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.