Friday, September 20, 2013

Constructing a Kid: Schooling and Playing

A friend of mine has been writing about her experience putting her free-spirited 5-year old into the local public school Kindergarten.  It's an anxious and heartbreaking time, made more difficult by the ways that schools have been changing.  School's entire purpose is to shape and mold our children, but where does that leaves us when we doubt that they are up to the task -- or even worse -- when we fear that the schools may be designed to shape them in malign or destructive ways?  Is elementary school really just designed to crush their spirits into something more tractable -- to create subjects for our hierarchies?  

School has never been a utopia of creative freedom of course, and Kindergarten has always been a kind of academic boot camp.  It is and has been the place where you learned to stand in line and wait your turn.  You learned that time is divided up into regimens of minutes and activities.  You learned to be a consumer of orders and knowledge delivered by authority, and so on.

Up until the recent past, however, the force of this potentially Goffmanesque institution was diminished in three very different ways.  

The first was the fact that teachers were mostly craftspeople, who tended to see themselves not only as enforcers of a necessary discipline and focus, but also as nurturers of individual students with individual interests, skills and destinies.  Everyone remembers bad teachers, and for most of us they were the ones who focused only on the first, but not the second task of teaching.  Unfortunately, there has been a decades-long assault on the craft of teaching.  It's orchestrated from the top -- where federal and state mandates have consistently ordered schools to focus on rote, standardized fact-learning - mostly with a laser-like devotion on multiple-choice testing - and have doled out nothing but punishment for teachers and schools who devote too much time to nurturing students in other ways.  And it comes from the bottom where anti-tax rhetoric and the breakdown of communities has more and more resulted in underfunded schools with over-stressed, under-appreciated and demoralized teachers.

And so we are in the process of losing one of the great humanizing aspects of school -- or to put it in more critical-sociological terms --  we are losing one of the ways in which the state's desire (or the institution's desire) to create docile subjects has been thwarted.

A second, related way in which schools seem to grow less benign has to do with their changing place within a class system.  In Amy's description of discovering her son's Kindergarten, she steps into a different class milieu than the educated, middle class settings she was more comfortable in.  Our society has few qualms about imposing harsh discipline on the poor and working classes.  Schools and other institutions that contain them are not expected to nurture individuality, but rather to break poorly socialized kids of their bad habits, colorful distractions and ugly accents and transform them if possible to more appropriate citizens - for their own good, and our own good.  

As long as schools contained a full range social classes, they had to be more than just that kind of institution, however.  They also had to nurture full, well-rounded, creative and expressive human beings.  Well-educated, middle class citizens expected it and had enough influence to insist on it.   My question would be, as first the upper classes and then the middle classes have begun more and more to abandon the public schools, does this means schools devolve more fully toward the kinds of authoritarian, unsympathetic institutions that we are happy to inflict on the lower classes?  I suspect it does.

The third troubling trend doesn't have to do with changes in schools per se, but with the loss of the greatest counter-balance to the shaping power of the institution -- namely unstructured, peer-based play.  A recent article, The Play Deficit by Peter Gray, lays out in evolutionary terms how play with peers is absolutely central to the human process of learning and developing into culturally functional human beings.  He goes into detail about what we lose when kids are given less and less opportunity for play, (and the whole article is worth a read) but I wanted to note a couple of things.  He mentions that for older generations school wasn't as overwhelmingly important to kids lives.  It was one of several powerful socializing settings in which kids developed.  There's a sense among many parents that kids aren't getting what they need, but the response -- namely driving them around to lessons, events, sports practices, and other adult-regulated extra-curricular activities -- isn't actually what they need.  They need to be let alone to run and roam and negotiate games outside of the power of the adult world.  It's only through that that we grow up.

If our kids don't have that, then school is left standing as an increasingly powerful shaping force in our children's lives.  (Well, that and consumer culture, but that is grist for another post!)  The stakes are that much higher when our schools become dysfunctional.

I think there is tremendous dissatisfaction among parents and other community members about the state of our schools and communities, but the dynamic needs to be turned away from the current pattern of disappointment, criticism and abandonment and redirected toward a constructive revitalization of our commitment to our public schools and the communities they serve.  Amy is trying to elbow her way into her son's classroom to make it better.  She has very sharp elbows, and I hope she can make an impact.  It's one of my main regrets about our lives here in Rhode Island that we couldn't and didn't, but instead joined the outflow from the public school system.  An unfortunate side-effect of looking at the Big Picture is that the trends can look too powerful.  I've considered going to the school board meetings, but it felt like I would be going to do penance rather than out of any sense that I could change something.  But I think I should try.  Kids like Amy's little Ray deserve that.


  1. Food for thought. I have always been a supporter of the idea of public education, as well as a supporter of our actual schools, sespite the fact that my subculture is made up largely of people who distrust public school for one reaskn or another and by and large avoid it - either by sending thier children to private schools
    Or by homeschooling or even "unschooling." It is my position, however, that our public school system is one of the few remaining powerful institutions that we have that expresses our willigness to be a collective society - i mean, that mostly we all still agree on the value of paying taxes in order to fund the endeavor of creating an educated populace.

  2. Sorry phone acting up - to continue, we levy taxes even on the childless to support oublic education because we believe it is in the interest of all of us. There arent many such collectove endeavors left in this society - certainly not many that benefit the powerless poor. I cannot argue with you about the harm done in molding kids to be compliant consumers, but lets not forget the great benefit done in teaching them to read. They are still ebing given the basic tools to free themselves intellectually, and some
    Of them will. Of course, public school is insufficient to a true education - but so is private school and so is homeschooling. All educational models require enthusiastic supplementation by parents and interested others. On the whole, i hope, like you, that our public education system can be revitalised and reformed rather than continuing to dwindle in effectiveness.

  3. Hey, Andy! Very interesting. My town is unusual in that it is somewhat isolated (now, since the floods, it's really isolated) and there is only one school. The educated, middle-class families have no way to opt out of the public school, short of moving away and giving up life in a gorgeous mountain town. Because we can't opt out, we volunteer and express our opinions and run for school board, and for the most part we do get heard. Also, because the town is small and the location is gorgeous, the school jobs are considered pretty good jobs, and the teachers are probably above average? Still, Mark and I have often said that if a charter school started up here, it would be a death blow for the public school. As it is, the dynamic sort of works, though it is definitely a bit creaky and held together with chewing gum in a few places.

    1. I think you're right. The strength of a public school system and the strength of a community seem to go hand in hand in many ways. And it seems they can decline in tandem as well. I'm glad to hear you weathered the floods! I hope you guys are drying out.

  4. You've articulated something really important here, Andy. As you know, it is something we have confronted in our own schooling decisions for Ian. I would never criticize any parent for doing what they believe is best for their child. I know how fraught these choices often are, especially for people educated in the power of structural inequality and the value of community spaces for all citizens. Still, Tuscaloosa schools have been devastated by individual families making choices that are best for themselves. It's a negative feedback, where as you describe the public schools become increasingly for low income minority kids, and increasingly scary for middle class, often white, parents. Tuscaloosa City opened a magnet school a few years back which most of my academic friends send their kids to. By nearly all accounts, it's a great environment for their kids with all kinds of innovative, hands on learning. Unfortunately, that leaves other friends who have made the commitment to neighborhood schools stand watching as their kids' schools become increasingly low income. I feel so fortunate that my son goes to one of those neighborhood schools, and that his strengths and challenges have been embraced by the teachers and staff who have worked with him. It's a happy, friendly school, where kids are greeted by name, and where every one (not just my kid) is met where they are and nurtured toward their potential. I believe that many others, like your friend Amy and her daughter Ray, could make their public schools work--for our own kids and for our neighbors' kids, and by extension for us as a nation. Dramatic, I know, but I really believe it. We have the money, the knowledge, and yes, the sense of entitlement, to realize the change we imagine. I've done what I can over the past several years (mostly in my case to bring arts activities to the school) but it's been a lonely road. Time and again, my friends have made different choices, to send their kids to private school, to home school, or to move. Each time, I understand what drives their decision, but each time it hurts.

  5. Andy, this article is fascinating and beautifully written, and the comments are also thought-provoking. Thank you to all who read my piece about Ray entering kindergarten at the public school. We are keeping him in a local public school, a better one than where he originally started, but I don't know if he'll remain there, no matter how principled we are. We want him to have an excellent education, and no matter how much volunteering we do in the schools, I'm not sure what sort of difference one family can make. There are other families involved. Time will tell if there are enough.

    It's a complicated and painful problem. We believe in a community collectively contributing to the greater good of the whole, but not at the cost of our son's happiness.