Thursday, March 20, 2008

School-Induced Problems and a Solution

I suppose one should be grateful that it is actually finally coming to the attention of those who might be able to do something about it, but I still can't help but wonder why on earth it has taken so long for adults to make that link between the emotional well-being of children and their experiences of school. Perhaps the recognition both of the link and the possible problems school can cause has been prompted by the spate of teen suicides and/or by the UN's finding that the UK's children come bottom of the league when it comes to well-being, but my honest reaction is "how could it have taken so long!" Are the reportedly high levels of self-harm, anorexia, aggression and bullying amongst school children really the new problems that the Guardian seems to think they are.

Surely school-inflicted damage is an age-old problem. Within my own experience, there were at least eight severe anorexics out of my year group of approx 120 girls, way back when I was at school. This problem appeared to be largely school-induced as it consistently developed at times when academic pressure was most heavily applied. Of the anorexics I know of now from this group, all have been seriously and permanently damaged by this affliction. None of them can eat adequately even now. They all have digestive problems and other health issues such as osteoporosis. At least one of them is sterile, probably as a result of being permanently underweight.

But it wasn't just anorexia. There were plenty of other pupils who were either near-anorexic, bulimic, smiling depressive, completely flat, clearly clinically depressive or proto-pathological narcissists. Plenty of these individuals continue to struggle with the trauma and the emotional habits that resulted from their school experiences.

At the time, very few adults, be they teachers or parents, appeared to take these problems seriously in the least, or come to that, even bothered to recognise them for what they were in the first place. On the rare occasions when problems did come to light, (usually because a child was underachieving academically), teachers would almost unfailingly blame either the child or the family. The idea that a problem could have been generated by teachers or school life...nah, that just wasn't on. Staff would far rather cover their backs and not look for real causes or seek real solutions.

Of course, it is wise to avoid admitting that problems are likely to be caused by the one-size-fits-huge-numbers problem that afflicts the school system since it is nigh impossible to think of a way of solving it, other than by encouraging the child to leave, and schools don't want to do that in the private system, what with that big, fat cheque being on the line, and there is sod-all point changing schools in the state system, what with that poor child most likely getting out of the frying pan and plopping straight into the fire in one short step. Yep, it's pretty damn difficult to know what to do about it if you're invested the school system, so far easier to get blaming children and parents instead.

But really, is this absense of truth-seeking and problem-solving the best we can manage for our children? Is condemning them to hopeless misery and other pathological behaviours really likely to set them up for creative, exciting, responsible lives?

OK, there is some merit in learning to adapt to strenuous surroundings, but surely it is far better to help our children learn that they should only adapt to an environment or situation if they believe that the adaptation would be beneficial, that the cause is worthy. If you were to be conscripted into an army, life would doubtless be hard, but whether you chose to cope with this should surely depend upon whether you believe the cause worthy or not. You would ask yourself "is it a just war?" If so, you adapt. If not, you subvert. Either way, you live your values. Surely this is what we would want from our children?

It was the case that plenty of girls during my time school did appear to adapt to the regime on some level. But you know what? Most of them knew or at least sensed that they weren't doing it in a good cause and they often developed nasty little emotional and behavioural tics to cope with this dissonance. They became subtle bullies, mini-narcissists, religious nut-jobs, or hard around the edges when their better natures would never have allowed for this. Some of them have yet to get over this. They carry the mal-adaptations with them to this day and they often have no compunction about putting their children through a similar system, which whilst it may have improved over the years, still creates many of the same sorts of difficulties for at least some of the children. For many of the other old girl mal-adaptees, it takes a good many years to recover, to see the world for how it is. At that point, most of them vow never to risk repeating that experience for their children.

I have witnessed quite a number of these renunciations as they actually happened, these moments when people finally achieve clarity about how appallingly useless their teen experience had been. At old-girl functions, I see how gentle probing can unravel a huge web of bitterness and hatred for the oppressive institution. A few years ago, I opened the Sunday Telegraph magazine to read a six page denunciation of my school during the years I was there, and this from many of the girls who had appeared to tolerate it well. My recent school magazine carried a paragraph by the head girl in the year above me who had bullied those around her in the services of the school system she appeared to espouse. She has now finally had the wit and wisdom to see the school for what it was at the time. She denounced it roundly and good for her.

So the moral: It is not a good thing to force yourself or your child to adapt to a set of beliefs for which you cannot see a proper rational argument or explanation. It scrambles ones thinking, leaves one open to doing truly terrible things, prevents one from dreaming big about how to solve problems, causes one to repeat mistakes ad nauseam.

If your child senses that they can learn in ways that better suits their skills and interests and that these methods are not open to them in schools, don't try to browbeat them into thinking that they must forego their beliefs. If your child is unhappy in school, I would really be thinking very hard about this one, particularly in the light of knowing that there can be a MUCH BETTER WAY, a way of providing an education that it is suitable to the age, ability and aptitude of the child. Consider home education.


Ruth said...

Of course the problems aren't new but I guess something must be changing if it's being talked about so openly. Maybe the number of suicides, teachers being bullied, it's reaching critical mass.

It's one of those things that I'm afraid the blue pill people don't WANT to hear about because if they admit that schools are toxic environments then how can they possibly keep sending their precious children to them?

Anonymous said...

You mention that many school pupils developed nasty ..."little emotional and behavioural tics to cope with this dissonance."

This is a very interesting observation as an ability to tolerate dissonance in thinking is a psychopathic symptom! Have our schools bred a nation of psychopaths?


Carlotta said...

I think some schools I knew of were very likely to engender personality disorders of various sorts. I doubt that much has changed.

Yep, getting through to the blue pill there's a challenge.

I spoke to a child yesterday who thrives on school, chooses autonomously to go there, and would be able to come out and whose parents would help her HE at the drop of a hat if that is what she wanted. But she told me of one of her friends who, for no particularly obvious reason, is utterly miserable in school. The mother of this child chooses to ignore this fact almost completely.

How on earth can that woman live with herself in the knowledge that she most likely could help her child have a much better life and education?

Anonymous said...

How come you were at school too and survived it unscatched?

Carlotta said...

I'm very flattered you think me unscathed Leo! Sadly, it certainly usen't to be the case, though I am much, muchly much better now.

I don't talk in detail here about my school experiences for fear of stirring up a can of worms for myself, for fear of implicating others who I would rather not even think about and for fear of boring people.

Instead, I use the blog to vent my newly righteous anger, my certainty that it wasn't my problem, and my understanding of why this is the case, both so that I may live well outside of it, and in the hope that it might make some tiny bit of difference in tackling the school meme and in the fight for freedom in education.