Wednesday, January 09, 2008


If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:

Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;

And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.

And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

—Deuteronomy 21:18-21, KJV

But as we have seen, the repressive structure of the segregated classroom [Julia’s note: age segregation, not race segregation] itself guarantees that any natural interest in learning will finally serve the essentially disciplinary interests of the school…. If they [idealistic young teachers] had forgotten what a jail school was for them, it all comes back now. And they are soon forced to see that though there are liberal jails and not-so-liberal jails, by definition they are jails….

Children, then, are not freer than adults. They are burdened by a wish fantasy in direct proportion to the restraints of their narrow lives; with an unpleasant sense of their own physical inadequacy and ridiculousness; with constant shame about their dependence, economic and otherwise (”Mother, may I?”); and humiliation concerning their natural ignorance of practical affairs. Children are repressed at every waking minute. Childhood is hell.

—Shulamith Firestone, The Dialectic of Sex

Public education, in its present form, is oppressive of children. This is to be expected; when the entire society is oppressive of children, why should the educational system be any different? Public schools are grounded in ageist assumptions about the nature of children and the proper relationship between adults and children in society. Among these assumptions:

1. Adults deserve respect by virtue of their age alone.

People deserve respect because of their knowledge and wisdom and ability. These attributes may be correlated with age, but that correlation is at least in part a result of the deliberate, institutionalized benighting of minors. Despite this oppression, there are children who manage to exceed adults in knowledge, wisdom, and ability in certain subjects; in public schools, these children must feign respect for their teachers or be considered delinquent. Teachers feel entitled to this respect and feel entitled to enforce it; hell, the whole society affirms their automatic superiority over children, so the origin of their entitlement is no mystery.

2. Children need education for X number of years (X a positive integer whose exact value varies from state to state) before they can be allowed into society.

I have never liked mandatory education laws. Who is the state to dictate how long children must remain economically dependent and helpless? Who is the state to dictate the pace of each child’s learning? Firestone argues—correctly, I think—that the “myth of childhood” oppresses children under the guise of offering protection; the economic dependence caused by mandatory education laws goes far beyond the scope of children’s biological dependence.

3. Children should be segregated from people who are not their age.

Two implications are present here: first, that there is a gulf between children and adults because the natures of the two classes are so fundamentally different; second, that age indicates ability. From the first, we can explain the existence of an educational institution that isolates children from egalitarian relations with adults. From the second, we can explain why administrators are so reluctant to destroy the Herculean obstacle course that faces students who try to skip multiple grades. Implicit in the organization of public schools is an essentialism—age essentialism, we can call it—that holds children of different ages to be intrinsically different from one another and children of the same age to be uniform in their social and intellectual development. The opposition to gifted education, therefore, can be interpreted not only in terms of our society’s anti-intellectualism, which is undeniable, but also in terms of our society’s commitment to the oppression of children.

4. Children need to be disciplined when they defy authority; schools should put children in their place.

Wherever an oppressor/oppressed dynamic exists, there is the threat of rebellion. The public school system reduces this threat through a combination of indoctrination and fear. The obsession with order, control, and uniformity, so prevalent in public schools, is at odds with a worldview that treats children as human, for no human could be so restricted in eating, drinking, peeing, asking questions, talking, sitting down, standing up, or moving.

The natural solution is homeschooling, but this poses a problem for feminists. In the present patriarchy, it is reasonable to assume that the burden of homeschooling will fall on females. It is also reasonable to assume that homeschooling will reinforce the nuclear family and propagate ignorance. In these respects, it appears that insofar as widespread homeschooling would alleviate the oppression of children, it would also exacerbate patriarchal ideals about women’s domesticity. Is public schooling the least of many evils in an unenlightened society?

1 comment:

Rachel said...

Good question - one we've all probably considered at one point or another in the course of public education, although perhaps not so eloquently, nor in as many words. I fail to see any logical or ethical reason for restricting students to the extent that occurs in schools. I don't think we would abuse more freedom any more than adults in our situation would. Although I am a supporter of free educational institutions, the assumed superiority of the teacher can be frustrating. Rather than assuming the station as a result of uncontested years and experience, I would like it if teachers had the responsibility of justifying their qualification on a day to day basis, rather than spouting off facts for their students to accept on the grounds of faith. The best teachers I've had are ones who listen to students, exhibit their own intelligence in the classroom, and do not micromanage their students' stomachs, bladders, and even the location of their bodies.

In our conversation about slang today, we discussed the evolution of the children and teenage generation, which did not exist until the 50's. I would guess that the societal adult entitlement to unquestioned superiority in the modern sense took off about this time as well. Adolescents alienated themselves to the adults, and seemed to lower themselves in older eyes as irresponsible. It seems very much a result of culture. Years and experience, although legit sources of knowledge and wisdom, are not the only sources. And anyway, it is much easier to gain knowledge if one is being talked to, rather than talked at.

But no, I wouldn't say it is an evil of an unenlightened society, but rather a society that simply places higher value on the knowledge of adults than the intelligence of kids.