, I don't know if we make good use of this space or not, but I'll describe some of the ways we think about it or use it and see what other people have to say. For instance, in terms of attendance, probably keeping your kid home half the time would meet with consequences that couldn't just be ignored, and you'd be just as well to keep 'em home the whole time and unschool. However, there is space for parents to get away with taking their kids out of school some of the time so that they can spend their time in more useful ways -- to visit family (which was the most common one for us this year), to go to a museum or a concert, or just to play. It's a matter of figuring out the most strategic way to use this space and then using it.

In terms of discipline, we didn't have many occasions to make choices in this area as L is generally a pretty quiet kid, but there were a handful of times when we got notes home. I chose to respond by making as small a deal of it as possible. I would usually ask him what happened in a low key way and not dwell on it, rather than take the approach of some other parents who would do things like give or deny privileges based on this (and based on an in-class system whereby each child's behaviour on a given day was colour coded). This minimized the intrusion of dubious school-based disciplinary approaches into the ongoing process with L of figuring out together how to act in the world. I should add that there was one instance in which the description by the teacher seemed to be implying that there was some racist name-calling by a (multiracial) group of kids that included L, directed towards a child of colour. That's a serious thing, so we followed up with a phone call to the teacher to find out more about the situation and it turned out not to have been that at all. If it had, we would still have tried not to naturalize the school disciplinary mechanism, but would've taken it up more directly and thoroughly with L as well.

With homework, what we have done so far boils down to modelling a relationship to it that is at least a little bit healthier than the one encouraged by the school, that tries to divest it of its moral force while still recognizing the practical (in terms of disciplinary consequences) importance of getting it done, or seeming to get it done, or extracting the more interesting and useful bits as opportunities to learn while giving less attention (where possible) to the sillier and more arbitrary elements. All the while trying to keep real learning fun and inviting.

To be continued...

None of what I've talked about in this post is even remotely satisfying. It still involves lots of complicity as well as some resistance. It is imperfect, partial, tainted, tragic, and maybe even hypocritical. But I'm interested in hearing what other people do at the level of the individual household in response to the problems with mainstream schooling. And I'm going to keep thinking and writing, and hopefully soon put up the next post in the series, this one reflecting on the possibility of more collective ways of navigating this difficult situation.

1 comment:

SR said...

With respect to the homework issue, I have been thinking that maybe this year we could examine the assigned homework and identify whether or not it was something that L would actually benefit from in some way, or if there might be other ways to accomplish the same ends in a less arbitrary way. An example that springs to mind from this past year was a printing worksheet that came home in December; instead of having him do that, I might have him help me label gifts I was wrapping for xmas. And then I would send a note back to school with the incomplete worksheet indicating that we had opted to undertake the other activity instead.