Yesterday was L's first day of junior kindergarten.
In a lot of the conventional senses it was not terribly traumatic for either him or me. After all, he spent a fair number of half-days at pre-school last year so he has done something kind of similar before. JK is full days here, but over the summer he spent some weeks at home with me and some weeks going to day camps that lasted for the entire day, so he is not completely unfamiliar with absences of that length. We even had a chance to go in and meet his teacher and see his classroom last week, so it wasn't completely unfamiliar territory. Yet I retain the unease I have felt since before L was born about the prospect of participation in the education system.
You see, in my mind, the best way to do education...well, the best way to do education would actually be some sort of resource centre model, I think -- something like community-based spaces that were sort of based on souped-up public libraries. Participation would be flexible, organized around meeting the needs of the community and of individual parents and children, responsive to diverse schedules and diverse desires for learning while still presenting opportunities and environments and information that said individuals might not have known they didn't have. It would be socially funded and would employ people with experience in working with radical pedagogies who might on occasion teach but would spend much of their time advising, facilitating, supporting, and accessing or creating resources for people, and in this way the centre would be a site for youth and adults to create individual and collective spaces for learning for themselves and each other.
But that couldn't happen without some fairly major social reorganization. In the world we currently live in, the best way to do education, in my opinion, is some variety of home schooling. I believe that mainstream schools encourage obedience and conformity, provide overt curriculum that reflects dominant lies about how the world works and hidden curriculum that reinforces relations of domination and subordination, and stifle creativity, originality, and spontaneous expression. Their main function has always been training youth to become workers that fit into the slots that social relations have apportioned to them, rather than critical thinking or liberatory personal and social development. Home schooling, unschooling, and various other types of non-institutional pedagogy can do better. So can other types of non-traditional institutional schools, like Waldorff or Montessori, but I have a great deal of discomfort with private schooling for other reasons.
Anyway, we're not doing home schooling with L, and that bothers me some. We're not doing it because I know that I couldn't. I would come to resent it fairly quickly because it would require enough of my time over a large enough block of years that I would feel a serious lack in terms of space for writing and other creative endeavours -- that may not reflect well on me, but I know myself well enough to know that is how things are. And that sort of resentment would not be good for anybody. As well, I have the sense that home schooling works best when the parents have a skill for proactive cultivation of social networks of various sorts for themselves and for the children, and I tend to be socially reserved, even socially anxious, and I doubt I would be able to do a good enough job of that side of things.
Which leaves the public school system. Far from ideal, but I'm approaching it from the stance of working to provide L with the tools to navigate it in ways that minimize the damage it does while taking advantage of the opportunities it offers. That's the theory, at any rate. In twenty years, maybe he can tell me how well I've done. :)
Anyway, like I said, the first day went fine, but the reason I started this post was to share some of the material in the school-wide newsletter that was sent home with him yesterday. It is a very simple document, with little blocks of text and little desktop publishing graphics sprinkled on both sides of two 8.5 x 11 sheets.
What struck me about this document was the overwhelming presence of discipline, surveillance, and control in the matters it concerns itself with. I mean, like I said, mass education has always been about those things, but I get the sense that it is significantly more severe now than when I was a kid. I'd imagine it is the educational corollary of things like food banks -- institutions that did not exist in any significant way when I first stepped into a public school in 1979, which were initially responses to a particular crisis, and which have never gone away. Except rather than responding to the bodily needs of people in the context of increasingly harsh oppression and exploitation, the increase of surveillance and control is a response to the ways in which young people respond to those shifts in the context of institutions.
The front page is largely free of this material, but it starts coming hard and heavy on the second page. There is a blurb on school safety, with issues like checking in at the office and getting visitors' passes (which, I have to say, I don't object to). There is a blurb on absences and the need to notify, including a not terribly veiled threat that if parents are not successful in coercing regular attendance from their kids then the state will harass the parents -- the "Attendance Counsellor for our school...will become involved immediately if there are concerns regarding attendance."
Along with information on the school council -- I'm thinking of participating, however ornamental and cooptive the intent -- and on allergies, the third page contains one of the most outrageous items in the newsletter. Apparently it is mandatory for any children in Grade 1 or higher to pay a supplementary fee for an agenda book, and to have that book initialled on a daily basis by their teacher and parent. Could you get any more open about the fact that you don't expect what you do to widely engender spontaneous love of learning and participation purely for that reason, and that ensuring work discipline acceptable to the capitalist employment market for which students are being prepared requires overt, daily surveillance and coercion by authority figures? Unbelievable.
And the final page includes a blurb about riding the bus, which is entirely devoted to issues of discipline, and then a section explicitly on the institution's "Positive School Discipline Plan." This includes very explicit controls on the movement of students into, out of, and within the building -- like "line up and be escorted single file down the right hand of the stairs" level of controls. It also says, "We will continue to emphasize with our students how to talk politely, how to dress appropriately and how to act respectfully at all times." I think respect, if understood in the right way, is a good thing, as long as it is nonhierarchical and reciprocal, which is not my experience of schools. I can imagine all manner of ways in which "politely" and "appropriately" get constructed in ways that are more about ease of management of subordinated people (i.e. students) than about any critical understanding of what they can mean, and that those words smuggle plenty of opportunities for oppression into that statement.
The real kicker of that section -- and, no, I'm not making this up -- is that the school has a "Planning for Success Room to help our students learn appropriate behaviour." This disgusting euphemism for a detention room becomes all the more poignant when you realize that this school is in a largely working-class area of a city in which any students who do not manage to get into the mining sector or the broader public sector have little option but insecure, minimum wage, service sector jobs to look forward to -- more than 60% of jobs in Sudbury pay less than ten dollars an hour. In that context, exactly what kind of success are these kids to plan for as they are being disciplined?
Anyway. I'm sure I'll write more about school-related stuff over the coming years, as I try to figure out an orientation that will be best for supporting L and, perhaps, for contributing to efforts to make change.
And as a palate cleanser after all of that, here is a sweet, vaguely relevant anecdote: The other day L and I were playing with stamps -- not the kind you put on envelopes, but the kind you put ink on and then press onto paper. I ran upstairs to go to the bathroom or something like that and in the couple of minutes I was gone, my newly four year-old kid had started a new page and written on it "TO DAD" and then "FUM LIAM" in letters that took almost the entire page, and added a little fishy stamp. It was pretty cool.