The Damage in Words

This news item over at slashdot has been irking me for a bit.  Essentially a school teacher overreacted to an essay and had a student arrested by the police.  What grabbed my eye from the article was the last line:

Children, she said, are not as sophisticated as adults and often show emotion through writing or pictures, which is what teachers should want because it is a safe outlet.

Reading these words is like tracing the scars on someone’s face.  Every shard of violence comes pouring out.  The past lives on in the concussions it leaves behind, and we become privy.  Witnesses without the primacy of the event, only ghosts to look at.  But oh how they shriek!

Was this just a slip on the part of the article’s two reporters?  Let’s trace these wounds together, and see what we find.

From an early age we are taught to suppress our natural expression of self.  In by the book public schools, students study what the clock tells them to.  Shirts with unacceptable messages are ordered covered up or turned inside out.  The very structure of class discussion (and especially assemblies) puts students in the role of passive listener, not active participant.  Showing one’s real emotions is discouraged if they do not fit the prescribed behavior.  You are expected to cheer when the football team takes center stage.  You are expected to sit quietly while a magazine salesman offers you a raffle in exchange for free labor, or while the vice principal discusses why the last disruption in the cafeteria hurt more than those offended, it hurt school spirit.  Every wooden motion is an effect to a prescribed cause.  Every displayed emotion a chance for judgment.  Is it any wonder by the time we leave high school, we have already started to close up?

The first real job you take is another nail in the coffin.  Every relationship is a potential ally or foe.  Office politics demands emotional discipline, otherwise your perceived value to the company suffers.  Voicing an opinion that goes against management is a ticket to social punishment and occasionally termination.  Think of all the jobs out there that don’t have the protection of unions (and the stigma unions carry.  Do you really think that stigma originally comes from working people who hate the very idea of their own rights?)

All of this forms the picture of the adult who is sophisticated enough to hide their emotions.

The last part of that sentence is especially insidious.   Providing a safe outlet for negative energy is a wonderful thing, but the phrasing implies that a safe outlet is something to seek for its own value.  As though teachers must naturally fear their students, and need to identify and neutralize troublemakers.   There have always been violent students with issues.  There have also always been pranksters, geniuses, artists, rebels and free spirits.  More and more I think we are starting to lump
all of them together.

We are creating a society that explicitly values drones, and fears the thinkers, the artists, and the doers.

How would Edgar Allen Poe have faired in todays school system?


5 Responses

  1. This is a really great article. It can be clearly seen in society that people are closing up and following the crowd. Our cliche “whatever generation” terminology is really proving to be true. It is very unhealty to keep emotions in, especially during school. The first 18 years of life are pretty much spent in school, making it the place where we do the most growing, learning, changing, thinking, ect. If we cannot voice our own thoughts/express our own emotions we will indeed become drones. This must be stopped. The greatest thinkiers, artists, doers, all voiced their emotions very loudly whether it be through writing, music, action, or just talking. Poe would have surley done horribly in todays school systems. Most likey, expulsion would be the result of his magnificant works.

  2. I agree, very good article and analysis.
    I have a friend who teaches in an alternative school (she was just here in NM at a huge convention for alternative schools) and they are the dead opposite of the restrictive, dulling, environment of public schools. All aspects of the environment and curriculum are decided jointly between facility, parents and students. What is disturbing is that they are now fighting the NEA for independence. The NEA positions are unshakable, even as the public school system collapses.

  3. Janay, indeed this must be stopped. The “whatever” generation is being dubbed by the same people who have created it, and by the same people who use it to confer lesser social status.

    Mirth, there is a large problem with education in this country. I think we can look to alternative schools (in particular learning centers for unschoolers and democratic schools) for cues on how to run public schools. There are a host of practical political problems to overcome in order to make this a viable play for meaningful and helpful education.

  4. Fitness, the friend I mention above does not teach in an “alternative” school, as I wrongly wrote. She teaches in a Charter school and the Charter Schools movement is spreading this country as the alternative to the almost-defunct public school system.
    Here’s some basic info about Charter schools.

  5. Gotcha. Charter schools are quite the different beast!

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