Tuesday, February 04, 2020

The Time For School Is At An End



Over the course of the last 70 years or so, our expectations of children have changed dramatically. In many ways we perceive them as less competent. As a society we have lowered our expectations of what they are capable of doing in the world. They no longer walk themselves to school. None of them carry pocket knives, and for that matter, are kept far away from most tools. And even if you trust your own child to be home alone as you run a quick neighborhood errand, the wider society considers you neglectful because, of course, children younger than, say, about 15, are perpetually on the verge of stupidly killing themselves (or being killed by nameless, faceless others) if left for even the briefest moment without adult supervision. Or so our urban legends about childhood would have it. As a result, our children are growing up in a world scrubbed of risk, challenge, hurt feelings, and failure because, as we've come to believe, they are not capable of handling it.

At the same time, and perhaps partly as a result of this cultural paranoia, we've placed unreasonable expectations on our children, especially our youngest children in the form of schooling. We are institutionalizing our children at younger and younger ages. They are spending more and more time in "school" and less and less time playing, while being subjected to greater and greater academic expectations. Today, more than 80 percent of kindergarten teachers expect five year olds to be reading. In 1998, that number was 30 percent, and in 1950 that number was approaching zero. That our literacy rate hasn't budged over the past half century despite these developmentally inappropriate expectations tells us that our early literacy efforts, at best, have no impact, but there is ample evidence that this phenomenon is taking a mental health toll on our children, with one in five children between the ages of 3-17 struggling with a diagnosable mental illness, mostly in the form of anxiety and depression, much of which can be linked to these pressures.

These dynamics represent bookends of fear that are crushing our youth. We're afraid they are going to be hurt so we've dramatically restricted them. We're afraid of them falling behind so we reign them to carts in academic coal mines. It's almost as if our greatest fear is of childhood itself . . . or children, or liberty, or play.

From where I sit, the time for school is at an end. We have clearly reached a point of diminishing, dramatically diminishing, returns. For most children, most of the time, school is a place where they can be safely warehoused and made to nose the grindstone in a way that is contrary to what large majorities of scientists and psychologists tell us is appropriate. This is the same phenomenon we're seeing with environmental denialism. We, as a society, are so committed to our habit of schools that we struggle to even consider a world without them, the most common knee-jerk question being, "But without schools, what will the children do while their parents are off at work?"

It's a central question, a question about caring for the children more than "education," an important question that has been answered in different ways by different societies throughout human history. Most prime of life adults have pretty much always worked productively in useful ways, this is nothing new in human evolution, and while birth mothers may have traditionally shouldered a somewhat larger share of the burden of child care, a substantial part was handled by the wider community, the village. Instead of ghettoizing child care into out-of-the-way, low paying, low prestige corners, most prior human civilizations have placed caring for the children at the center of life, creating communities in which children were included, in which caring for them was the responsibility of us all, and in which they were free to have a childhood, under the watchful eyes and loving hearts of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors. It's from living in a community that we learn what we most need to learn, from a wide variety of adults and other children, the lessons of working together, of being personable, of asking a lot of questions, of taking responsibility, and, when ready, and not necessarily waiting until the arbitrary age of 18 or 21, to assume our own productive, useful work.

We are currently a long way from achieving anything like that vision, but it is nevertheless the way forward, not just for children, but for all of us. If this change is to happen, it won't come from on high, but rather must bubble up from us, from individuals choosing to place caring for our children at the center of our lives. Indeed, it's already happening with more and more parents opting for homeschooling, unschooling, cooperatives, and democratic free schools. There is a lot of irrational fear to overcome. There is a lot of science denialism to overcome. There are a lot of addictive habits to break. And there are economic realities that make it seem insurmountable. But we know what to do and that is to create community, to find it, to nurture it. It can begin to happen in libraries and on playgrounds, in work places and nursing homes. It can begin in our schools and churches; where sports are played, where music is made, and where dancing is happening. It starts when we seek to make space for children everywhere that community is happening. It starts with learning to trust more people, including children, because trust is the greatest antidote to fear.

If there ever was a time for schools, it's at an end. When we bring the children back into the center of our lives, we will once more have the kinds of communities in which we can all thrive, together.

(I've written a follow up post in which I sketch out one idea for how a future without schools could look.)

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